Speech for Raising Peace event: LEE RHIANNON 20 September 2020
I do acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay tribute to their history, their culture and their ongoing struggles for justice in the face of the many crimes that continue to be perpetrated against First Nations peoples.
Thank you for the invitation to join today’s seminar on “Raising the peace” held to mark both the United Nations International Peace Day and the 100th anniversary of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and International Volunteers for Peace.
The first marches to mark International Peace Day where held in Sydney in the early 1980s. I was working with the Union of Australian Women at the time and together with WILPF we organised some excellent events. So it warms my heart to see this important occasion still being celebrated.
I congratulate both WILPF and IVP for reaching 100 years. It is not easy keeping an organisation going and to do so for ten decades is fantastic. Advocating for world peace is vital, essential and tough work.
I am often asked how do we rebuild the peace movement. I am old enough to remember the great days when the peace movement brought more than 100,000 onto our streets. This was in the 1980s when our call for nuclear disarmament rang out loud and strong. There is no simple answer to this question – how we rebuild the peace movement – but I am sure that having conversations like what WILPF and IVP have organised today are a key part of building the awareness of why our call for disarmament and world peace needs to be a demand of all progressive movements.
In my talk today I will cover issues to do with the military industrial complex, current conflict hot spots, and if building world peace is compatible with capitalism. I will also offer some thoughts on the status of the peace movement in today’s world.
Politics has its complexities. Our campaigns can gain support from unexpected quarters. The then US President, Dwight Eisenhower, three days before he handed over to the incoming President, John Kennedy, gave a most significant speech that is critical of the military industrial complex. This was in January 1961.
This is a speech any of us would have been in the main happy to give. Eisenhower warns against the plundering of the earth’s resources; he expresses concerns about the cost of armaments; and how funding for the military robs money from education and health programs. He highlights the threat of the military acquiring unwarranted influence.
To share with you one quote from this speech. The former President said
“…we must learn how to compose differences not with arms but with intellect and decent purpose”.
Eisenhower’s words ring with common sense and a lot of humanity. The fact that Eisenhower took on the military industrial complex is significant. The union of defence contractors and the armed forces is formidable. The large armaments industries profit and benefit from their close relationship with the military establishment.
Eisenhower went to the heart of what we are facing – that is the huge growth in companies that make billions and billions of dollars in profits out of the threat of war and by waging war.
That speech was delivered at the start of the 1960s. This decade is a turbulent time for the world. The Cold War is building. Things are tough for peace activists, but the movement for world peace continued to grow despite the dirty tactics of powerful forces in the West. It is hard to believe but at this time “peace” was a dirty word for many – supporting the peace movement was equated with supporting communism. What might seem ridiculous to us now shows the success of the propaganda backed by certain governments and corporate interests that wanted to discredit the voice for peace. How our forebears in the peace movement stood up to these attacks is something we can take inspiration from.
Fast forward to 1989. The socialist countries in Eastern Europe collapse. What we have seen since then is that the military industrial complex, which was initially justified on the basis that the West had to stop the rise of socialism, has continued to expand – military budgets, missile numbers and the power of the armed forces have all grown to a level that is obscene.
Let’s remember when we have these discussions we need to acknowledge the level of suffering that war and preparations for war causes. More than one hundred million people died in wars in the 20th century. In this century, 20 years into the 21st century, hundreds of thousands of people have died. These figures are a stark reminder of the importance of our work for world peace. Wars rob us of lives and also of funding for the essential services that everyone has a right to and wars also destroy our precious environment.
One more comment about Eisenhower – he was a five star general, he was no liberal. He was very committed to building a capitalist country. Eisenhower’s positions on military industrial complexes reveals the contradictions within capitalism that can help drive change. I don’t think that capitalism is compatible with building world peace because the profit motive is so strong as shown by companies that make up the military industrial complex, like Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and Boeing. For ordinary people like ourselves it is impossible to imagine the power these companies wield when they go to Washington and other world capitals to do their lobbying to win contracts and to sell weapons officially and on the black market.
The military industrial complex is always looking for ways to promote their hardware arguing that their weapons are needed to fight the latest war. This is a very ugly business — some companies promote these weapons of control and death as “field tested”. This is a favoured tactic of the Israeli government that promotes its weapons in that way. That is they are advertising their weapons as a great buy because they have been tested on Palestinians. This sales pitch is working for Israel, which is now the main supplier of armaments to the Modi government in India. This is one of the extreme ways that the military industrial complex operates.
So how do we respond to this power imbalance and to the domination of the military industrial complex. Can we feel a sense of hope when we are up against such formidable forces whose profits and very existence is based on death and destruction.
I do take hope from the social movements around the world including in the US, which has active progressive groups. Many work hard to expose the shocking aspects of war and historically there have been some significant acts that help to shift the narrative away from a pro-military stance.
In the first 150 years of its existence the US maintained a very small standing army. When war was declared additional men were mobilised and after the war they were sent home. This is different from what we have now with endless numbers of military personnel loaded up with state of the art weapons along with submarines, aircraft carriers, drones, etc. Cutting back on the size of our military budget and the number of personnel needs to be a priority of the peace movement.
