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the night before armistice

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-  the night before armistice
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IT was the evening before Armistice Day. On our television screens, presenters, politicians and anyone concerned about public image were conspicuously wearing their British Legion poppies. But in the packed lecture theatre at the London School of Economics there wasn’t a poppy in sight. Here the subject under discussion was certainly war, but the event couldn’t have been more different from that annual remembrance show masterminded by the Royal British Legion, concerned with how to raise funds for relatives of the victims of government activities that should never have taken place.

At the LSE meeting, the prevailing approach was thoughtful not emotional, practical not sentimental – and the aim was a plan for the future, not cosmetic cover for the past. The question being addressed: how Europe can contribute to creating a safer and more just world. In short, how to make the British Legion (and the PPU) redundant. All right, that’s too big a claim – but as the scheduled European ‘battlegroups’ have now been formed and are ready for action perhaps a touch of spin on a humanising idea will be forgiven.

There was a lot of hugging, backslapping and smiling as people arrived on the LSE lecture theatre’s stage. The security man cast a critical eye over the audience as Javier Solana squeezed in behind the table too small for the five panellists, all here to talk about the Human Security Doctrine for Europe report. Javier Solana, formerly of NATO and now Secretary-General of the Council of the EU, may not be everyone’s favourite statesman; but, as the person to whom the report is addressed and who had a hand in its initiation, he is (whether we like it or not) a man with a lot of power. Magnanimously he offered to speak last.

Mary Kaldor (a Director of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance) outlined some of the key issues. The report focuses on regional conflicts and on what have come to be called ‘failed states’ - areas which also become a source of spreading insecurity. It proposes a ‘Human Security Response Force’ of 15,000 men and women of whom at least a third should be civilians; a new wide-ranging legal framework to govern both the decisions to intervene and the actual operations; and seven key Principles to be applied to both ends and means.

Perhaps the most ambitious of the seven Principles guiding any HRCF operations is the primacy of human rights. For many of us this would seem an obvious prerequisite, but, as the report points out, ‘in many national governments, it is assumed that state interest overrides the promotion of human rights.’ And so, ‘deeply held and entrenched institutional and cultural obstacles [will have] to be overcome if it is to be realised in practice.’ Such a principle, it is clear, would have far-reaching implications for military tactics.

There was much merriment on stage when the ‘bottom–up approach’, another key Principle, was mentioned. It is also an approach about which Javier Solana was visibly uncomfortable. Sometimes (to paraphrase his words) you have to go in, sort it out, and talk to locals afterwards. But the ‘bottom-up approach’ stresses the need, in places of intervention, for consultation and dialogue with civil society there. Crucially, it also highlights the need for greater awareness and better quality of information in situations of emerging conflict, so that appropriate action can be taken before violence breaks out. The tension between the values embodied within this report and the state institution, here in the shape of Javier Solana, was visible throughout the opening presentation and the debate that followed.

It is easy to be cynical about reports such as this one. There are even good reasons to be cynical. But, though it may briefly induce the pleasant sensation of personal astuteness, cynicism achieves nothing. Within Europe there exists a strong and humanising current of thought and action. Europeans, for all their faults, also strive to do good, to help alleviate suffering, to reduce tensions – and they have the power to do a lot more. Some may talk about ‘Fortress Europe’ and dumping asylum seekers in camps in Africa, but there are other voices too. Like the contributors to this report, these people recognise that walls (even if it were possible to erect them) do not make good neighbours. They recognise that the welfare of strangers is always important to us, even if they are thousands of miles away. Javier Solana, as the report acknowledges, was supportive and encouraging throughout its preparation. It would be a surprise if he agreed with all of it, but he is the big cheese in the EU and the report is on his desk.

We can’t tell what, if anything, can or will flow from these proposals, which are certainly challenging (to the establishment at least). But it’s almost certain that if ‘credible’ counterproposals to the current ‘battlegroup/top-down’ ideology are not developed and actively promoted there is little chance of making a dent in the anti-human, warmaking ideology that has dominated public discussion on security.

While it may be true that ‘You cannot cross a chasm in little steps’ (a headline from a 1960s PPU leaflet), slogans by simplifying leave out the messy reality of life. Today teenagers with backpacks cross the Channel carrying iPods, not rifles. They travel around the continent in relative freedom. But this isn’t because of a huge leap forward in the acknowledgement of human rights. It’s a result of many small, sometimes difficult, sometimes visionary, often pedestrian, and occasionally downright lunatic changes which Europe’s administrators have managed to make.

The day after the meeting at the LSE, two World War II aircraft ,which had once rained death indiscriminately on many thousands of people, were conscripted to drop millions of little scraps of red paper over the Thames. This was one of the events acknowledging Armistice Day. It took place, not at the ‘significant’ hour of 11.00 am, but at 6.00 pm: a more media-friendly and visually impressive moment as darkness began to fall. Illuminations made the river run ‘remembrance red’, and images of giant poppies were projected. Wow. What was once a day of grief and sorrow has become the realm of showbiz. On the following Sunday, 11.00 am brought the Remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph, after which a few old soldiers and a great many hangers-on marched down Whitehall. As the number of veterans from the 20th century’s cataclysmic wars declines, so an increasing number of other disparate groups claim a self-important place in this bizarre march-past.

Military force is one of those subjects that pacifists find difficult to talk about. We can hardly recommend it, but the journey to a disarmed world will not be made without some violent force being used along the way. Somewhere in our promotion of nonviolence and disarmament we should surely find room for this reality. It’s not only those who espouse pacifism who yearn for a peaceful world, a world in which people do not kill each other. In the preface to his War Requiem Benjamin Britten (a member of the PPU till his death) quoted Wilfred Owen: ‘All a poet can do today is warn’. This may be true for poets but it’s surely not enough for the PPU.

At the moment the government is doing more than enough to ‘warn’ people what a grim prospect lies ahead, while asserting that they will save us from ‘evil’. Unfortunately what the government calls ‘solutions’ are – when not just plain dangerous – uselessly utopian. There is a lot of scope for alternative proposals of a practical and believable kind.

Jan Melichar

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