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Today is the 28th anniversary of the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior.

When New Zealand and Australia aligned themselves with the United States via the ANZUS agreement in 1951, they effectively accepted the protection of what some described as the nuclear umbrella. Nuclear weapons played a major part in the United States’ military arrangements, and the possible use of nuclear weapons or nuclear-powered vessels was implicit in any United States response to an attack on New Zealand.

While from the 1960s New Zealand consistently protested against nuclear testing in the Pacific, its defence arrangements meant that it engaged with nuclear weaponry in other forms. From the early 1970s to the mid-1980s two key issues emerged: opposition to French nuclear tests at Mururoa and to American warships’ visits to New Zealand.

Mururoa (also called Moruroa) Atoll became the focal point for both the tests and opposition to them. Greenpeace vessels sailed into the test site in 1972, and the following year the New Zealand and Australian governments took France to the International Court of Justice in an attempt to ban tests. France ignored the court’s ruling that they cease testing.

The third Labour government, led by Norman Kirk, responded by sending two navy frigates, HMNZS Canterbury and Otago, into the test area. A Cabinet minister was also selected to accompany this protest. Prime Minister Kirk put all the Cabinet ministers’ names into a hat and drew out the name of Fraser Colman, the minister of immigration and mines. He sailed from Auckland on 25 June aboard the Otago, which carried a crew of 242. A month later the ship was at Mururoa, and those on board witnessed the first atmospheric test. Fraser Colman transferred to the Canterbury when it arrived to relieve the Otago on 25 July, and he and the crew of the Canterbury saw the second French atmospheric test on Mururoa. These protests achieved some limited success because in 1974 the new French president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, ordered that the tests move underground. With testing continuing, however, Mururoa remained a focus of anti-nuclear protest.

The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland in July 1985 was a defining moment in this period. Codenamed Opération Satanique, it was an operation by the ‘action’ branch of the French foreign intelligence service, carried out on 10 July 1985. It aimed to sink the flagship of the Greenpeace fleet, the Rainbow Warrior in the port of Auckland, New Zealand, to prevent her from peacefully bearing witness and interfering in a nuclear test in Moruroa.

Fernando Pereira, a photographer, drowned on the sinking ship. Two French agents were arrested by the New Zealand Police. They were charged with arson, conspiracy to commit arson, willful damage and murder. As part of a plea bargain, they pleaded guilty to manslaughter and were sentenced to ten years in prison, of which they served just over two.

In the wake of the bombing, a flotilla of private New Zealand yachts sailed to Moruroa to protest against the French test.

At that time, French nuclear tests in the Pacific were halted. However, another series of tests was conducted in 1995.

The Rainbow Warrior was refloated for forensic examination. She was deemed irreparable and scuttled at 34.9748°S 173.9349°E in Matauri Bay, near the Cavalli Islands, on 12 December 1987, to serve as a dive wreck and fish sanctuary. Her masts had been removed and put on display at the Dargaville Maritime museum.

In 1987 Labour passed the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act. In a largely symbolic act, the United States Congress retaliated with the Broomfield Act, downgrading New Zealand’s status from ally to friend. David Lange stated that if the security alliance was the price New Zealand must pay to remain nuclear-free, ‘it is the price we are prepared to pay’. In 1989, 52% of New Zealanders indicated that they would rather break defence ties than admit nuclear-armed ships. By 1990 even National had signed up to anti-nuclearism.

http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/politics/nuclear-free-nz