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Civil society’s responses in the lead up to the war on Iraq: the need for ethics in assessing the question of war and peace

Minh Nguyen
February 2004, published at uniya.org

No one anticipated what was to occur on Valentine’s Day, 2003. Chief UN Weapons inspector Hans Blix was due to deliver his latest report on Iraq. People believed that his report would be the pretext needed by the Coalition of the Willing (“Coalition”) to wage war with Iraq. On that evening, a record 150,000 people assembled on the forecourts of Melbourne’s newly opened Federation Square, rallying under the theme “make love, not war”. The kaleidoscope of people, placards and puppetry mirrored the postmodern fractal façade of the Federation Square buildings. The enormity and diversity of the crowd – probably the largest in Melbourne’s history – caught even the optimists by surprise. As it turned out, the protest, significant as it was, was merely a preface to what was to come.

The days that followed, over half a million people took to the streets in Australia’s capital cities and regional centres. In Sydney the crowd numbered a quarter of a million, which was 100 times the size of a similar protest a few months earlier. The roads and streets designed for business and commerce caved in to an assortment of humanity: pacifists alongside anarchists, communists mixed with entrepreneurs and grandmothers with young ferals. Even as the protest march began, people continued to pour in to the nominated venue, mostly on foot as train and bus services were unable to cope with the pressure. In near chaos, police and organisers were forced to divert marchers away from the main venue and into a larger nearby park.

The weekend of February 14-16 will also be remembered as the first truly globalised expression of dissent in which an emerging global civil society acted under a common political agenda. The Australian protests were part of a wider global weekend of action. It was estimated that over 10 million people took part worldwide. Hundreds of cities around the world all hosted records demonstrations. No one envisaged that the opposition to war would be so widespread.

Constituency of the opposition to war

Most of the opposition came from civil society. The term “civil society” in its current usage typically refers to the realm of autonomous group organisation and action outside the framework of the state and market. Within civil society one might find a range of interlinking and overlapping groups and movements – peace groups, church groups, professional organisations, non-government organisations, services agencies, thinktanks, agricultural collectives, and so on. Some elements of civil society supported military action in Iraq, such as the Jewish lobby group the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, but the vast majority did not.

Surveying the groups and movements that opposed the Iraq war reveals the characteristically heterogeneous nature of actions for peace. At the height of anti-war activities, perhaps the full spectrum of civil society was represented. The diverse concerns of participating groups were united by the threat of war. Some of these concerns were directly related to the Iraq war, while others were tangential to the immediate issue, such as globalisation and refugees.

The core component within civil society opposed to the war was obviously the peace movement, which itself was a loose issue-based coalition of activists, supporters and sympathisers who came together for a specific political purpose. These groups were largely organic, purpose-built and had limited objectives, namely, to respond to the perceived imminent US-led invasion of Iraq.

Although these coalitions were new, the membership included seasoned activists and organisations. Bob Gould, notable Vietnam Moratorium campaigner, was one of the organising delegates in Sydney, while participating organisations such as the Australian Anti-Bases Campaign Coalition and the Palm Sunday Committee had played significant roles during the peace campaigns of the 1980s and the early 1990s. This continuity partly explains the speed and degree of the anti-war mobilisation. On the other hand, civil society in the new millennium had at least three advantages that may not have been so apparent in previous peace campaigns.

For a start, the reach and breadth of new information technologies had exponentially extended civil society’s capacity to network and organise. Although typically independent from one another, civil society groups had almost instant access to information about each other’s activities through technologies such as mobile phone, SMS and the internet. Activists learnt how to lobby and set up local peace groups through the internet. They were able to promote events, download education materials, share campaign ideas, have their say on online bulletins and blogs, and keep up to date via independent news services.

