WINTER 2002/03
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Anti war demonstration London
Anti-war demonstration in London

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SMALL anti-war vigils are happening around Britain and anti-war leaflets are being offered to mostly uninterested passers-by. A strange condition of what might almost be called a ‘phoney war’ has been imposed on us, and it seems we don’t like it. A recent poll shows that 42% of the British population don’t want an attack on Iraq without a go ahead from the UN. In fact nearly everyone including a growing number of members of the government, seems uneasy about preparations for another war. British ambassadors round the world have been urging Tony Blair to discourage President Bush from launching one. It’s quite hard to find anyone in Whitehall in favour of forcibly disarming Iraq, though few will say so publicly. Even the EU is getting its act together: a high powered deputation is off to the Middle East to try to avert war. And the size and number of protest marches in the United States are now growing.

But opposition to war on Iraq comes with a curious tic. ‘I am not some naïve pacifist’, writes Maggie O’Kane in The Guardian. ‘I supported intervention in Bosnia, the war in Kosovo and military intervention in East Timor.’ Many other letter-writers and commentators who argue against the war feel it necessary to preface their objections with an assertion that they aren’t pacifists. What exactly are they trying to tell us? That they aren’t lily-livered, yellow-bellied, craven cowards, maybe? That they’ve got balls and are willing for other people to kill and maim, on their behalf, however many men, women and children, of whatever colour, age or creed, it may take – but just not in this particular instance?

The new archbishop of Canterbury, too, has made it clear that he’s no pacifist. Yes, he has openly declared his opposition to this particular war. But, like his predecessor, he chooses not to shoulder too much moral responsibility. Instead he aligns himself with the members of the UN Security Council – the biggest bunch of war-makers and arms-traffickers the world has ever seen.

It really is remarkable how, at times such as these, the United Nations becomes everyone’s best hope – not so much for peace but for averting whatever war happens to be looming. The UN was set up to rid the world of ‘the scourge of war’ nearly 60 years ago, and its failure is painfully obvious. Over 55 million children, women and men have been killed in hundreds of wars during the UN’s watch. It’s understandable that some people hang on to a belief in the UN’s capacity for good – in these dark times, everyone needs something hopeful to believe in. But many prominent commentators and politicians know better. Even so, these same pundits mouth the same (dare one say naïve?) mantra: ‘the UN should decide’. When it does, and does so in favour of war, then the killing of tens, hundreds or thousands will be OK, or ‘legitimate’ as some prefer to term it.

But note what Richard Falk, Princeton’s emeritus professor of international law, wrote recently: ‘This belated recourse to the UN does not fool many people outside the US, and it is not very persuasive to Americans themselves. It is obvious that Bush is no friend of the UN, and only sought UN approval for US policy to defuse domestic opposition to blatant unilateralism.’ The Security Council’s backing of Resolution 1441 ‘enlists the UN in the dirty work of war-making’, says Falk. It also hands to British ministers the trump card with which to silence the doubters who insisted on giving the UN responsibility for the decision to attack or, as it is now called, ‘liberate’ Iraq.

It’s not entirely easy to welcome the growing opposition to this war; we would be naïve to think that it has much to do with opposing all or any war. The very act of putting the decision whether to unleash the American dogs of war to the UN security council is to condone war as an instrument of social change. It also ignores the nature of the Security Council itself. A decade ago this imperfect body emerged from years of glacial cold war confrontation during which use of the veto thwarted almost every sensible proposal. Subsequently voting has been weighted by bribery, corrupting the miserable institution even further. This is the emerging post cold war world in which ‘in an intricate process of cajoling, extracting, threatening and occasionally buying votes’ the US, according to James Baker, the former US secretary of state, manages the members of the security council. In the present climate Russia gets dollars, China gets trade concessions, France gets the prospect of concessions in oil; Britain, of course, has its ‘special relationship’... all for doing what the US administration wants.

It’s not always lack of interest, or of concern, that makes so many people look the other way when they’re offered an anti-war leaflet; or, on the other hand, that inspires 20 men and women, on the coldest day of the year, to lie down naked in a field and form the letters of the word ‘peace’ with their bodies. Both acts may demonstrate lack of faith in the political system: withdrawal in one case, in the other a desperate act to be noticed.

But nor is it necessarily objection to war itself that that swells the numbers taking part in demonstrations and marches we all described, misleadingly, as ‘anti-war’. There’s no mystery about what will make the world more just and peaceful. The people who stand in the way aren’t the Saddam Husseins, not the Al Quaidas, however brutal they are, nor a few youths with a bottle of ricin in their pocket but the ‘good’ leaders who promise peace and prosperity but whose actions sustain strife and poverty across the world.

So, what’s so wrong with being a pacifist? At the heart of pacifism is the rejection of war as an acceptable means of achieving social change. Is that such a dreadful position to take? – murderous means don’t produce just and humane ends.

Pacifism acknowledges the malleability of the human spirit – for good or ill; and therefore insists that, as we teach the next generation to become responsible citizens, we also tutor ourselves in the way of peace. Surely that’s a responsible project?

Pacifism recognises the brutality and aggressiveness of many regimes around the world; but it also notes the origins and sources of their power. Pacifists don’t ‘lie down’ under tyranny: they challenge it in any way that’s appropriate, though killing strangers is discounted as an option. What’s objectionable – or ‘cowardly’ – about that?

Pacifists don’t expect every state to scrap its weapons overnight; but they do expect those who have signed up to a gradual process of disarmament to get on with it. This includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Is that such a dangerous idea?

Here and now, at the dawn of the 21st century, the industrialised countries, with their enormous wealth and power, have it in their gift to make the rest of the century less bloody than the last. We need to make sure they do.
Jan Melichar




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