UN: Japanese Authorities Breached Human Rights of Greenpeace Anti-Whaling Activists

04/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I moved to Greenpeace I assumed I would spend less time talking about defending human rights and more time talking about protecting our environment. Of course a healthy environment is a basic human right, but the increasing intimidation of those striving to achieve a green and peaceful planet is a growing concern.

My last post was about four friends who were detained in Denmark for nearly three weeks for demanding world leaders in Copenhagen act to stop a climate disaster. This time I have news of two colleagues who face up to ten years in jail for exposing institutional corruption in the Japanese government's whaling programme.

I am traveling to Tokyo this week for the trial of Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki. It is not only their liberty that is at stake - it is the fundamental right to peacefully investigate and expose corruption, to challenge authority and to do so without fear of reprisal.

Thankfully I have hope, as today I can tell you a UN human rights body has already given its verdict on the case and, in a hugely significant opinion, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that their treatment by the authorities breaches no fewer than five articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

I would love to tell the whole story of the large-scale embezzlement inside the so-called 'research' whaling programme, but it is so extensive there's not enough space. You can read it all here, but the short version is a simple story that almost any journalist will recognise as a straightforward public interest investigation.

In 2008, Junichi - the programme director of Greenpeace Japan - got a tip-off from a former whaler that members of the crew routinely siphoned off whale meat to keep or sell privately and that is was done with the knowledge of the government officials on board. The informer made several other claims, including about terrible waste, with tons of meat thrown overboard daily because quotas were too high to properly process the animals being killed; that scientists saw suspected tumours but just cut them out, leaving the rest for human consumption without reporting the findings to the International Whaling Commission. Bear in mind that this is supposed to be science, and is paid for by the taxpayers of Japan.

The Greenpeace investigation culminated with Junichi and Toru securing one of dozens of boxes of whale meat - mislabeled to disguise the contents and clearly destined for private use instead of public sale. They kept the box as evidence.

After going public with their findings, the Tokyo District Prosecutor did begin an investigation. He shut it down the same day that Junichi and Toru were arrested for theft and trespass.

They were held for 26 days, 23 of them without charge, often tied to chairs while they were questioned, without a lawyer present. They face up to ten years in jail for doing what any courageous citizen would do - expose corruption.

Last year Amnesty International filed a complaint to the Working Group about the treatment of the two men. Numerous advocacy groups, lawyers, politicians, and a quarter of a million individuals raised concerns about this case.

The Working Group opinion is unequivocal:

They [Sato & Suzuki] acted considering that their actions were in the greater public interest as they sought to expose criminal embezzlement within the taxpayer-funded whaling industry. Their willingness to cooperate with the police and the Public Prosecutor concerning the manner in which they obtained the evidence of their allegations of corruption and their attitude of conciliation and collaboration have not been recognised... The right of these two environmental activists not to be arbitrarily deprived of their liberty; their rights to freedom of opinion and expression and to exercise legitimate activities, as well as their right to engage in peaceful activities without intimidation or harassment has not been respected by the Justice system.

With this ruling - which you can read in full here - I have hope that the government will do the right thing. Prime Minister Hatoyama's government was not in power when this prosecution began; it is not his government that is guilty. He came to power promising to end corruption and I challenge him to be true to his word.

Prime Minister Hatoyama has already shown leadership. In Copenhagen he stood out for his support for ambitious greenhouse gas emission reductions. Now is the time to be a world leader in human rights, by ensuring Junichi and Toru's trial is now fair, adheres to international human rights standards and that their original allegations are properly investigated.