Strong peace movement is urgently needed

20 March 2019

Strong peace movement is urgently needed

Two major concerns characterise the current political era, a period that began at the start of the 1990s with the fall of the Soviet Union. The permanent war, for the most part waged in Asia and Africa; and the abiding need to put an end to nuclear arms. Now that the INF treaty has been abrogated, the struggle against nuclear weapons must be taken up again, and powerfully.

Guido van Leemput

The period since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 can be characterised as the age of interventions, a period which reached its nadir in March of 2003 with the British-American invasion of Iraq. This invasion was talked up with bare-faced lies about weapons of mass destruction. The international peace movement which rose up in response mobilised some fifteen million people, yet turned out to be incapable of heading off the war in Iraq.

Defence, diplomacy & development

It must be noted that important players in society, such as development organisations and human rights defenders, as well as a number of left parties, have during the last 25 years become embroiled in the question of permanent war and so-called 'humanitarian intervention'. They have been, and remain, convinced that, with the aid of an army of intervention and a policy which is imperialist to its core, peace and democracy can be brought to countries in, in most cases, Asia and Africa.

The last quarter century has seen the concept of '3D' – 'Defence, Diplomacy and Development'- find it strikingly easy to gain acceptance on the left as well as the right. In practice the 'D' of defence, which is to say the politics of intervention, has turned out to stand for 'Domination'. The confusion arises from the belief in development work as a part of intervention policy, but in service to defence it becomes above all a trick to make intervention easier, one which is developing no economies in poor countries. The operations in Kunduz and Uruzgan in Afghanistan, as well as the UN operation in Minusma in Mali have shown that 3D is doomed to fail. So it's time to make the concept history.

Responsibility to protect

In addition to 3D, enormous value has been attached throughout the world to the concept of 'R2P', 'responsibility to protect'. That is the internationally approved way to employ military intervention in order to prevent genocide. It is of course a massive problem that states or militias are prepared to commit mass murder and force mass expulsion of sections of the population, often in their own state. The Rwandan genocide in 1994 is a notorious example of this, but there are many others. This is why R2P has come about, advocating military intervention if it seems absolutely and urgently necessary. The problem, however, is that states taking such actions never do so without having their own reasons to start an intervention and that such interventions, even if aimed at doing good, can have far-reaching consequences.

The debate around this led at the time of the civil war in Libya to UN Security Council Resolution 1973 which gave permission to the US and other NATO countries to protect the rebellious and beleaguered Libyan city of Benghazi from the government of the Libyan dictator Gaddafi. Russia and China abstained, giving R2P a chance. But when the US marine began several days of bombardment with rockets on towns loyal to the government, it told Russia and China never again to countenance any action under such a label, bringing this vulnerable concept to an end. The lesson of the last twenty years is that neither the 3D concept nor R2P have turned out to be fruitful in coupling human rights to war, but have rather merely led to more wars which, once again, are of endless duration.

Arms race renewed

When the US and the Soviet Union signed the disarmament treaty in 1987, it meant a provisional end to nuclear tensions in Europe. Mid-range nuclear weapons were banned. This treaty did not come out of the blue. From the early 80s onwards there were mass demonstrations throughout Europe against the stationing of nuclear weapons on the old continent. In the Netherlands on two occasions hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, and the peace movement of those years, which lives on in the collective memory, was inspired by the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. CND was established in the 50s with the Easter Marches to the military base at Aldermaston and sought to pout an end to the arms race which was a major feature of the Cold War. The Dutch campaign whose name translates as 'All nuclear weapons out of the world, beginning with the Netherlands' was started by the Interkerkelijk Vredesberaad (Interchurch Peace Council) and proved an enormous success, provoking an all-embracing discussion about nuclear weapons and how to get rid of them. The campaign gained a global ideological basis from the work of the British historian E.P. Thompson. In his Notes on Exterminism: The Last Stage of Civilization, he stressed the post-imperialist character of nuclear weapons. What he meant by this was that these weapons had become as it were autonomous, outgrowing the people in power. They threatened to destroy everyone, under whatever social system people happened to live. In addition, this didn't apply only to intentional use, but also to misunderstanding and accidents that could have led to the total annihilation of the human race. Understanding this made it easier to step outside the Cold War framework and realise a world-wide breakthrough for the peace movement. That peace movement, however, eventually had the wind taken out of its sails as a result of the INF treaty. Wars continued to occur, but the acute danger from nuclear weapons in Europe faded into the background. But the renunciation of the INF treaty by the US and Russia threatened a renewed Cold War and brought with it the need to begin mobilising people against the nuclear danger.

An effective peace movement

Thompson's insight, that it was necessary to establish a peace movement independent of governmental of great power politics, remains valid. With the unprecedented consequences of climate change it is in fact more pertinent than ever. Nature itself is beginning to turn against humanity, leading to climate-related catastrophes, such as flood and drought, which in their turn lead to security problems and to a revival of the issue of R2P. Climate change is also bringing about new imperialist adventures from great powers who believe this will make it easier to come by raw materials, whether or not they're under melting ice caps. If we are to devise a programme for an independent peace movement, a number of steps will be needed:

  • A call for an immediate end to the Dutch contribution to the permanent war.
  • Build pressure against nuclear weapons, in the Netherlands, Europe and the rest of the world.
  • Establish a work programme, including providing relief for refugees from war.
  • Cooperate with environmental organisations in the fight against climate disasters and neocolonial actions aimed at accumulating raw materials.

We don't need to begin from ground zero, because the infrastructure for a renewed Dutch peace movement is already in place, with numerous peace organisations, some of which have their roots in the peace movement of the 1980s. There is Pax, for example, but also all sorts of smaller anti-war groups in various cities and towns and a few classic pacifist groups. In the light of the new arms race following the abrogation of the INF treaty it's high time to put our heads together and spread our wings. The tasks aren't small; in fact they're even bigger than they were in the 80s. It certainly makes sense to look at the experiences of recent decades, but the principal matter at hand is as quickly as possible and collectively to build an effective peace movement against nuclear weaponry and permanent war.

Guido van Leemput is an adviser to the SP Members of Parliament on defence issues.

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