Comments on Shanti Sahyog's International Campaign for Nonviolence

Published in Civilian-Based Defense, Vol. 9, Nos. 3 & 4, Autumn/Winter 1994, p. 4  (pdf of article)

Brian Martin

The Shanti Sahyog's campaign is ambitious, to say the least. It aims to achieve major government initiatives towards nonviolent defence by November 1996 and, if these initiatives are not forthcoming, to start indefinite vigils around national legislatures until they are. While I am in full agreement with the campaign about the ultimate goal of promoting the use of nonviolent action as an alternative to war, I have some reservations about the methods and goals proposed for the campaign. Since the areas of agreement will be familiar to readers of Civilian-Based Defense, I'll focus on the reservations. Naturally these comments should be treated as friendly dialogue. My comments are based on the account of the campaign given in the Spring/Summer 1994 issue of Civilian-Based Defense.

The international campaign is very much a grassroots effort, promoted by numerous individuals and small nongovernment organisations. However, the focus of this grassroots effort is governments. Each of the five demands is for government action: for governments to sponsor 6 April as an international day for nonviolence; for governments to allocate one day of military spending for nonviolence spending each year; for governments to introduce a component of civilian-based defence in national defence systems; for governments to allow soldiers to choose to be trained in either violent defence or nonviolent defence; and for taxpayers to be given the choice of directing the defence fraction of their taxes to either violent or nonviolent defence.

The campaign is centered around mobilising people to make demands for government action. Some advantages of this approach are that it is familiar to demand government action, that the goals are clear and that the method of achieving the goals is standard in all countries.

Unfortunately, there are big problems in a strategy based on making demands on governments. Governments are only one element in the war system, which is built around the state system (including state bureaucracies and militaries, among other things, as well as governments), arms manufacture and trade, patriarchy and military technology. The war system is deeply embedded in society through popular beliefs (such as about national superiority and about aggression), child rearing and schooling, centralized communication systems, and economic systems that allow extraction of resources for military and other state purposes. Governments are not likely to take actions that strongly challenge other elements of the war system. To challenge the war system, change needs to happen at a number of different sites, not just at the government level.

In practical terms, most governments are likely to ignore the campaign. Their next step is to initiate studies. As the studies proceed over the years, grassroots energy is likely to fade away. A few symbolic gestures or concessions might be taken which could give the illusion of success without changing the driving forces behind war, just as the atmospheric test ban treaty in 1963 helped to deflate the peace movement without noticeably slowing the nuclear arms race.

Several of the campaign's demands, even if satisfied, leave control over nonviolent defence largely in government hands. To introduce a nonviolent defence component as part of a national military system is likely to put the nonviolent component in a subordinate and probably minor role, as it is in Sweden. It might be better to argue for an independent nonviolent defence structure. To argue for soldiers to have the choice of being trained in nonviolent defence sounds good, but sits poorly with a key element of the military system, namely obedience to command. Nonviolent action, after all, is based on sticking to principles and defying authorities. Again, it makes much more sense to remove training for nonviolent action from control by the military.

The timetable for significant successes is far too short. Clear short-term goals can be valuable, but they should be achievable. It would be amazing for any major government to agree to all the demands by 1996. The indefinite protest around government legislatures sounds good, but what if too few people are available to maintain it? If it fizzles out, what next? What will be the effect on the morale of participants?

An international campaign should be flexible and be responsive to local conditions. There is much to be learned from past and current campaigns, such as initiatives in Austria to teach social defence to conscientious objectors, in Italy to allow taxpayers to divert taxes for popular nonviolent defence, and in the Netherlands to set up groups to promote social defence in various sectors of society. An international campaign should also be participatory, with input from those involved determining goals and methods.

The value of the campaign as presently conceived lies mostly in the grassroots action it involves. Even if governments do not respond, people will have taken action and the idea of nonviolent alternatives to the military will become more widely known. For example, signature campaigns often act more to increase popular awareness, among both the signers and the campaigners, than to change government policies. (Care is needed in compiling computerized lists of signatories. Police and spy agencies may be interested!)

Personally, I would like to see this sort of campaign redirected away from governments and towards a range of nongovernment groups, such as churches, trade unions, solidarity groups, feminist groups and so forth. In each case, there are links between the group's goals and the goal of nonviolent defence. For example, workers who acquire the skills to resist an aggressor will also be better able to mobilize against impositions by employers. Since such groups are less tightly hooked into the war system than are governments, there is a greater chance of forging lasting links. Even so, the task is far from easy. The vested interests associated with the war system are enormous. A long-term campaign is needed, but how best to promote it is not obvious. At the very least, the experiences of the Shanti Sahyog campaign will provide useful lessons for future activists.

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