Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Too Soon the Laureate

One word leaps to mind in considering the Nobel Committee’s announcement yesterday that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize would be awarded to President Barack Obama:  premature.  Alfred Nobel’s will was very clear on who could nominate someone for the peace prize (members of national parliaments or congresses, political science or philosophy faculty in universities, and persons who have already won the prize) and who would determine (in secret) the recipient (a committee formed by the Norwegian Storting or Parliament but whose members cannot include sitting members of the Storting or the Norwegian government).  But Nobel’s will (largely because he wrote it without legal help, distrusting lawyers) is notoriously vague on the criteria for winning the Peace Prize.  This has led to a wide variety of Nobel Peace Laureates in the century plus of the award–from pacifists and peace activists, human rights activists, to politicians and diplomats from many countries, to organizations that work for peace in a wide variety of ways.  The award has been given for diplomatic efforts leading to the end of wars and to signing of peace treaties. It has been given for relief work in the midst of war (e.g., the International Red Cross and Crescent Societies, Doctors Without Borders, etc.), for aid to refugees. It has been given for efforts in arms reduction, or to nonviolent social movements, and for efforts to eliminate major causes of war and violence such as poverty, ethnic or religious conflict, or environmental threats.

But the vagueness of criteria for the recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize has led to some very odd choices:  most notoriously when former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and North Vietnam’s chief negotiator Lu Duc Tho (neither a person of peace) were awarded the Prize jointly for negotiations toward ending the Vietnam War.  Lu Duc Tho became the only person in history to turn down the Nobel Peace Prize saying, rightly, that no peace had been achieved and that the talks were breaking down. Another time the Nobel Committee made an embarrassing choice designed to encourage a peace process was when they jointly awarded the prize to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat.  Both Rabin and Arafat had previous histories as terrorists and some argued that Arafat had not yet abandoned that role.  One member of the Nobel committee quit in protest.

The selection President Obama is not that bizarre.  In fact, if his ambitious foreign policy agenda is successful at any of his peacemaking goals:  a just two-state peace between Israel and Palestine, reversing the nuclear arms race, etc., then I fully expected that he might be a future Nobel Laureate.  But this seems, at best, premature  –even to Pres. Obama to judge from his reaction.  Yes, he has stopped U.S. torture, although failing so far to hold any of the torturers accountable and pushing for the continuation of the practices of indefinite detention without trial (for some al Qaeda members that the administration believes guilty of crimes but cannot prosecute because the evidence was obtained by torture under the Bush regime) and rendition.  But the prison at Guantanemo Bay is not yet closed and the “detainees” have not been either tried in regular courts or released.  Yes, he has begun the slow ending of the occupation of Iraq, but most of our troops are still there.  Yes, he wants to restart the Israel-Palestinian peace process, but has failed so far to get Israel to stop building new settlements or get Palestinian factions to reconcile with each other or stop stockpiling weapons for future attacks against Israel–nothing has yet happened.  Yes, we are scheduled to have nuclear arms reduction talks with Russia–but they haven’t yet taken place.  He has expanded the war in Afghanistan and started an undeclared one in Pakistan with predator drones.  He wants a new engagement with Iran that leads to their abandoning of their nuclear weapons ambitions and, eventually, to the first resumption of U.S.-Iranian diplomatic ties since 1979–but no progress has yet been made and recently he seemed to imply a willingness to bomb suspected Iranian nuclear plants.

The hawkish Obama has proceeded apace, but the Obama who dreams of peacemaking has yet to move from hope to actual change.  Thus, I call this award premature, and Obama himself calls it “a call to action.”  That, I suggest, is how peace activists from around the world should react–not by mocking or condemning this choice, but by using it as moral leverage in encouraging real peacemaking from this administration.  As filmmaker Michael Moore said yesterday, “Congratulations, Mr. President–now go out and earn it.”  That should be the unanimous note of peace activists–encouraging this president to live into the award that he does not (yet) deserve.

Later this weekend, I will email the White House with this message and a list of suggested actions that Pres. Obama can take between now and the formal presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize in December that will act as steps toward fulfilling that “call to action.”

