Gulf War shows it's time to set our own agenda

Published in Peace News, July 1991, p. 2. An earlier version was published as "Nonviolence against hypocrisy: setting agendas for social defence", Nonviolence Today, No. 19, February-March 1991, p. 12. Reprinted in Australian Peace Education and Research Association News Bulletin, March 1991, p. 5. Reprinted in edited form in Italian as: "La nonviolenza contro l'ipocrisia", Mosaico, March 1991, pp. 3-4.

Brian Martin


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In the Gulf, the agenda for the peace movement was set by George Bush. That is something to worry about.

The Gulf crisis poses difficult questions for supporters of nonviolent action against aggression. How could nonviolent action have been used to stop Saddam Hussein? After all, he had been massacring his opponents for years.

The main focus in the Western peace movement was to support sanctions and to oppose the invasion of Iraq. Sanctions were not really nonviolent since they were backed by force.

There were some important nonviolent actions against war in the Gulf. Perhaps the most courageous was the Gulf Peace Camp, set up by nonviolent activists from a range of countries on the border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Yet, it must be said, simply opposing the invasion of Iraq provided no answer to the question of how to use nonviolent action to challenge the occupation of Kuwait. Therefore, as well as supporting such nonviolent interventions, it is also important to look more broadly at the Gulf situation and draw lessons for the future development of nonviolent struggle.

Could nonviolent action have been used to stop Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait? Hardly. Living in a vastly unequal and authoritarian society, the people of Kuwait could not have been expected to provide united nonviolent resistance against an invasion. What then is the role for nonviolent defence?

An important clue comes from the massive hypocrisies involved in the US-led coalition against Iraq, in which Saddam Hussein was portrayed as the epitome of evil. Numerous governments proclaimed outrage at the invasion and occupation of Kuwait, yet they did nothing about the invasions of Panama and Grenada by US forces. Nor have they taken much action against the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank by Israel, or the invasion and occupation of East Timor by Indonesia. Governments were silent when Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranians and against Kurds in Iraq. They eagerly sold weapons to Iraq, in spite of Saddam Hussein's horrible human rights record. Most blatantly of all, they supported the Iraqi invasion of Iran.

These hypocrisies have been pointed out often, but one implication for the peace movement has been seldom noticed. The key point is that the agenda for the peace movement was set by those governments - especially the US government - which suddenly decreed that Saddam Hussein was the greatest danger in the world. Most of the media have taken their cues from their governments, and popular opinion has thereby been shaped.

Although there are some two dozen wars around the world at any given time - such as those in El Salvador, Ethiopia, Angola, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and the Philippines, many with massive loss of life - the US government declared that Iraq's invasion of Kuwait took precedence over all others. (Indeed, most of the other wars were ignored or forgotten by the world's major powers, in spite of their complicity in many of them.) The peace movement response did not challenge this view.

The result is that supporters of nonviolent action put themselves in the situation of having to provide solutions to a crisis created by government and military priorities. The crisis, by its origins and constitution, made nonviolent intervention extremely difficult.

In retrospect, the key time to intervene nonviolently against Saddam Hussein was earlier in his rule, in the 1980s. The powerful 1980s peace movement, though, took little notice even of the Iraq-Iran war, preoccupied as it was with nuclear weapons. Another reason for the neglect of the Iraqi regime's excesses was the support given to it by a host of governments of all political persuasions. This support took the form of diplomatic recognition, exports of weapons and other equipment, and turning a blind eye to brutality and the use of chemical weapons.

The agenda in the 1980s for the dominant powers was to tolerate or encourage Saddam Hussein. The peace movement as a whole did not challenge this agenda. There were many things that could have been done in the 1980s to support the nonviolent opposition within Iraq: publicity, boycotts, rallies, communication networks, peace camps and peace brigades, and so on. But aside from the regular efforts of groups such as Amnesty International, little was done in this regard.

The implication of this analysis is that supporters of nonviolent struggle need to make much more effort to set the agenda for nonviolent intervention. Rather than putting almost all effort into promoting nonviolent defence in one's own country or into intervening elsewhere according to government-dominated agendas, there should be much more energy devoted to developing networks and ongoing campaigns to support nonviolent struggles in other countries according to criteria and priorities set by nonviolent activists.

Part of any challenge to repression and aggression in other countries must involve a challenge to governments, especially their diplomatic support of brutal regimes and their exports of arms and technologies of repression. This challenge can be called nonviolence against hypocrisy.

Initially, such efforts may not do a lot to challenge the dominant agenda. But until promoters of nonviolent struggle do more to set the agenda, they will be continually asked to solve problems at the wrong time and the wrong place. How much better it would be to take the initiative and help to provide solutions to problems that governments prefer to ignore.