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Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Number 182: September 2010

The news about Fr James Chesney’s purported involvement in the Claudy bombings of July 1972, which killed 5 Catholics and 4 Protestants in Northern Ireland, is one which raises all sorts of questions about the churches, society, and the nature of guilt. Clean hands are a luxury in a divided society like Northern Ireland but for a man who has followed a spiritual calling to be involved in the deaths of children and adults is hard for some to accept or understand, and even more difficult for the families of victims.

There are different kinds of guilt, and sometimes doubt about key facts. Chesney denied involvement to his bishop but is said to have confessed to a fellow priest that he did participate in the car bombings (which went off without warning when the bombers could not find a working phone box). Since he died a considerable time ago there is no opportunity for him to say yes, no, or but.

Whoever the bombers were, they were guilty of killing, and guilty of depriving families of their loved ones in the most tragic of circumstances. It should not have happened. But it did. If it was Bloody Sunday in Derry which drove the Claudy bombers to do what they did, what responsibility is borne by those who, directly or indirectly, caused Bloody Sunday to happen? This was likely part of a chain of violence, a chain stretching backwards and forwards over several decades. It is easy to get caught up in such a chain, and breaking this kind of chain requires courage, patience and often good luck.

The dark days of the early 1970s was when Northern Ireland looked into the abyss – and, for whatever reason, emerged without falling completely in. People on both sides felt they had to act, for reasons which may have felt moral but which may also have ended up with atrocities like the Claudy bombing. They may have made the wrong choices but they may also have felt like the right choices at the time. And fate, or chance to give it a more prosaic title, also could play a role; a phone that did not work to send a warning could have devastating consequences. That does not excuse the bombers – did they check beforehand that a phone was working? – but it is another factor.

It is important, also, to look at different kinds of guilt. Whoever bombed Claudy and caused nine deaths, there is the guilt of the perpetrator, someone who does something, and that is easily judged. But there are other kinds of guilt. There is the guilt of those who acquiesced in permitting a sectarian and unjust society. There is the guilt of those who could have striven to stop the Troubles but did not; this includes especially the middle class who could have mobilised and agitated for solutions but did not. This passive guilt may not seem as real as active involvement in violent death but it is definitely part of what upheld the structures of violence, on all sides, and part of the causes.

If we are talking about guilt, and consequences, there is also future guilt, or guilt which will be ascribed in the future. We know Northern Ireland is a sectarian society where some things have changed but the fundamental realities have not. Those who refuse to do what they can, and support others in their work to take people forward, can in the future be judged to have acquiesced in allowing whatever negative might emerge. This guilt is a complex thing and, like, the pointing finger, may show fingers pointing back at ourselves. We should beware of how we judge; someone very famous a couple of millennia ago spoke about those without sin casting the first stone at ‘the guilty’. But getting at the truth of events like the Claudy killings can be an essential part of moving on for the families who lost loved ones.

We would not market it as such but ‘active’ nonviolence can be a relatively guilt-free path to political change and resistance. Standing up and being counted, and the difficulties of so doing, is always going to be difficult or at least problematic in terms of how it can be done effectively, and in some societies, such as Northern Ireland during the Troubles, putting your head up above the parapet is dangerous. We would argue that nonviolence can be a route to the best possible future, working for positive change in positive ways and not accepting the violence or injustices which may affect us while also not succumbing to the temptation to take the easy route of violence or division. Another task is to make that nonviolent choice available to people because clearly, in the Troubles, there were many who did not see nonviolence as an option, and many again, in a wider sphere, who still do not see its possibilities.

There is a strange sense of déjà vu about President Obama announcing the end of US combat operations in Iraq – isn’t that similar to what President Bush did just a month or two after the war started when he announced ‘mission accomplished’? Much, very dirty, water has passed down the Tigris and the Euphrates since then, and the tragedy that is Iraq, and western involvement there, has continued.

