Unity for Peace Conference injects energy into the Australian anti-war movement

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The Unity for Peace Conference, held in Melbourne on 27 May, attracted nearly 300 activists from around the country to discuss strategies for the movement. Alison Thorne, who represented the Freedom Socialist Party, assesses the conference.

Delegates from 80 organisations and individual anti-war activists filled the hall at the Maritime Union for a day of rousing anti-war speeches. The crowd was responding to a call to relaunch the anti-war movement in Australia, which conference organiser David Glanz described as “punching below its weight.” However, he asserted: “simply by coming here, we have proved that there is a peace movement.” The conference pulled together a diverse range of international and local speakers with the ambitious goal of forging a movement stronger than the total of its parts.

Global guests. International guests were a big drawcard and enriched the conference with their insights. A pre-conference public meeting on 25 May had drawn 500 people to hear doctor Salam Ismael from Doctors for Iraq and U.S. activist Cindy Sheehan from Gold Star Families for Peace. Both also addressed the conference.

Ismael made the horror of war and occupation very real through both his stories and pictorial presentation. He had lived through the destruction of the city of Fallujah and treated the injured. He said that he would never forget the trauma of having to amputate limbs without anaesthesia in order to save lives.

Ismael and six other young doctors formed an organisation called Doctors for Iraq. It now has 250 members across the country. He described the group as comprising Sunni, Shia, Christian and secular people.

According to Ismael, privatisation is rife in Iraq since the invasion, and the country is a profiteer’s dream with the trading of medicines and medical instruments on the open market. The once high-quality public health system collapsed, with those who can afford it now seeking treatment outside the country. In the last year, occupation forces have attacked at least 20 hospitals.

U.S. mother of four, Cindy Sheehan, became an anti-war activist after her son, Casey, was killed in Iraq. Someone from the Mahdi Army, led by Moqtada al Sadr, killed Casey. But she is very clear who is to blame and set up camp outside George Bush’s Texas ranch to demand that he be held to account. She believes the Iraqi people have the right to resist the invasion.

Sheehan puts the case simply and clearly. George Bush argues that the U.S. is in Iraq for a noble cause: “spreading corporate colonialism, controlling people’s oil fields is not a noble cause,” she asserted.

War at home. Another strength of the conference was the focus on understanding how the Howard Government’s anti-terror laws are designed to chill dissent and create a climate of fear and division that must be defied.

There was strong representation from peace activists in the Muslim community. Keysar Trad from the Islamic Friendship Association denounced the neo-conservatives who have created an agenda of xenophobia and Islamaphobia. He outlined how the Howard Government demonises Aborigines, refugees and Muslims.

Tasneem Chopra, the Chair of the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council of Victoria, pointed out that “Muslims have unequivocally denounced terrorism in its many forms but continue to be subject to increased surveillance and suspicion as a consequence of these laws.”

Anas Altikriti, spokesperson for the Muslim Association of Britain, described how similar laws are being used in Britain. He argued that we must stand firm: “if one individual’s rights are violated, we must all stand up collectively for that person’s rights simply because we will be standing up for our own futures.”

Kevin Bracken, the Victorian State Secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), agrees: “It wasn’t a coincidence that the same week they brought in the WorkChoices legislation here, they also brought in another raft of anti-terrorism legislation. Will they use that anti-terrorism legislation on us? You bet they will!”

Bracken drew on the MUA’s long history of resisting war. Most famously, in 1938, after Japan had invaded China, waterside workers refused to load pig iron onto a ship bound for Japan. During the Vietnam War maritime workers refused to ship armaments to be used against the Vietnamese people.

Bracken’s speech made powerful connections. He explained that peace is union business, because “it’s workers who fight wars.” Several unions sent delegates to the conference. Melanie Lazarow, representing the Melbourne University Branch of the National Tertiary Education Union, urged the peace movement to get out on the streets and be part of the mass union and community rallies planned for 28 June. At the conference, a steering committee was formed and promptly published an anti-war leaflet for the rally. This put the case for unionists to mobilise to stop the war.

Debate is not a dirty word. Conference organisers should feel pleased by the diversity of participants. Glanz said that they were “committed to making the conference process open, broad and inclusive.”

Unfortunately this did not extend to sufficient time for, or encouragement of, debate. The decision-making session was also very disappointing, as delegates were restricted to casting indicative votes on proposals which were not even explained.

