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Is Greenpeace a terrorist organization under EU Law?

Tuesday 14 June 2005, by Formisano Marco


According to Statewatch [1] sources, the Danish branch of Greenpeace was charged last Wednesday 11th May 2005 under national criminal laws adopted in order to implement UN and EU laws on the financing of acts of terrorism.

Greenpeace has in fact been asked to respond as an organization for the «terrorist» attacks launched by some of its activists during an anti-GMOs campaign occurred on 13th October 2003 in Copenhagen. Part of the alleged rebels, manifesting their opposition to the genetically modified feed for animals with a colored stand before the Agricultural Council, irrupted into the council headquarters, climbed up to the roof and displayed a banner of protest.

This event, occurred without any damage to things and persons - as reported by Mr. Dan Belusa, Nordic GMO coordinator for Greenpeace - , gave reasons for charges on ‘disturbing the peace’, regulated by article 264(1)(1) of the Danish Penal Code. This offence usually ends up with a fine of few thousands Danish crowns. This time, however, prosecutors, in application of the amended Penal Code, has extended the legal action to Greenpeace as an organization connected with this sort of acts on terrorism.

The new possibility of involving an association into indirect criminal liability, finds its origins in the UN Resolution 1333(2000) and its subsequent incorporation in the EC Regulation 2580/2001 [2]. The EU norm allows the freezing of any funds, financial assets and other economic resources of organizations and companies which relate directly or indirectly to terrorist acts.For a definition of what should be intended for ‘terrorist act’,Article 1(4) of the EC Reg. 2580/2001 refers to the explanatory content of Article 1(3) of the Council’s Common Position 2001/931/CFSP. [3] The latter provides for a wide series of facts that run from intimidatory operations against the population, up to violent attacks to institutional, economic or social structures, perpetrated via the most disparate means (kidnapping, seizure of aircraft, ships or other means of public transport, use of nuclear, biological, chemical weapons, etc).

Now, if we take a look at the enumeration of these terrorist actions, we hardly find any case that may, at first sight, encompass the facts of Copenhagen. Public dissent on GMOs may in fact not enter the classification without having to force the definition of «unduly compelling a Government [...] to perform or to abstain from performing any act [4 [so to say: to pass legislation against the employment of GMOs or abrogating the existing authorization]. However, this interpretation is still viable when judging criminal offenses.

Hence, the EU definition of a ‘terrorist act’, on which EC Reg. 2580/2001 is based, results to be extremely wide and in many cases too blur and imprecise, leaving an open margin for interpretation to both national police forces, when prosecuting offences, and national judges, when requested to apply the norm. Thus, in the present case against civil disobedience, the legal provisions may easily comprehend almost every form of social battle that may «disturb the peace».

As an immediate consequence, the latent recognition of the collective responsibility of Greenpeace - a principle which is normally abhorred by European criminal systems - may function as a deterrent for future actions of other organizations aimed at protecting environmental or human rights.

However, notwithstanding the fact that non-violence and peaceful methods are at the core of Greenpeace - which furthermore derives its name from an ideologically quiet and harmonic ecological world -, judges should in principle give a restrictive interpretation to what may constitute a «terrorist act», encircling solely what strictly falls within the scope of the Council Common Position and subsequent Regulation.

What is even more important is that, in the future, EU decision makers should clearly and precisely circumscribe the definitions of norms related to the fight against terrorism, in order to avoid abuse or misuse of important legal instruments for its defeat.

Additionally, Denmark is not the only EU country to put on trial Greenpeace actions. Five activists were in fact recently charged with various, and in some cases severe, criminal offences by the Spanish Court of Cadiz for the Rainbow Warrior’s «symbolic blockade» of March 2003. Two Spaniards, an American, a New Zealander and an Argentinean, face prison for having obstructed the normal functioning of the US-Spanish naval base at Rota, in a broader protest against the use of the base for US vessels affected to the Iraqi war.

According to Mr. Pérez, a spokesperson for Greenpeace in Madrid, the blockade was merely « symbolic », not capable of impeding war ships to maneuver in and out the port. [5]

Support for the activists came spontaneously from the revolted public opinion and might thus put some political pressure on judges that have now to determine responsibilities and the amount of correspondent punishment deserved.

However, if these precedents against a non-Governmental organization and its members, normally operating for the well being of humans, animals and plants, should receive a generalized application, this may hamper the functioning of political and social protest. In the long run, it may undermine the political legitimacy of those who promote this hard line policy against NGO that are intrinsically pacific.

Marco Formisano


[1] «Denmark: Greenpeace Charged under anti-terror law», on

[2] OJ L 344 of 28.12.2001, p. 0070-0075.

[3] OJ L 334 of 28.12.2001, p. 00930096.

[4] For a detailed list of actions that fall within the definition of «terrorist act» see Article 1(3) of the Council Common Position, supranote 3.

[5] Source : Giles Tremlett, The Guardian, May 11th , 2005.

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