Tied to the global communications revolution is the globalisation of civil society. Albeit still fragmented and loose, the structure of this emerging global movement are providing new means for peace movements to coordinate their campaigns for maximum political and moral effect. It was the participants at the annual civil society Social Forum meetings that initiated the February 2003 protests. But the influence is more than just a decision on a common date. The global civil society phenomenon provided the organisational base for peace movements to develop commitments, formulate global strategies and build on ideological alternatives to the worldview that promoted war with Iraq.

Paradoxically, at the same time the Australian peace movement was globalising, it was also “localising” with a renewed emphasis on grassroots involvement. Local and community-based peace groups mushroomed during the latter months of 2002. Regional coalitions such as Sydney’s Walk Against the War Coalition responded by establishing a coordinating committee for local groups. Local groups enabled the peace movement to reach out to people in local constituencies and provided the avenue for broad-based participation. These people became the backbone of the peace movement. They were the activists and volunteers who did the photocopying, distributed leaflets, pasted posters, staffed information stalls and organised community forums and fundraising events.

Civil society’s analysis of the war

It is true civil society, as a whole, had no single position on the war against Iraq. Their analyses were as diverse as the people who made up the peace networks and coalitions. This apparent disjointedness had attracted criticisms from those who supported the war. “So why … is so much attention paid to the fact that people chose to march?” asked the chairperson of the Australian Broadcasting Authority David Flint. “[It] is difficult to glean any single coherent opinion from them”.

On the other extreme, civil society also faced being pigeonholed. East Timor’s Minister of Foreign Affairs José Ramos-Horta, dismissed opposition to the war as “simplistic and irrational anti-Americanism”. No doubt some elements of the peace movement were guilty of this, but probably no more blameworthy than irrational pro-Americanism among some supporters of the war.

It is understandable if Ramos-Horta was trying win points from powerful friends for his struggling country. But if this is his true personal view of the peace movement, then he of all commentators should have known better. The irony is that Flint himself recognised that “many of the demonstrators were [probably] the same people who had marched to demand intervention in East Timor without Indonesian or UN approval”. The differences in response to the two humanitarian cases plainly suggest a level of civil society discernment more complex than Ramos-Horta and Flint would care to admit.

While civil society had no unified position on the war, we can nonetheless identify a number of analytical currents in the anti-war arguments. The two overriding approaches in arguing against an invasion of Iraq were based on, what could be called, the pacifism and pragmatist premises. The pragmatists believe that peace is possible but accept that there could be cases where war would be necessary; nonetheless, the war against Iraq was not one of those cases. This approach had become and remains the most dominant. Very few civil society groups argued that the war might be wrong on the basis of principles alone. Pacifism, once a significant stream of thought, featured less prominently during the Iraq war than it did during the Gulf War in 1991. Yet pacifists were far from being subdued. They were there again risking their lives at Iraq’s battlefront when the Coalition bombs fell in March 2003.

The pacifist approach

The most prominent pacifists during the Iraq war were the so-called “human shields”. There were somewhere between 80 and 100 members of this team in Iraq at the commencement of the war. They were part of an effort by a number of international peace groups to establish camps in Iraq’s water treatment plants, power stations, oil refineries and other civilian infrastructures – sites that they believed could be Coalition targets. They had many reasons for being there, among them were the ideas of “bearing witness” to the violence, expressing solidarity with Iraqis, highlighting the immorality of war and its effects on innocent people, and deterring warring parties from indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets.

Following non-violent direct action principles, usually based on Christian or Gandhian traditions, human shields took no sides in the dispute and scorns the suggestion that they were supporting the Iraqi regime. “I clearly don’t support the human rights abuses that have been carried out by Saddam Hussein’s regime”, South Australian human shield Ruth Russell said. “This is why, before we go [to Iraq], we should be very clear to the world that the reason we are going is that we don’t think this war is right”.

