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abolishing war

There is something almost heroic about calling for the abolition of war (or ‘delegitimising’ it, as some like to put it) at a time when the newly-enlarged NATO, in its 50th anniversary year, was going to war for the first time.
One week in May, while bombs were dropped in ever-increasing numbers from the safety of 25,000 feet and cruise missiles sped from distant ships and submarines to trash targets (not always military) in Kosovo and Serbia, nine thousand people gathered at The Hague.
They had met to mark the hundredth anniversary of the first Peace Conference there. That had been convened by Czar Nicholas II: he feared that Russia was falling behind Austria in the arms race, and hoped for a pause in military spending. Major governments attended somewhat cynically, knowing full well – indeed, ensuring – that nothing would come of it; after all, who wants to have fewer weapons than their potential foe?
Nevertheless, despite such scepticism, public interest in the Conference, and hope for a good outcome, was substantial. ‘Delegates became uncomfortably aware of the conscience of the world over their shoulders’ as petitions, proposals, pamphlets and non-governmental observers descended on The Hague.
Three months later Britain went to war in South Africa; a few years later came the First World War. Human history’s bloodiest century had begun.
The 1899 Peace Conference agreed that limitation of military expenditure and of new types of weapons was ‘highly desirable for the moral and material benefit of humanity’; one of its formal ‘wishes’ was that strategies for such arms limitation should be the subject of ‘further study’ by the states. If this wish was ever taken seriously enough to reach the nations’ agendas, it was soon dropped. Now it’s the turn of the 1999 Hague Appeal For Peace, with its expressed hope for an altogether more peaceful hundred years ahead. What are the chances?
This conference, unlike its 1899 forerunner, was very much a citizens’ affair. The few politicians present were equal participants, and the real aims rather less venal: ‘As we move into the 21st century, let this be the first century without war. Let us find ways – and implement the ways already available – to prevent conflict by removing its causes... by returning to the vision of general and complete disarmament which flickered briefly on the world stage after the last World War. Specifically, let us find the moral, spiritual and political will to do what our leaders know must be done but cannot bring themselves to do.’
The Appeal For Peace brought together a wide variety of people. They differed from each other in age, in nationality and in the sorts of ‘peace’ work they practised. Participants ranged from the most naive enthusiasts to hard-headed negotiators, practical academics, and experienced NGO personnel. We heard about the plight of children, and how the US is obstructing a broad prohibition (incorporated in a new international agreement on child labour) on the use of child soldiers. We heard about the success of the landmine treaty. We discussed the growing network of people involved in conflict prevention. And all the time we were continually aware of the concurrent war in the Balkans, a constant and troubled presence.
Now, as the Kosovan tragedy continues to unfold, the failure of the ‘military solution’ become clearer by the day. But it seems that the wrong lessons are still being learned. As Serbian tanks were rolling out intact from their shelters and Serbian warplanes flew back home undamaged, the US defence (sic) electronic group Raytheon were being awarded an £800 million British contract to provide a ‘new breed of spy plane’.
After ‘one of the fiercest lobbying campaigns seen in Whitehall in living memory’, which included a direct approach to Tony Blair by President Clinton, Raytheon promises to create or sustain 2,500 jobs in 150 British companies in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland – with more to follow if the hoped-for export orders flow in. Raytheon’s Airborne Stand-Off Radar System (ASTOR) is a high-altitude surveillance radar system designed to be fitted to business jet planes. It’s claimed it can ‘see’ what present systems cannot, and thus restrict ‘mistakes’, as they’re called, in targeting. ASTOR would have been extremely useful in Kosovo, UK defence secretary George Robertson observed: ‘It can provide high-resolution imagery in all weathers, and its stand-off range would have been beyond the reach of Serbian air-defence systems.’ And we’d thought that AWACS and satellites could detect everything!
War was bad enough when its destructive consequences were risked by its practitioners on all sides. Now, however, we know it’s possible to inflict appalling damage on a country and its people with no cost in lives for the aggressor. Such casualty-free war could become very seductive. We’ve already seen the ease with which the US fires cruise missiles at distant pharmaceutical factories; now that NATO seems to have found a new role – with new, improved precision technology forthcoming – trouble lies ahead.
It may be that the intentions of NATO, the armed forces now spread over Kosovo, and our own hawk Tony Blair, are ‘humanitarian’, as they claim. Humanitarian or not, they are dangerously short-sighted. Wrangling over the rights and wrongs of this war has drawn attention away from one simple fact: it need not have happened. Milosevic and other Yugoslavs certainly carry a huge responsibility for misery in the Balkans; but pinning the blame on somebody and calling them a murderous thug solves no problems, even if it’s true. The trick is to ensure that no single person or group can gain power over so many people and their lives – or deaths.
The traditional belief that armed might can deal with intransigent people is chiefly what inhibits efforts to avoid conflict and set up effective prevention programmes. (See Preventing Violent Conflict, Peace Matters 24.) But this is what politicians and world leaders ought to be doing, and as a priority, instead of carrying out acts of destruction to break destructive regimes.
At the packed closing plenary at the 1999 Hague conference, Kofi Annan was visibly moved by the reception he received. The enthusiasm and palpable commitment to work for a more just, non-violent future was a rare and encouraging experience for him (as it was for everyone present).
But even at this conference participants were unable to agree, despite nights of talking, on key issues relating to the Balkan conflict. Whatever the conference’s outcomes are, they may turn out to be less important than the solidarity such a gathering offered, or the belief it generated that the abolition of war is possible. In order to act we need to see and believe in a positive future outcome. Let’s face it, for the dramatic change required to abolish war a new set of values must reach a critical mass. Whoever our leaders are, whatever social structure we live in, that force for change comes from us, from the pressure of our opinion, if we have the commitment to express it and live by it.
‘The conscience of the world’ was there in 1899. At The Hague in 1999 the plea was: ‘....let us find the moral, spiritual and political will to do what our leaders know must be done but cannot bring themselves to do.’ There’s no time like the present.
Jan Melichar
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