It may seem hard to judge a situation like Iraq today, with violence – by recent Iraqi standards – relatively low (civilian casualties of under 5,000 in 2009 and currently set to be similar in 2010) but there is no government in place. Each death is a tragedy. The political situation is certainly not settled. The economy is still in tatters, and services such as electricity have remained woefully bad. Human rights and personal security, including the rights of women, are poor. Figures vary according to how you account for them but up to a million Iraqis may have died because of Bush and Blair’s hubris – we know exactly how many Western lives have been lost, and that over a hundred thousand civilian Iraqis died between 2003 and now through violence. To these we must add the dead from the widespread effects of the war, and the destruction of Iraqi infrastructure brought about by it; cancers and birth defects in Fallujah, for example, have increased alarmingly, most likely because of the use of depleted uranium in weapons. There are still a couple of million refugees outside Iraq and nearly three million displaced internally. The human cost has been massive. The financial cost involved could have solved a few of the world’s problems effortlessly.

The USA cannot even now claim ‘mission accomplished’ and in any case the cost was unacceptable. Nothing was solved except the removal of Saddam Hussein who was already relatively powerless to work more destruction than he had already achieved (often with active western support). New demons were created, or unleashed, by the war and these are still hovering in the background, despite the pull back from all out sectarian war. It is not easy to say or see how positive change could have grown in Iraq with Saddam Hussein still in power, though with time it may have done so; it is just as difficult to see how a settled situation will emerge now, though if Allawi is backed by enough Shia parties to form a stable government, the situation could improve considerably. How, and at what level, US and Western involvement or support continues remains to be seen; the 50,000 or so US support troops may gradually disappear as the US tries to forget its involvement, and financial support will certainly dwindle.

For a country to go through so much in a few decades – the brutality of Saddam Hussein, the terrors of the Iran-Iraq war, the war on Kuwait (First Gulf War), sanctions and their effect on Iraqi health and well being, and then the last seven years from the invasion – is more, much more, than anyone deserves. The culpability of ‘the West’ in much of this tragedy is massive, beginning with support to Saddam Hussein against Iran and ending with the USA desperate to get out of military involvement in the country but with many unsettled issues and questions remaining.

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

The Cultural Challenge of Environmental Destruction

Scientific findings on the state of the environment are profound and alarming, alerting us to the inevitable collapse of the Earth’s ecosystems unless there is a radical change in how we manage our relationship with nonhuman nature. John Vidal for instance informs us in the ‘Guardian’, 16 August 2010, that:

“According to the UN Environment Programme, the Earth is in the midst of a mass extinction of life. Scientists estimate that 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every 24 hours. This is nearly 1,000 times the “natural” or “background” rate and ... is greater than anything the world has experienced since the vanishing of the dinosaurs 65m years ago.”

Vidal quotes Ahmed Djoghlaf, the secretary-general of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity as saying: “What we are seeing today is a total disaster,” and that the continuing loss of ecosystems, species and genetic biodiversity is now threatening all life.

With regard to what many consider the penultimate environmental disaster, global warming, an editorial in The Observer, 1 August 2010, reports that the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently published evidence that “snow cover in the northern hemisphere is shrinking, glaciers are retreating, sea levels are rising, oceans and the atmosphere are warming” and that the likely cause is human activity.

In spite of the evidence that our consumer-based way of life is the cause of the demise of the Earth’s bio-richness and delicate ecological systems we act as if our economy and nonhuman nature are distinct and separate entities. Thus the US Senate has abandoned President Obama’s very modest climate bill, which means that the major industrial countries won’t be encouraged to cut back on their climate changing emissions which will have catastrophic consequences for the environment, economy and culture.

In the UK the coalition government intends a 40% cut in the budget of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. This will mean selling national nature reserves, privatising parts of the Forestry Commission and the Met Office and withdrawing grants to British Waterways. The government has said it will abolish 30 environmental advisory groups and quangos, including the highly effective Sustainable Development Commission and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. The British government also plans to walk away from its commitment for tough new environmental emissions standards, which may allow the building of highly polluting coal-fired power stations. This blatant disregard for the environment by the UK government is in marked contrast to the stance of the coalition parties before the election when they vied with each other to be the party that could be trusted most to protect the environment if elected.

What does this disjuncture between how we actually live and our proclaimed values tell us about who we are as a species? If we take UN Declarations as a standard, our civil values are rooted in the protection of life, of doing no harm to others. One would have thought that the religiously-minded of the human community, which is the vast majority of people, would ascribe as much respect to the Earth as they do to their places of worship, rituals and icons.

