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, David Cameron.
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 StopWar Coalition.
Most of the speeches from the World Against War conference can be viewed at the UK Stop the War Coalition’s website.