  • Announce that the U.S. will “re-sign” the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty “unsigned” by former Pres. Bush.  Since the legality of “unsigning” a ratified treaty is murky (and unprecedented!) under both U.S. and international law, I doubt that this would even need ratification by the U.S. Senate–but with 60 Democratic Senators, such ratification should be pro forma.
  • Announce that the U.S. will “re-sign” the Treaty of Rome that authorized the creation of the International Criminal Court and will join the ICC instead of continuing the Bush-era attempts to evade the ICC’s jurisdiction.  Joining will require Senate confirmation, and some will balk out of fear that the ICC might attempt to try members of the Bush admin. for war crimes related to torture and rendition if the U.S. does not prosecute them, but Obama should take that risk.
  • Sign the International Treaty Banning Landmines.  The U.S. is one of the few democratic holdouts even though American Jody Williams (who won the Nobel for her efforts) founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.  Even many famous generals around the globe support this since landmines are of limited military value in war, but continue to kill and maim civilians long after wars are officially over.
  • Sign the Treaty Against Child Soldiers.  Former Pres. Bush refused because he wanted the U.S. to still be able to have 17 year olds in the military–but out military will hardly crumble without them.  And this treaty gives some teeth to efforts to stop the kidnapping and forced induction of adolescent and pre-adolescent children into both government and rebel armies–most notoriously by the so-called “Lord’s Resistance Army” in Uganda.
  • Announce an increased pace of the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq.
  • Announce an end to use of the predator drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan because of the enormous loss of civilian life.
  • Deny General McChrystal’s request for additional troops in Afghanistan. Freeze at current levels while re-thinking Afghanistan–seeking a new way forward.
  • Announce that the U.S. will unilaterally reduce its nuclear weapons by 10% across the board. We need MUCH deeper cuts around the globe, but this unilateral step could jump-start the talks with Russia and show the world that you are serious about reversing the nuclear arms race. It could be a transforming initiative that invites similar moves on the part of others.

Beyond these steps, the way grows harder and must include cooperation from both Congress and international partners.  Grassroots peace and human rights organizations should do our part by supporting the actions the Obama administration takes for peace, praising them, and encouraging more and criticizing steps in the wrong direction.  Also, not waiting for governments or prizes, we need to continue our own, independent, actions for peace.

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October 10, 2009 Posted by | foreign policy, human rights., Iran, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, peacemaking | 12 Comments

A Brief Note on Violence and Taxation

In order that we can proceed this weekend to the next post on the biblical basis of Christian pacifism, I am briefly going to respond to a challenge that pacifists must either be inconsistent, incoherent, or they must advocate a purely voluntary system of taxation by governments.  The argument is that taxation is backed up by the threat of violence and therefore, to be consistent, pacifists must oppose it.

But, remember, we have distinguished violence, from force, and coercion.  Governments have many tools of coercion available for enforcement apart from violence.  To use the U.S. as an example, the Internal Revenue Service need not hold guns to the heads of taxpayers to get them to pay their taxes.  They can, for instance, garnish wages until back taxes are paid.  Alternatively, the IRS could put a lien against someone’s home or other property until the taxes are paid.  These are coercive actions, but they aren’t violent.

Now, it may be true, that governments reserve violence as a final coercive measure to enforce taxation (and every other law), but that does not mean that it must do so.  Pacifist need not be anarchists to be consistent.  A pacifist who believes in government and the necessity of taxation need not be inconsistent or to argue for purely voluntary taxation.  All such pacifists need do to be consistent is argue that governments use less-than-violent forms of coercion.  Whether or not governments listen is another story.

Later this weekend, I’ll give the next installment in my biblical case for Christian pacifism.  I’d appreciate if the comments and challenges to my view stick with the biblical arguments until the end.  If we keep getting sidetracked to deal with such questions in the midst of the biblical case, we’ll never get anywhere.  I will try to answer some such questions at the end.

October 10, 2009 Posted by | pacifism, taxes, violence | 1 Comment