The environmental challenge is to recognise and take account of our limitations as a species. This includes our inability to take account of the inter-connectedness of our world and take the long view in regard to how we interact with Nature. It also includes finding meaning and purpose in ways other than trying to enhance our social status through material consumption, and as a country through military might, which essentially is a magical-type endeavour to achieve immortality.

The environmental challenge is an existential one, which can only be addressed through cultural change involving a whole new way of being human. The evidence of environmental destruction, and the prevalence of the illusion of infinite economic growth in a finite world, not to mention green wash – the pretence that we are actually doing something to protect the environment, suggests that the cultural challenge necessary to ensure the continuation of life on Earth will not be met.

Freedom for Human Rights defender Abdallah Abu Rahmah

By Mairead Maguire

Nobel Laureate Mairead Maguire calls on the Israeli Government to release human rights defender Abdallah Abu Rahmah –

The conviction of Bil’in resident, and one of the Leadership of the Popular Committee against the Wall and Settlements in West Bank, Abdallah Abu Rahmah, by a military court, charged for allegedly causing incitement, is part of the ongoing wave of repression of Palestinian Human Rights activists, by Israel.

Since June, 2009, 35 residents of the small village of Bil’in have been arrested on suspicions related to anti-wall protest. Also in several nearby villages, including Nil’in, many villagers have been arrested by Israel soldiers for carrying out peaceful nonviolent resistance against the confiscation of their land, and for their human rights. The recent increase of repression upon the leadership of the popular struggle is an Israeli illegal attempt to try to crush Palestinian grassroots organizing by heavy costs and long imprisonments. This is now the Israeli army’s strategy of using illegal persecution in its attempt to try to destroy the Palestinian nonviolent popular peoples’ movement.

In a recent statement Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Commissioner of Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, condemned Abdallah Abu Rahmah’s conviction by a military court saying ‘The High Representative is deeply concerned that the possible imprisonment of Mr. Abu Rahmah is intended to prevent him and other Palestinians from exercising their legitimate right to protest against the existence of the separation wall in a nonviolent manner’. It is to be welcomed that the EU has recognized Israel’s political motivation of the indictment against a Human Rights defender, and whilst the EU High Commissioner’s statement has recognised the Palestinians ‘Right to Protest’ it remains to be seen what concrete steps the European Union, The Arab League, and International Community will now take to defend Human Rights activists, and people, in Palestine.

Israeli soldiers have injured and killed many peaceful Palestinian protestors in their struggle for their rights, and have imprisoned over 11,000 Political prisoners, including women, children, sick people and elected politicians. I myself was shot and injured with a metal tipped bullet in April 2007 in Bil’in and tear gassed on several occasions in Bil’in and Nil’in for peacefully protesting the continuing illegal annexation of Palestinian land, the building of this illegal wall, (which both ICJ and Israeli Supreme court have ruled illegal), and West Bank settlements.

I know Abdullah Rahmah and many of villagers of Bil’in and Nil’in and have walked in peaceful human rights marches in both villages, all of which have ended up being violently attacked by Israeli soldiers. I am in admiration of Rahmah and the Palestinian villagers’ commitment to nonviolence and justice as they carried out their rightful resistance to Israeli annexation of their villages’ land, building of this illegal wall, and West Bank settlements.

I call upon Israel to release Abu Rahmah and call upon the EU, Arab countries, and International Community, to demand the release of Abu Rahmah and human rights activists (who have been imprisoned by Israel using illegitimately the courts and legal system to repress the Palestinian people), and put in place concrete actions to demand Israel uphold its International commitments to Human Rights and Law. Israel must not be allowed to feel it can do what it likes and act with impunity.

While in Washington everyone talks about peace, on the ground for Palestinians it is business as usual, with Israeli occupation, settlement building, and siege of Gaza. Palestinian people cannot have hope, believe in peace talks, if they see no improvement in their own daily situation.

Israeli demands security, but surely Palestinians have a right also to human rights, equality, and security, if they live in Occupied Palestinian terr., or Israel. Peace negotiations must be based on the acknowledgement that Palestinians have a right to nothing less that justice based on Human Rights and International Laws. This will produce peace and security for both Palestinians and Israelis which is what everyone wants to see come above in the Middle East.

Mairead Maguire
Nobel Peace Laureate
3rd September, 2010.

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