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War is a crime against humanity: Returning to the Peace Pledge amid escalating violence and insecurity

War is a crime against humanity: Returning to the Peace Pledge amid escalating violence and insecurity

Currently, we seem to be confronted by increasingly dire and desperate news on a daily basis. The recent airstrike by Israeli forces in Rafah, the growing risk of genocide in Sudan, the ongoing war in Ukraine, and now further US-UK air strikes in Yemen. At home, national service is being discussed again, vast sums of money are being promised to an already bloated military budget, and weapons exports to Israel continue. A general election is suddenly just around the corner, and the two main political parties are promising increases to military spending while neither supports an arms embargo to Israel.

Set within this climate, our work at the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) is critical. The PPU has been campaigning for a peaceful world for 90 years. It was founded in 1934 when Dick Sheppard - a Reverend whose experience as a WW1 Army Chaplain converted him to pacifism - put a letter in the papers asking men* to send in postcards in support of the following statement: 

“We renounce war, and never again, directly or indirectly, will we support or sanction another.”

Within a year, 100,000 people responded and, ever since, the PPU has been a union of people pledging their commitment to peace. The oldest secular pacifist campaigning organisation in the UK, the PPU is also the British section of War Resisters’ International, which shares the language of the current Peace Pledge:

“War is a crime against humanity. I renounce war, and am therefore determined not to support any kind of war. I am also determined to work for the removal of all causes of war.”


We are now approaching eight months of the brutal asymmetric war in the Middle East, initiated by the appalling attack by Hamas on Israeli civilians on 7th October 2023. This war, however, is itself only one iteration of a seven decade-long conflict that began with the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians, massacres, and confiscation of land. 75 years after the Nakba, the absolute horror of the scenes in Rafah are set against a backdrop of political posturing often far removed from a genuine desire to minimise loss of life. The US, for example, has supported the Israeli ‘right to go after Hamas’ in this way, with the actions not reportedly having crossed a ‘red line’ for withdrawing arms supplies. The British PM, Rishi Sunak, expressed ‘disappointment’ at the breakdown of the pause in fighting, while opposition leader, Keir Starmer, named the strikes ‘horrifying’ and called on the Israeli PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, to ‘stop’. However, neither Starmer or Sunak currently supports an arms embargo to Israel, rendering their weak words even weaker.

It is hard to find adequate words to express the devastation in Palestine that has dominated the headlines and our minds since the Hamas attack in early October initiated an Israeli retaliation that is increasingly considered genocidal. Words fail to convey the utter lack of justice, the complete stripping of rights and security, the abject suffering, or the callousness of our political leaders. With each escalation, with each mention of genocide and starvation, of safe zones violated and mounting death tolls, it feels our urgent pleas for a ceasefire must be surely, finally, be heard. And, yet, the devastation only deepens. A child was decapitated in Rafah, others burned alive; a ‘tragic mishap’ apparently justifiable in pursuit of ‘legitimate’ targets. 

It can feel easy to slip into despair when confronted with scenes like those in Rafah. However, in these moments, as pacifists and PPU members, the Peace Pledge can be galvanising. It asserts an opposition to all war, not just those which are deemed to violate some allegedly ‘acceptable’ standards. It affirms the utterly unacceptable cost of war: human life and our collective humanity. War is itself the crime; its consequences are always excessive and unacceptable. No war is justified, no violence legitimate. In speaking of all war in these terms, we shift the narrative about its inevitability and acceptability. It moves conversations away from a legalistic focus on the specificities of international law, which ultimately serves to condone some wars, if not all.

Amid the horrifying scenes in the Middle East over the past 8 months, other limitations of the international system have also been laid bare. Israel shows no willingness to slow its assault on Palestine, particularly while its allies continue to provide both arms and diplomatic cover. The international community’s slow, and at times disgraceful, responses – such as Austria and the Czech Republic voting against a humanitarian ceasefire on 12th December 2023 – regularly demonstrate the prioritisation of politics and profit over people’s lives.

The Peace Pledge confirms our rejection of violence as a means to achieve peace, of the futility of war in all its forms. This rejection is powerful; it stands in opposition to any person or policy that values different lives differently. Never again is for everyone. The pledge also looks to the causes of war, which is a particularly potent element of the current geopolitical moment. The UK government is complicit in the causes of war overseas. Weapons are supplied to regimes across the globe, and our foreign policy, gross over-funding of the military, and now discussion of national service, only serve to heighten international insecurity. 

Waves of people across the world are currently also bringing the Peace Pledge’s commitment to action to life. As key leaders drag their heels or act without concern, mass mobilisations continue to call loudly for basic human dignity for all. Many are waking up to the realities of top-down politics, and are instead offering hands of solidarity across borders themselves. Some do so by risking their own liberty to disrupt the sale of arms to Israel, drawing ever-greater attention to the government complicity and shining a spotlight on arms companies, who generally prefer to operate in the shadows.

We must keep exposing and undoing these interconnections, along with the militarist mindset that underpins them. There is no other option but to keep going. People’s lives – both now and in the future – rely on all of us to powerfully and proactively reject militarism in all its forms, from conflicts overseas to everyday manifestations in our communities. With the general election just over a month way, it’s also critical that demands for peace, and for alternatives to militarist thinking, remain central to politics. We must ensure those claiming to act in our name, actually do so. We must keep showing up, we must keep making noise. Now, more than ever, it’s vital that while we are pacifists, we aren’t passive.

* The request was initially directed at men, partly due to a focus on conscription and partly because until then the Peace Movement had largely drawn interest to women and Sheppard wanted men to also commit to the movement. However, two years later this was opened up to all.