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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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