Militarism, Antimilitarism and Civil Society


Facilitation: Andreas Speck, War Resisters' International

After the 11th September terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre, symbol of world economic power, and the Pentagon, symbol of US military power, the 'dominant powers' divided the world into 'good' and 'evil,' into friend and enemy. This thinking not only dominates foreign policy and the raison d'etre of the so-called 'war against terrorism,' but increasingly affects the domestic policies of nation-states. This plenary aimed to develop strategies for peace and antimilitarist campaigners to strengthen civil society through examining how the effects of 11 September and militarism are limiting civil liberties and the building of a civic sector.

Elke Steven of the German Komitee für Grundrechte und Demokratie described how the situation inside the 'centre' (EU, USA) has changed since 11 September: oppressive policies can be more easily justified as 'anti-terror measures' and the obligation to join the 'good' has led to the reduction of civil liberties. Most Western states have passed so-called 'security laws' that make the surveillance of citizens and the collection and exchange of information about citizens between states easier. The target groups of these laws are often nonwestern foreigners and activists of the anti-globalisation movement. In the United States (but also in the UK), large numbers of foreigners were interned without trial and the EU has closed its borders even more tightly, mainly against asylum seekers. Thus, the sometime defenders of civil liberties and human rights, i.e. the Western states, have become actually its violators. Hence it is important to form both national and international groups and majorities that can influence governments in favour of true civil liberties.

Judith Pasternak, a veteran antimilitarist activist from the United States, referred to Elke Steven's speech and argued that the fight between democracy, a 'bottom-up' system, and militarism, an 'top-down' system, has a long tradition in 20 th century US history: Whereas up to the 1960s civil liberties and social security increased, the time afterwards saw a retreat of democracy, a growing military budget, lower taxation of big corporations and less influence for the US Left. In Seattle, the global justice/ anti-globalisation and workers movements gained again some ground. But 11 September provided George W. Bush and his big business supporters with the means to crush the movements. Thus, better organisation of these movements against the 'Patriot Act' and similar acts is urgently needed.

Oscar Huenchunao, a CO activist from Chile, also referred to the paradox that in the name of civil liberties, these very liberties are reduced. However, he reminded the audience that civil liberties at all are still today only a dream in many countries. Since Augusto Pinochet's military coup in 1973, his native country Chile has experienced a situation of internal militarisation, which has become even more primitive after 11 September. The fear of repression is sometimes so strong that activists just do not do anything. The policy of zero tolerance under which students were recently arrested during a demonstration could easily be used to convince young people not to get involved in politics or social movements such as CO groups. Strategies have to concentrate on the fears (of young people) and how to alleviate them.

Not surprisingly, this plenary triggered off an interesting debate about the effects of 11 September and strategies to strengthen civil liberties and civil society. Ekkehart Krippendorff, a radical academic, considered it politically not correct to speak about a 'terrorist attack' concerning the 11 September events. He argued that we do not even know what actually happened. Rather, he sees it as a power struggle between two highly organised forces, the Bin Laden clan, a former business partner of George W. Bush, and the US government. The strategy that antimilitarists should use more is to make sure that fundamental civil liberties are constitutionally guaranteed. The peace movement is in fact a human rights movement. The war on terrorism and its effects on civil liberties are an attempt to get rid of fundamental rights and activism. Others emphasised that civil liberties often existed only on paper. But what happens if people cannot read them, e.g. in South Africa, or cannot access them due to their economic circumstances? Therefore, antimilitarism must also include the struggle against multinational corporations, globalisation and the effects of structural violence. Moreover, it is necessary to identify those people who profit from 'terrorism,' e.g. weapons producers and sellers -- as one commentator pointed out. In regard to the 'war on terrorism' and the imminent war against Iraq, others urged to move away from a purist stance in the pacifist movement and to look for unlikely allies such as conservatives or soldiers who object to only certain military campaigns. However, some maintained that 11 September is not a new beginning. Rather, antimilitarist movements have to continue with their strategies, including fighting for (total) CO and against conscription, and rely on their own strength. Michael Randle demanded that peace activists have to condemn any act of terror, which he defined as any violent act against civilians. He emphasised the importance of both small, pacifist pioneering groups and broad civil movements to strengthen antimilitarist goals. In a final comment, Andreas Speck pointed to the necessity of common denominators in the antimilitarist movement, of the support for both constitutionalism and asylum seekers, and of the awareness of the rapid change of laws, particular human rights legislation.

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