This was the result of a mechanical approach by the organisers to the question of how to achieve unity. Glanz told the conference, “we all had to give up a little on our favourite issues or language or proposals to make this work. But in the end, a united front built on respect and around a focus on what unites, rather than what divides us, makes us all stronger.”

This approach fails to recognise that debate around different views, if conducted in a democratic manner and resolved with a majority vote, will strengthen a movement by clarifying issues.

Conference speakers took positions on many questions that were not addressed in the final statement. For example, many came out in favour of the right of the Iraqi people to resist the occupation. However, the conference statement fudged on this question, stating weakly that occupation causes unrest and resistance, but making no commitment to support this resistance.

Anna Sampson, from the Sydney Stop the War Coalition, gave a thoughtful contribution as part of the Rebuilding the Peace Movement panel. She argued that Australia plays a deputy sheriff role in the Pacific region and gave the example of Australian troops being sent to the Solomon Islands and East Timor. Sampson argued for the anti-war movement to work out where it stands on these regional developments. But there was no debate on this key question, and the conference statement merely expressed “concern” about “increasing militarisation” and “the build-up of foreign troops in the Middle-East, Asia and Oceania.”

Sampson called for the movement to draw links between the war profiteers and what is happening at home. She stressed that the movement needs to focus more on who is funding the war and in whose interests they are acting. On this issue, despite excellent contributions by keynote speakers, the conference statement was, again, disappointing.

Sampson hit the nail on the head when she concluded that unity is important but that sometimes, in the name of unity, vital questions get buried. She argued that we need to have these discussions. The Freedom Socialist Party agrees with Sampson and thinks a national conference of anti-war activists was the place to have these debates. Burying debate in the name of unity was an opportunity missed.

Don’t attack Iran. Despite the attempt to minimise debate, a range of views hit the conference floor on Iran. Roya Sharaei, an Iranian women’s rights activist, gave a thought-provoking presentation about the need to back those struggling for democratic rights in Iran (see page 9). In a workshop session, debate around the threats to Iran revealed sharply contrasting positions. Some objected strenuously to labelling the Teheran government a “regime” and tried to sugar coat the reactionary theocracy with progressive credentials. Others argued that there is no need to take a position on the nature of the government, saying that the only issue was building a movement in opposition to the invasion of Iran.

In the discussion, Sharaei and Sara Poya — from Action Iran — outlined how pro-war groups in Iran and elsewhere are trying to hijack the democratic rights movements for pro-war purposes. For example, the U.S. Administration is working to create pro-war “feminist” groups in Iran. Poya said “Iranians are critical of their government, but they are more critical of the U.S.” She argued that Iranians would choose Teheran over U.S. invasion.

FSP considers that support for those in Iran who are struggling for democratic rights, including the huge feminist movement and the lively worker and student movements, is crucial in forging the anti-war movement. The movement must be openly critical of the Iranian government and its treatment of women, workers, national minorities, gays and lesbians and the democratic rights movement. This means mobilising solidarity with those in Iran who are mounting their own challenge to the mullahs. And it means exposing the hypocrisy of the U.S. which threatens to invade Iran on the basis of the absurd claim that only the empire and its allies have a right to any form of nuclear power.

Get out of your comfort zone. The best thing achieved by the conference was that it injected energy and optimism into the movement. Sheehan was the perfect speaker to do this.

In Australia, the majority of the population is opposed to the war in Iraq. But most believe they cannot make a difference. Sheehan’s message is we can! She argued that “it is not just enough to be against the war. You’ve got to get out and do something.”

She described how she was violently ripped out of her own comfort zone on the 4th of April 2004 when Casey was killed. She said poignantly, “I will never be comfortable again.” But, she pointed out, the people of Iraq do not have a comfort zone they can retreat to.

And with the war in Iraq linked to the war on working people at home, the comfort zones are rapidly shrinking here.

Sheehan stressed that the corporations want us to care more about a football game than the war. “Turn off the footy match and go out and make a difference. My job is to inspire you to wake up and take action.” She said, “Casey died to get this mother to turn off the TV and go out and make a difference.”

Mark August 6 in your diary for the Hiroshima Day anti-war rally endorsed by the conference. Plan to help organise and build rallies and events during the September week of action called by the European Social Forum to prevent an attack on Iran.

And get active, make a difference! But there is no need to do it on your own. Join an organisation. Check out the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women.

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