WRL News Summer 2006

International COs Build Lasting Alliances

A room full of international conscientious objectors and antiwar activists listened intently at the Church of Brethen in Washington, DC, as Xavier León Vega told his story of conscientious objection to military service in Ecuador. Since 1999, when he declared himself a CO, León Vega has been engaged a legal battle with the government of Ecuador for the recognition of his status that has now been taken to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Like León Vega, the COs who attended "Operation Refuse War" held in New York City and Washington, DC, from May 11 through May 16, told courageous stories of refusing military service in their respective countries. Conscientious objectors and peace activists from 13 countries, including El Salvador, Paraguay, Colombia, Israel, Turkey, Guatemala, and Britain, met for a weeklong series of events sponsored primarily by War Resisters International, along with the American Friends Service Committee Youth and Militarism Program and the Center on Conscience and War.

The week of activities is planned annually around May 15, International Conscientious Objector Day. For the past four years, the conference has been held in a country where conscientious objectors are in need of support: Greece in 2005, Chile in 2004, Israel in 2003 and the Balkans in 2002.

During the opening session at the Brecht Forum in New York City, WRI staff member Andreas Speck discussed the reasons behind holding the gathering in the United States this year. He pointed to the growing number of soldiers in the United States who have appealed for CO status and those who have deserted the military in response to the war in Iraq. Holding the conference in the United States, Speck explained, would also expose the economic factors, recruitment practices, and stop-loss policy behind the United States' so-called volunteer army. U.S. veterans in attendance included Camilo Mejia from Iraq Veterans against the War (IVAW), the first U.S. soldier to refuse to return to Iraq after his first assignment. Other IVAW members in attendance included Anita Cole, Steven Potts, and Jose Vasquez.

A key event was the public panel and discussion, "We Will Not Kill: International Conscientious Objectors Speak Out," held at the Friends Meeting House in New York. Darko Brkan from Campaign for Conscientious Objection in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Tali Lerner from New Profile in Israel, Anna Maria Silva from Movimiento Juvenil Artesanos de Vida in Colombia, Ivan Broida from Proyecto Caribeño de Justicia y Paz in Puerto Rico, and Jose Vasquez from IVAW told personal stories of resisting military service and the work they are doing to demilitarize their countries.

A highlight of the week was the announcement that, just one week prior to the gathering, conscription had been abolished in Macedonia. Boro Kitanoski, an Operation Refuse War participant from Peace Action in Macedonia, gave details of the growing numbers of recognized COs in Macedonia. In 2001, Macedonia recognized its first CO; since then the number has increased annually and was up to 1500 in 2005.

The closing session on Sunday gave participants an opportunity to reflect on the week's discussions and offer suggestions to increase the recognition of COs at the international level. Participants concluded that there needed to be a strengthening of links between peace groups and a more regular exchange of successful trainings, resources, outreach materials, strategies, and program ideas. Participants suggested coordinated international campaigns around such things as an antiwar toys campaign, demilitarizing society, raising the visibility of violence against children as a cross-cultural consequence of war, and publicity around what a conscientious objection is and who COs are.

Most important, Operation Refuse War allowed conscientious objectors and activists to build alliances across borders and draw upon these newfound friendships and the many stories of creative resistance to war internationally to inspire them to continue their life-saving efforts in their respective homes.

David MacAlpine, former Youth and Counter-Militarism intern.

Annual Dinner

Nearly 150 people came out June 9 for the War Resisters League Annual Dinner and presentation of the 41st Annual Peace Awards. This year the Peace Awards honored women resisting war from within the U.S. military as represented by Diedra Cobb, Anita Cole, Kelly Dougherty, and Katherine Jashinski.

Cobb, who applied for conscientious objector status but was turned down and placed in Inactive Ready Reserve, and Dougherty, who co-founded Iraq Veterans Against the War, were on hand to receive the awards. Jashinski was unable to attend because, having been denied her application for conscientious objector status, she was court-martialed and sentenced to 120 days confinement for refusing to obey a lawful order to begin weapons training (for more information, see www.myspace.com/freekatherine).

In addition to the presentation of the award scrolls by retired Col. and former State Department official Ann Wright, who spoke of her own initiation into nonviolent direct action, the honorees received messages of solidarity from Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and Gold Star mother Summer Lipford, read by WRL National Committee members Matt Meyer and Frida Berrigan respectively. A.J. Muste Memorial Institute Executive Director Murray Rosenblith also gave a moving tribute to longtime WRL activist and antiwar movement icon Norma Becker, who attended the dinner despite serious health problems. Norma passed away a week later. Youth and Counter-Militarism Coordinator Steve Theberge spoke about WRL's current counter-recruitment work, ending the evening on a forward-looking, action-oriented note.

The Harmonic Insurgence vocal ensemble provided musical entertainment, and singing CIA (Committee to Intervene Anywhere) agent George Shrub provided some pro-war balance, haranguing the audience for not shopping enough. WRL staffers Yeidy Rosa and Francesca Fiorentini emceed, and food was provided by Pacifeast, the catering company of WRL New England staffers Joanne Sheehan and Rick Gaumer.

Ellen Davidson