In London, the World Gathers Against
by Derrick O'Keefe, Rabble
www.zmag.org, December 17, 2007
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity
to attend a remarkable gathering of the global peace movement
in London. The World Against War conference, held December 1-2
in the British capital, brought together over 1200 delegates from
almost 30 countries to discuss Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, the
threat of an attack against Iran, and much more.
Tony Benn, the octogenarian who served 51 years as a Member of
Parliament and remains a stalwart opponent of war and privatization,
opened the conference by noting that the venue, the Methodist
Central Hall, had been the site of the first meeting of the UN
General Assembly more than 60 years ago.
Benn reminded delegates of the stated aims of the original UN
gathering, "It pledged to end the scourge of war, to reaffirm
commitment to human rights, to establish conditions under which
justice could be maintained, and to promote social progress. And
that was after 105 million people had died in two world wars."
"With the invasion of Iraq," Benn argued, "that
Charter was torn up and thrown into the wastepaper basket by Bush
and Blair and others, and we are here to reaffirm those demands
on behalf of the human race."
The achievement of that ambitious goal, in the UK as in Canada
and elsewhere, faces two related obstacles: the glaring lack of
adequate anti-war representation in the arena of electoral politics,
and the relative weakness of peace and other social movements
in the face of government, media, and military PR juggernauts.
Superficially, Prime Minister Gordon Brown finds himself in a
spot similar to that faced by Paul Martin during his short term
at the helm in Ottawa. Tony Blair, like Jean Chrétien,
clung to power for a decade, leaving his successor to deal with
low poll numbers and gathering scandals.
But while the Liberals in Canada steered away at least from official
involvement in the Iraq War, Blair and Brown's Labour Party went
shoulder-to-shoulder with the Bush administration into the most
disastrous imperial war in a generation.
Ten years ago, "New Labour" swept into power, shiny
and triumphant. The much-hyped "Third Way" cast aside
the remnants within the Labour Party of so-called dogmas like
income redistribution and class struggle, and cast itself as modern
and forward-looking. In the end, New Labour ended up returning
to the old discredited territory - literally and in terms of policy
- of the British Empire by occupying Iraq and Afghanistan.
And so it is that many thousands of members have deserted the
Labour Party, and many millions of voters have stayed home and
now threaten to take their support elsewhere. Brown, with hands
bloodied by war (and without the acting skills of Blair), may
now well lose the next election to his Conservative challenger,
This is the grim reality of parliamentary politics in the UK,
which does not reflect at all the anti-war majority of British
public opinion. (There are notable exceptions, of course. Two
sitting MPs, Labour's Jeremy Corbyn and George Galloway, the only
Respect Party member in Westminster, made powerful presentations
to the conference.)
Facing this situation, activists have to think hard about how
the movement against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can be effective.
Demoralization undoubtedly hit people in the UK as it did elsewhere
after unprecedented coordinated protests failed to stop the invasion
of Iraq in 2003. February 15 of that year in London saw the largest
protest in the country's history, with over 1.5 million people
on the streets.
Today, there is certainly a feeling of helplessness with the looming
threat of an attack on Iran by the U.S. and Israel, with all the
catastrophic results and human suffering that would entail. There
is obviously a serious divide amongst the U.S. elite about the
advisability of such an attack. Anti-war activists, however, have
to find ways to mobilize against such a strike, as depending on
the sanity of the U.S. administration would be, well, insane.
The World Against War conference was a unique opportunity to compare
notes with other activists, many of whom struggle under extremely
adverse conditions. Some of the most inspiring speakers were from
the Middle East. Hassan Juma'a Awad, a leader of the Iraqi Federation
of Oil Unions, was warmly received as he told of their effort
to resist the oil privatization law.
Hamdeen Sabahy, an independent MP and opponent of the Mubarak
regime in Egypt, was a revelation. In a special meeting of international
delegates, he left his interpreter idle and gave a moving speech
in English. Outlining the obstacles facing the pro-democracy movement
in Egypt, Sabahy made it clear he felt optimistic at least about
the company he was keeping on that weekend in London:
"It is a very ugly world, in many ways, with so much injustice.
But here, with all of you, struggling for peace and for justice,
it is a beautiful world."
Derrick O'Keefe is the editor of rabble.ca.
He attended the London conference as a representative of the Vancouver
War and Peace page