The pragmatist approach

The second stream of perspectives, pragmatism, could be catalogued into a number of different strains. The pragmatic pacifist critiques included the views that war with Iraq:

  • would bring more harm than good (the utilitarian perspective);
  • would set a dangerous precedent (the normative perspective);
  • was for the wrong reasons (the critical perspective); or
  • was not yet justified (the ethical perspective).

These critiques – to be dealt with in turn – are not mutually exclusive since in practice arguments are always mixed and multifaceted.

Utilitarian perspective

One of the earliest and most prevailing arguments against the war rested on the concern over the potential human rights and humanitarian effects associated with any war. Most of civil society was sceptical of the Government’s claim that, “on all of the available evidence that the suffering of the Iraqi people would be less if Saddam Hussein were removed than if he is left in power.” Some civil society groups thought the contrary would be true. General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions David Begg, presented the utilitarian argument succinctly:

Saddam Hussein is a very bad man, and I for one would shed no tears at his demise if that could be achieved legally and at reasonable cost. The trouble is that it cannot be so achieved and the horror of the human rights abuses of the regime would surely be surpassed by the horror of war.

In November 2002, the Australian Medical Association for Prevention of War heightened civil society’s concern when it released a study examining the possible scenarios and environmental and humanitarian impact of war on Iraq. The study predicted that even in a contained conflict, war against Iraq “could cause half a million deaths and have a devastating impact on the lives, health and environment of the combatants, Iraqi civilians, and people in neighbouring countries and beyond.”

Utilitarian debates about the war on Iraq also centred around the possibility of fuelling radical Islamism and anti-Americanism, making Australia a greater target for terrorist attacks, stretching Australian resources outside the region, destabilising the Middle East, prolonging the conflict between Israel and Palestine, triggering a mass refugee exodus, and triggering a global economic crisis through trade reduction and increased oil prices. People argued that these possibilities combined, weighed heavily against a war on Iraq.

Normative perspective

The case against war was also strongly argued by those who were concerned about the implications that this might have on the multilateral world order. For those who shared this view, one of their main concerns related to the US’s novel doctrine of preemptive or preventative war. This doctrine, unveiled in the National Security Strategy document of September 2002, states that “the United States can no longer rely solely on a reactive posture … To forestall or prevent … hostile acts by our enemies, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.”

In plain language, this means that the US will no longer allow itself to be attacked when it knows an attack is possible. It plans to do this by striking first, regardless of what the UN says or whether the threat is imminent or not.

This contention deeply concerned some our top international jurists. “[The preemptive self-defence] doctrine contradicts the cardinal principle of the modern international legal order and the primary rationale for the founding of the UN after World War II – the prohibition of the unilateral use of force to settle disputes”, a group of prominent international lawyers argued.

The lawyers thought that preemptive wars would allow national strategic agendas to undermine the system of collective security around the UN Charter, lead to international chaos as the doctrine provides no objective test in determining whether a threat exists, and sets a dangerous precedent that would take international relations “back to the pre-1945 era where might equalled right.” Presumably this position took the view that war with Iraq would only be permissible, regardless of the true motives for going to war, if a UN SC resolution authorising military action against Iraq was passed.

Critical perspective

In contrast, the critical strain of anti-war analyses distinguished the actual motives or causes for which countries go to war with the justifications governments used to sell the war to the public. It did this firstly by looking at the inconsistencies in the interested governments’ dealing with Saddam Hussein over the years, and their dealing with other countries in the region, to highlight the contradictions in their case for war. Secondly, it looked at the nature of power to explain the “real” reasons for war on Iraq, as a way of asserting the truth, questioning the morality of the war, or “shaming” the governments. Because of the emphasis on power, it was under no illusions about the politics behind the UN SC. They were more likely to oppose the war on Iraq even if the UN granted authorisation.

