26 August 2006

Let’s hear it for the tree-huggers!

By Marguerite Finn

How does one make the sudden transition from being a retired civil servant to a tree-hugging hippy? Quite simple really. I was walking along a footpath near the RAF air base at Mildenhall the other day, with a placard protesting against flights carrying arms to the Middle East, when a passing female jogger accosted me with the words; "You god-damn tree-huggin' hippy". This was a change from the usual empty-headed shouts of "Get a job" or "Get a Life" and it set me thinking about the very different perceptions people can have of the same issue. To the jogger, my calling for the cessation of arms shipments that fuel the conflict in the Middle East, was worthy only of derision.

Protest at the Mildenhall RAF base To me, her reaction was as incomprehensible as her chosen insult – because I believe we should all be working for a peaceful world and, as far as I am aware, tree-hugging hippies everywhere share that aim and are usually gentle and sensitive souls. Being compared to one is quite a compliment! We are, after all, still just over half-way through the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World (2001-2010) – although the young victims of the recent slaughter in Lebanon may not have known it.

There has been much Prime-ministerial rhetoric in recent months about "values" but the international community had already signed up to a set of values: "that reject violence and prevent conflicts by tackling their root causes to solve problems through dialogue and negotiation" (UN Resolutions A/RES/52/13) when signing up to the Culture of Peace. Ironically, the UN General Assembly reaffirmed the Culture of Peace on 20 November 2003 – notwithstanding the US/UK attack on Iraq without a UN mandate the previous March.

No one said then – or since - "We can not go to war because this is the Decade for the Culture of Peace".

Protest at the Mildenhall RAF baseWars are fuelled by the arms trade. In 2003, world military spending soared to a staggering $956 billion – nearly half of that spent by the USA on the 'war on terror'. Yet it is now being suggested by some military analysts that there is no longer any point in seeking a quick bold military solution by finding The 'Big Enemy' and bashing him to bits. Strategic victory requires the changing of hearts and minds because of the 'communal' nature of modern warfare – where the enemy's structure and support comes not from the state but from the community.

Are we, perhaps, at the first of the three stages that Schopenhauer identified as happening to many truths, namely: "First it is ridiculed, second it is violently opposed, third it is accepted as self-evident?" If so, we can be cautiously optimistic that even the most intractable barriers can be overcome. One way to move on from the notion of 'perpetual war' is to stop shipping arms to the combatants. There are guidelines in place to help – but double standards are being applied. For example, Britain is currently selling arms and technology to 19 of the 20 nations the UK's own Foreign and Commonwealth Office lists as "countries of major concern". Israel is on that list – yet from January 2005 to March 2006, the UK sold Tel Aviv weapons worth £27.25 million. In the same period, more than £1 million of UK weaponry was sold to Lebanon.

Protest at the Mildenhall RAF baseEarlier this month a cross-party committee of Westminster MPs criticised the government for breaking its own guidelines on the sale of arms to Israel. The guidelines say that export licenses should not be given if there is a "clear risk" that the military products would be used to "provoke or prolong armed conflict or aggravate existing tensions or conflicts."

MPs are doing exactly what they were elected for, asking awkward questions about what the government's policy actually means and how is it implemented. If the sale of arms to Israel is unlawful, is Britain complicit in breaches of international law by Israel? A spirit of optimism was never more needed than now. Our Peacekeeping forces come under increasing pressure to perform miracles. I say our Peacekeeping forces because we are the UN. Political commentators frequently refer to the United Nations as though it were a disconnected colossus floating in outer space. Instead, there is an increasing emphasis on the role that civil society can play in the United Nations. Globalisation makes us all 'global citizens' who can play an active, informed role in civil events. That is why I was at Mildenhall with my 'tree-hugging' placard: to object to the carnage taking place in the Middle East.