Another example my research turned up is an inquiry into the relationship between profit and war created by the US Congress in the 1930s. A panel was set up to investigate if “the removal of the element of profit from war would unilaterally remove the danger of more war”. I have not seen the full report but reading about this work gave me the idea of how good it would be if today’s governments would set up similar inquiries. It is excellent to know that in the 1930s good people were exploring the problematic ways companies operate when it comes to war. I was encouraged by this information as it takes us to the heart of the problem – companies making profits out of war efforts.
Tragically there are many hot spots around the world and our region is close to two major conflicts. The Morrison government is taking an aggressive stance when it comes to Australia’s dealings with China. Our actions and commentary are becoming more belligerent. Australia has moved back to becoming an active deputy sheriff to the US, a role we have held since the second world war.
Recently two Australian ministers, Senators Marise Payne and Linda Reynolds, went to the US to speak about China with the Trump administration. On returning to Australia Minister Payne strongly emphasised that Australia under Prime Minister Morrison does not blindly follow what the US wants and that we have our own voice on foreign affairs. Journalists reiterated these claims, reporting this as a new era where Australia was deciding its own foreign policy and not the US. This is clearly wrong. The Morrison government did exactly what the Trump forces wanted. Two Australian Ministers flew to the US had talks with their counterparts and did a press conference effectively spruiking the China is bad line with rhetoric not dissimilar from what regularly comes out of the White House.
Prior to this Australia had sent naval vessels for exercises in the South China Sea. Sending the Australian navy into this region is a highly provocative act. Imagine if China did this off Sydney Harbour. I am not excusing China. They are in conflict with Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and other Asian countries about disputed territories in the South China Sea.
Our peace groups need to find ways to amplify our voice about the dangerous path the Australian government is pursuing when it comes to China. Surely an Australian government should be acting to reconcile differences or at least to turn down the heat on what is a volatile situation. We should be a peace maker rather than perpetuating the narrative that China alone is the problem. This is the path we should take rather than adding our voice and our naval vessels into this dangerous mix. At all times Australia should be the voice of moderation and reason – that is what a responsible government should do.
It was not always like this. About ten years ago China was the flavour of the month in Australia because of all the trade deals. But this has changed. I think the change is driven in part by xenophobic attitudes, the rise of the extreme right in the Liberal Party and the fact that some conservatives want to use anti-China rhetoric to try and win votes. It is very dangerous to use conflict to try and consolidate power.
On another conflict – the Middle East situation is deteriorating. We have the ridiculous situation that Trump and his son-in-law claim they have “the deal of the century” for this region. Yes Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are on board. But that is nothing new. They have been working with the US and Israel for years. The Trump plan will not bring peace to the region. Palestinians are still being denied their land and their homes. Peace without justice is not possible while Netanyahu and Trump are in power. Trump is using this issue to try and make out he is a world statesman in the hope that it will help him win votes in the coming US presidential election.
We also need to mention our own neighbourhood and here I am referring to the subcontinent. Many of us on the east coast forget that India and the nations of that region are our neighbours. Right now that is an area of serious conflict. China, India and Pakistan are involved in territorial disputes and they are all nuclear powers.
The Modi government in India is driving much of the conflict because of it obsession with turning India into a Hindu nationalist nation. The suffering of Dalit and Muslims is tragic. Kashmir has been taken over and is now ruled from Delhi. Internet services have been blocked and curfews limit people’s movements. What is particularly worrying is that this region is the most highly militarised region in the world. When India took control of Kashmir in August 2019 they put in an additional 30,000 troops. That takes the total number of Indian troops on active duty to more than 800,000. This is a ruthless occupation by India.
We need to compare how the Morrison government handles India with regard to how they treat their citizens with the actions of China. With China our government pushes a hard line on human rights violations. I am not arguing against that position. Australia has a regular
human rights dialogue with the Chinese authorities and the issue comes up in some trade agreements.
However, when it comes to India there are no discussions between the Australian and Indian Prime Ministers on human rights.
Latin America also remains a conflict zone. We hear little about this region in Australia but let’s remember the Trump regime recently sent mercenaries into Venezuela because they do not like the politics of that country. Many regimes in Latin America are moving towards fascism. Some are very close to Trump. This is another region that deserves our attention and acts of support for the progressive forces.
So the big question – how do we revive peace as a political issue and in time rebuild a broad based peace movement.
I think it is crucial that we embed the quest for world peace into the global struggles for economic, racial and gender justice. Peace is not a quest on its own we need to recognise, understand and develop the links between these struggles.
If we imagine a world of peace we are imagining a world of justice and equality; a world without racism and sexism; a world where women have independence and full rights; and all peoples have full rights. I think this is what we imagine.
Don’t get me wrong. We still need organisations like WILPF, IPAN and IVP, local peace groups and ICAN – and all the wonderful international campaigns, liked the campaign to abolish nuclear weapons. These need to be central to our work.
Our peace and anti-nuclear groups have a vital role to play in building the peace narrative into our struggles for a just, equitable and peaceful world.