There were many critiques and theories in this camp but among the most popular was the view that adorned the placards of the peace movement in the slogan, “no blood for oil”, implying that the aggression against Iraq was a “neoimperialist” war over resources. This argument is well known: Iraq, with the world’s second largest oil reserves, is said to boast one of the greatest strategic and economic prizes in the world. The country that could secure this prize would secure geopolitical control over this region and would reap huge benefits for its energy sector, industries and producers. Control of Iraqi oil by the US would have the added benefit of depriving its imperialist rival France and Russia from the advantages they have developed with Iraq over the last decade.

Other people in this school of thought would point out wider vested interests which they said was the real force behind the US’s push for war. Some local peace movements did not care much to protest in front of the US embassy. These groups selected their targets carefully. For example, campaigning against British Petroleum in one action and marching onto a local industrial unit of Sikorsky Aircraft, the manufacturer of the Black Hawk and Comanche military helicopters, in another.

Academic and activist Sergio Fiedler would agree with such a view. He warned activists at the 2002 Sydney Social Forum against falling into the trap of anti-Americanism. He argued that the nature of global power was more complicated than the idea of one country imposing its will on the rest of humanity. Power in today’s globalised world is shared by “a network of corporate institutions, media conglomerates and transnational institutions that provide the US with the material, cultural and ideological resources to prosecute war,” he said.

Ethical perspective

Finally, there were also arguments based on the ethics of war, which centred on the Christian concept of a “just war”. The just war is a form of pragmatic pacifism that sets down a number of preconditions, which needed to be met if war is judged to be just. Vatican officials made it clear, having reflected on these principles, that the Catholic Church considered any war against Iraq to be unjust. Many churches, denominations and church groups also took similar positions and were quite active in the peace movement.

But ethical arguments were not confined to religious groups alone. Philosophers like Raimond Gaita argued strongly against the Government’s utilitarian approach, stressing the time-honoured principle that evil must not be done even if good may come of it. He argued that war against Iraq would only be ethical if it was the last resort and that we were forced to go to war for the sake of the persecuted Iraqi people. The war on Iraq, he said, did not meet these criteria.


Rarely are there instances in modern history in which one issue has provoked so many responses from civil society in such a short period of time. The peace movement during the Vietnam War developed slowly from a fringe leftist activity to a mainstream concern over many years. Similarly, the Gulf, Kosovo and Afghanistan wars were unable to draw even a fraction of the activities witnessed in the short months before the Iraq war. Admittedly, the issues in these earlier conflicts were ambiguous. With the exception of the Vietnam war, these wars were reactions to some perceived injustices and were endorsed or post-facto endorsed by the UN. In the case of Iraq, none of these factors were present or apparent.

Nevertheless, the advances of telecommunication technologies and the emerging global phase in civil society’s life could only have boosted the anti-war cause. Global civil society, in particular, is showing signs of increased self-consciousness, analytical sophistication and organisational capacity. One of the legacies of the Iraq war for civil society was the unity that it helped forge between the peace and the global justice movements. This alliance now seems inseparable and have strengthened civil society’s base.

Another changing trend within civil society is the seeming demise of pacifism and ethics in debating decisions to wage war. Utilitarian assessments seem to be the dominant mainstream arguments coming from both sides of the debate. A popular tract called “Why we oppose a war on Iraq” produced by the Victorian Peace Network listed ten reasons to oppose the war. Out of these ten reasons, six fell broadly within the utilitarian strain, two critical and two normative. If this is true of civil society analyses generally, then it raises challenges for those of us who see more hope from a morally informed public in debates over peace and war.

Only now are we seeing the possible consequences of our failure to take ethics seriously. When the morality of a war hinges on its future outcome of events, as they do in utilitarian arguments, people are naturally left confused when events become volatile. We saw a moral shift when the worst of the utilitarian anti-war predictions were (fortunately) not realised. Like a moral pendulum we are seeing it again now that the situation in Iraq turned sour. In a time of desperate need for ethical clarity, there is a need to reassert the place of principles and ethics in assessing the question of war and peace.

Minh Nguyen is a researcher at the Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre.

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