WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND — THE Rainbow Warrior affair was concluded by a United Nations panel this week, nearly five years after a Greenpeace ship of that name was blown up in Auckland harbor by French secret service agents. Two French agents were tried, convicted, and sentenced in New Zealand to 10-year prison sentences. But shortly thereafter the two were transferred to a remote French island in the South Pacific to serve out their sentences. They were were soon moved back to France, outraging New Zealanders.
On May 7, however, the mess was ended when a three-man arbitration panel, including French and New Zealand legal experts and a neutral chairman, reached a verdict in the matter.
The panel found by a 2-to-1 majority that France had not breached the UN agreement by removing Maj. Alain Mafart from Hao Atoll because of illness, but said he should have been sent back after treatment. It agreed unanimously that the repatriation of Capt. Dominique Prieur, had breached the agreement.
And by 2-to-1 (the New Zealander dissenting), the panel said the agents did not have to go back because the end-of-sentence date, July 1989, had expired.
It was nuclear tests, conducted at the French Polynesian possession Mururoa Atoll since 1966, that started the affair. To stop the Rainbow Warrier from sailing on a protest voyage to the test site, a squad of French agents sunk the Greenpeace vessel, killing a Portugese-born Dutch photographer July 10, 1985.
But even as New Zealand and France agreed to put what New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer described as ``this whole sorry, tawdry, episode'' behind them, French nuclear testing in the South Pacific continued to cast a shadow over their relations.
The new French government of Michel Rocard has been conciliatory. But sentiment against nuclear testing still runs high, with the Wellington Evening Post newspaper editorializing that ``France continues to pollute the South Pacific with nuclear radiation, with unknown long-term consequences.''
Mr. Palmer hailed the panel's ruling as a great moral victory. His predecessor David Lange, who was in power at the time, was less than enthusiastic. Mr. Lange revealed for the first time that French had blackmailed him into releasing the agents from prison with threats against his country's economy by banning European Community imports of New Zealand lamb and butter.
The arbitration panel recommended that France, which has paid New Zealand $7 million in compensation, contribute $2 million to a fund to promote friendly relations between the two countries. The move is seen by some New Zealanders as a ``buy off.''
Palmer did not rule out suggestions that the fund could be used to campaign against the continued French nuclear tests in the South Pacific. Meanwhile, the French government welcomed the end of the affair.
Ironically, the day the UN panel's verdict was announced, Greenpeace's new Rainbow Warrior, a converted trawler, arrived in Tahiti, France's nuclear test site headquarters for a six-day stay.