British Peace Activists Find Many Ways to Challenge Iraq War

By Peter S Moore | 2005-04-01 12:00:00

British resistance to the war in Iraq is multiplying in numbers and tactics as the United Kingdom continues to be the United States' most stalwart ally. On January 10, British Defence Minister Geoff Hoon announced the deployment of 400 more soldiers in advance of the planned Iraqi national election.

However, not all British people agree with their government's foreign policy. From sticker campaigns, to withholding taxes, to sabotaging air base equipment, to death threats by an angry parent of soldiers in Iraq, the peace movement in Britain is trying many tactics to disrupt and defy the UK's war effort and occupation in Iraq.

The UK, under the leadership of "New Labour" Prime Minister Tony Blair, was the European champion for the call by US President George W. Bush to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein. The March 20, 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation revealed that Hussein, in fact, had no chemical or nuclear weapons, invalidating the invasion's primary justification to the public for the war. To date, 86 British soldiers have died in combat or in accidents since the start of the war.

Legal Pre-empt Attempt Against the War

Before the war, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), in coalition with public interest lawyers in Britain, tried to pre-empt the pre-emptive war with a January 22, 2003 letter warning Prime Minister Tony Blair not to engage in an illegal war.

"It is our clients' position that in present circumstances it appears likely that a decision by the UK government to use further force against Iraq without a specific Security Council authorization (which is as we write absent) will be a crime of aggression and, therefore, accordingly, a crime against peace," said the letter. It added that any violation could result in the prime minister's being brought to trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC). This court, founded on July 1, 2002, has the mandate to ensure that grave international crimes are tried and punished if a national government refuses to prosecute. The UK and Canada are parties to this court, but the US is not.

As the government did not heed the activists' warning, the group Peacerights filed a "Legal Inquiry Into Aspects of the Military Operations Against Iraq, 2003" with the ICC. It cited 8,000 deaths and 20,000 civilian injuries as direct consequences of the invasion up to May 1, 2003.

Street protests have continued even after the massive pre-war global demonstration against the war. On October 17, 2004, the estimated 30,000 participants of the European Social Forum in London joined locals to march against the war in Iraq and the occupation of Palestinian territory by Israel.

Sabotage for peace

Other Britons took a direct-action approach to stopping the war on Iraq.

Two members of peace group Trident Plough-shares became saboteurs on the night of March 13, 2003. Margaret Jones, 55, and Paul Milling, 57, slipped into Royal Air Force Fairford, a base for US B-52 bombers and other aircraft. Jones and Milling disabled a number of munitions loading trucks and fuel tankers in a bid to prevent or delay the use of the bombers. They were arrested in the act and claimed responsibility for damaging up to 30 vehicles. The US military valued the damage done by the two activists at £80,000 (C$184,000), according to The Guardian.

Five days later, Toby Olditch, 35, and Phil Pritchard, 33, sneaked through a fence and razorwire barrier at RAF Fairford before being arrested by police.

"I wanted to damage the weapons-guidance part of the plane," said Olditch in his legal support newsletter, B-52 Two.

Police also found and arrested a fifth person, Josh Richards, who tried to enter the base with incendiary materials he said were to be used to disable the bombers.

Together the five arrested, dubbed the Fairford Five by supporters, are arguing that their acts of property destruction were justifiable civil disobedience against an illegal war. The defendents are hoping that Parliament's 2003 vote to ratify the International Criminal Court statutes will empower the British courts to examine the government's foreign and defence policy. Their appeal to have this point decided is pending an appointment with the House of Lords.

Tax ResistEnce

The so-called Peace Tax Seven are conscientious objectors, four men and three women, from England and Wales, who have taken the British government to court for forcing them to pay taxes used to prepare or conduct warfare.

The seven range in ages from their mid-30s to 79 and include four Quakers, one Christian, and one Buddhist. They come from a variety of backgrounds, including a chartered accountant, author, psychiatrist and Green Party activist, toy company director, and university lecturer.

Each of the seven have individually challenged the New Labour government by calculating the percentage of their tax payments going to the British military and withholding that amount from Inland Revenue, the British version of Revenue Canada. Rather than not pay the tax, they have attempted to divert taxes to the government's health or international development services.

