||Many of us have felt great despair and helplessness at the scenes of
suffering of vulnerable civilians, writes Lubna Nadvi
We are currently living through a time when the average citizen may well
be considered as being under siege from war-mongering forces in both
explicit and non-explicit ways.
Recently this has been most explicitly demonstrated in the Middle East
region, whose oil and other natural reserves have become the bane of its
Ordinary people have to bear the brunt as the global War on Terror is
articulated and manufactured by opportunistic and profit-motivated
northern states under benevolent pretences of "liberation" and "democracy".
How many of us have not felt great despair and helplessness as the media
conveys to us scenes of the suffering and degradation of helpless and
vulnerable civilians? The question we must put to ourselves is: what can
we do in the face of forces which are so much bigger and more powerful
This critical question was recently addressed by Phyllis Bennis, veteran
activist, author and commentator on global citizens' movements, at the
Harold Wolpe Lecture delivered at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Bennis focused in large part on the question of "empire", and its quest
to dominate the world, and contends that a major aspect of this agenda
links up integrally with what is currently occurring in the Middle East
in the form of wars and occupations, perpetrated primarily by the
imperial agents that constitute the "empire".
Bennis referred in particular to the policy of war-mongering adopted by
the Bush administration and its coalition partners, which she argued has
effectively become synonymous with the consistent implementation of
state-sponsored aggression towards any form of dissent against the
governments of the "empire".
She further emphasised the phenomenon that has become prevalent
throughout the globe. This is the typical scenario when citizens in the
Middle East, or indeed anywhere else, protest against invasion or
occupation, or resist on behalf of those civilian populations that are
subjected to such treatment.
They are usually labelled as terrorists and the global War on Terror
machinery spins into immediate action, through its extended structures
of surveillance, detention and often torture and death, seriously
violating civil liberties and universally guaranteed human rights. Most
often innocent people become the victims of state and police brutality.
A key point of reference for Bennis is the debates inspired by a New
York Times article in the wake of millions of people around the world
protesting against the impending war in Iraq in 2003.
The New York Times declared in February 2003 that a second superpower
had emerged, and this new superpower was a global citizens' movement
which demonstrated a collective, principled objection to the war and
which, according to Bennis, also resulted in the United Nations refusing
to legitimise the war through its own structures.
So, even though the global citizens' movement was unable to actually
stop the war, it did, according to her, arguably still make a powerful
We may well be negative about the latter argument in light of the recent
war in Lebanon, where the tragic reality remains that no amount of
global civil society mobilisation was able to stop the huge civilian
losses, particularly within the Lebanese civil population, in the face
of Israeli state aggression.
While Hizbollah, as the regional guerrilla movement, clearly articulated
a strong military resistance against Israeli aggression, the question of
whether militias actually protect or in fact expose civilian populations
to greater vulnerabilities emerges as an overarching question for the
Bennis referred to a variety of international tools such as
international law and charters on human rights, which place a certain
degree of responsibility on citizens.
She argues that these tools be used effectively to articulate certain
outcomes and that they actually don't have any meaning unless they are
Yet do we really feel that such tools still retain any efficacy? We have
witnessed the very flawed and citizen-unfriendly United Nations Security
Council structure which allows the United States, in particular, to
continuously veto decisions and resolutions that attempt to hold either
it or Israel accountable for war crimes and other infringements of
It would appear that the United Nations is only as powerful as its
collective membership allows it to be, and the space for citizens to
make tangible contributions through existing mechanisms has become
seriously constrained as a result of its obdurate bureaucracy and
dubious diplomatic rhetoric.
Yet Bennis still holds out hope for a programme of citizen action that
will impact on oppressive government policies, particularly as they
relate to addressing the challenges of ending invasions and occupations
of countries in the Middle East.
She makes reference to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa as an
example of an effective citizens' movement and articulates the notion
that the post-apartheid nation has great potential for actually
challenging the "empire" and holding states such as the United States
and Israel accountable for their actions in the Middle East.
She argues that South Africa has consistently been an active participant
within the United Nations on the Middle East question, acting in favour
of the Palestinian struggle for independence and refusing to join the
coalition that instigated the war in Iraq.
However, we have seen the current South African government compromise
its moral authority by making military deals with the very forces that
are responsible for the suffering of Palestinian, Lebanese and Iraqi
Bennis recommended a programme of boycotts, sanctions, divestments and
general isolation, targeted in particular at Israel. She emphasised that
such a campaign must be focused and should, in particular, target
companies such as Caterpillar, which manufactures bulldozers that
destroy Palestinian homes.
Although such campaigns have been in effect for many years now, efforts
need to be re-energised to isolate Israel and its supporters, who
continue to pursue an aggressive agenda against civilian populations in
the Middle East region. These are pressing questions for our times.
Future generations will no doubt judge us by the choices that we make in
Given that state institutions in most parts of the globe are generally
becoming increasingly hostile to civilian populations, it is clearly
citizens' movements that must rise to the challenge of protecting
themselves and, indeed, the most vulnerable among them, from such hostility.
Lubna Nadvi is a research associate of the Centre for Civil Society.