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by Steve Whiting, Turning the Tide

Conscientious objection to participation in war is about claiming the human right to refuse to kill. It’s an individual statement of disassociation with injustice and violence.

This is where social change movements begin: with an individual decision, a disassociation based on conscience, conviction, empathy, insecurity, fear or a strong sense of what is just and fair.

Some of us might be happy with just making that stand on our own. Others try to change the thing they’re objecting to by joining with others who feel the same. From disassociation to association. But what do we do then? How do we convert the coming together of like-minded people into social action that brings about the change we want to see?

How change happens

Whatever the issue, effective social change movements and campaigns are characterised by good strategy, good communications, courage and successful ways of working across differences.

Those who objected to the 1914-18 war came together, they formed and organised through groups such as the No-Conscription Fellowship, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (and many other groups as well). It resulted in a vital clause being included in the 1916 Military Service Act that allowed for conscientious objection. This clause, added to a law about forcibly conscripting people into the armed forces, did not come about from goodwill or sympathy of the government, but through pressure of a strong and organised minority. Progressive change doesn’t always need a majority – just a critical mass. Current research suggests that just 3% of a population is the critical mass for change.

When we are working for social change today, it is vital to see our efforts in this context. It’s good to sign an e-petition, join a national protest march, or help with a stall in our local town. But it’s really important that we see what role this plays in the wider strategy for change. Am I really making a difference, or just doing something that makes me feel better? Do I know what other activities are supporting this change, what else is needed?

As well as challenging a current situation, all social change movements need an understanding that part of the change process is about building the alternative that will eventually take over. Gandhi had a Constructive Programme to replace the oppression of British rule. He said: ‘be the change you wish to see in the world.’ If we want a nonviolent world, we cannot mimic the habits and behaviours of this one. We must learn nonviolence in our thoughts and actions, and this requires guidance, support and practice.

So, what next for Conscientious Objection?

Is the job done? Well, no actually. On to the next phase.

Conscripted military service is still continues in many other countries. And, as the technology of warfare moves on, we find that the UK military no longer needs to conscript our bodies to fight in the trenches. Instead, our tax money is conscripted. So the resistance continues into another generation, and the movement needs support:

Conscience: taxes for peace not war, campaigns for a progressive increase in the amount of UK tax spent on peace-building, and a corresponding decrease in the amount spent on war and preparation for war. They also campaign for the legal right of those with a conscientious objection to war to have the entire military part of their taxes spent on peacebuilding.

War Resisters International‘s Right to Refuse to Kill programme combines a wide range of activities to support conscientious objectors individually, as well as organised groups and movements for conscientious objection.


Image: From Wool Against Weapons action 9 August 2014. Credit: Flickr | Cowboy George

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