In each case, the sum of taxes withheld is relatively small, from about £310 (C$710) for Brenda Boughton to £572 (C$1,311) for Robin Brookes. The British Ministry of Defence has a public spending budget for this financial year of £34,302,708,000 (C$78.8 billion).

The defendents have requested a judicial review of their case and are working with public interest lawyers to respond to the government's insistence they do pay. British Treasury legal advisor Kevin Hart replied to their initial letter requesting a judicial review by classing it as not "a letter before action" requiring a legal response. He questioned the legitimacy of their complaints.

"It remains unclear what expenditure would and what would not be objectionable," he said, citing the use of the military in peacekeeping operations in Sierra Leone or anti-terrorism measures as examples. He also suggested that it was "something of a personal assumption" that a portion of an individual's tax money would be "automatically assigned for use solely or largely for military purposes rather than on spending in other areas." He ended the letter by suggesting that conscientious objectors could become subsidized free riders on public services "such as the defence of the realm."

The Peace Tax Seven are in the process of drafting a reply. They are supported by Conscience, a peace tax campaigning group that wants the government to pass a law that gives taxpayers the option of redirecting their funds to non-war purposes (Conscience Canada is its Canadian sister organization).

Death Threats

The newly-formed Military Families Against the War turned Armistice Day on November 11, 2004 into a day of protest by leaving a wreath and letter on the doorstep of Prime Minister Tony Blair's official residence in London.

The letter called on Blair's government to honor its side of the Oath of Allegiance sworn by people enlisting in the military, recognize it lied to start the war, and bring the troops home and hand responsibility for Iraq to the United Nations.

"To deploy these troops based on deceit of WMD [Weapons of Mass Destruction] is totally morally unacceptable. The blame lies firmly at your doorstep. This was a contrived war, a war of option not necessity," said the letter.

Reg Keys from Wales was one of the 10 people who signed and delivered the letter. His 20-year-old son, Lance-Corporal Thomas Keys, was killed in southern Iraq.

"We're not anti-army, we're not left-wing radicalists, we just want our boys back home safe," he told the British Broadcasting Corporation.

James Buchanan, father to two Black Watch soldiers, aged 27 and 24, also signed the letter. He threatened Geoff Hoon, the British defence secretary. "If I see him in the street I would kill him [sic]," he said. His sons' service was extended for the redeployment near Baghdad. The main body of the Black Watch 1st battalion returned to the UK on December 11-12, 2004, according to the Ministry of Defence website.

Stickers Against Military Recruitment

Peace activists, particularly in Scotland, have targeted military recruitment, too. Scotland has high unemployment and the military presents itself as an opportunity to poor youth to learn high-technology skills and see the world.

In November 2004, anonymous peace activists in Glasgow began using stickers that mimic British army recruiting publicity to discourage Scots from joining the military. The stickers show male soldiers in camouflage uniforms crouched in a green field under the headline: "Bored on Benefits? No money for a holiday? Who cares? London doesn't."

The stickers allege that Scottish soldiers continue to be "cannon fodder" for the army as they have in past wars. The stickers allege that 27 per cent of the Scots mobilized in World War I were killed as compared to 12 per cent for the rest of the United Kingdom and that Scots were one-third of the British dead during World War II. Most available accounts of British war casualties do not separate the origin of those killed and injured.

Six soldiers of the Scottish Black Watch died after being redeployed south of Baghdad so more US soldiers could attack Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah.

The impact of anti-recruitment campaigns such as this one and the daily news of casualties, primarily of soldiers from the US, is unknown. However, an article written by the Scotland editor of The Observer reported that "senior army commanders" fear the anti-war movement is making recruitment more difficult.

"There is no end in sight to the war in Iraq. That is what is really putting people off," said one source.

Peter S. Moore is a freelance writer based in Bradford, northern England. He can be contacted at

Further reading

B-52 Two


Conscience Canada

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

Fairford Five

Peace Tax Seven

UK Ministry of Defence, Operation Telic



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Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2005

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