Source: Al Jazeera
Ten years ago people around the world rose up. In almost 800 cities across the globe, protesters filled the streets of capital cities and tiny villages, following the sun from Australia and New Zealand and the small Pacific islands, through the snowy steppes of North Asia and down across the South Asian peninsula, across Europe and down to the southern edge of Africa, then jumping the pond first to Latin America and then finally, last of all, to the United States.
And across the globe, the call came in scores of languages, “the world says no to war!” The cry “Not in Our Name” echoed from millions of voices. The Guiness Book of World Records said between 12 and 14 million people came out that day, the largest protest in the history of the world. It was, as the great British labour and peace activist and former MP Tony Benn described it to the million Londoners in the streets that day, “the first global demonstration, and its first cause is to prevent a war against Iraq”. What a concept – a global protest against a war that had not yet begun – the goal, to try to stop it.
It was an amazing moment – powerful enough that governments around the world, including the soon-famous “Uncommitted Six” in the Security Council, did the unthinkable: they too resisted US-UK pressure and said no to endorsing Bush’s war. Under ordinary circumstances, alone, US-dependent and relatively weak countries like Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico and Pakistan could never stand up to Washington. But these were not ordinary circumstances. The combination of diplomatic support from “Old Europe”, Germany and France who for their own reasons opposed the war, and popular pressure from thousands, millions, filling the streets of their capitals, allowed the Six to stand firm. The pressure was fierce. Chile was threatened with a US refusal to ratify a [quite terrible – but the Chilean government was committed to it] US free trade agreement seven years in the making. Guinea and Cameroon were threatened with loss of US aid granted under the African Growth & Opportunity Act. Mexico faced the potential end of negotiations over immigration and the border. And yet they stood firm.
‘The second super-power’
The day before the protests, February 14, the Security Council was called into session once again, this time at the foreign minister level, to hear the ostensibly final reports of the two UN weapons inspectors for Iraq. Many had anticipated that their reports would somehow wiggle around the truth, that they would say something Bush and Blair would grab to try to legitimise their spurious claims of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, that they would at least appear ambivalent enough for the US to use their reports to justify war. But they refused to bend the truth, stating unequivocally that no such weapons had been found.
Following their reports, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin responded with an extraordinary call, reminding the world that “the United Nations must remain an instrument of peace, and not a tool for war”. In that usually staid, formal, rule-bound chamber, his call was answered with a roaring ovation beginning with Council staff and quickly engulfing the diplomats and foreign ministers themselves.
Security Council rejection was strong enough, enough governments said no, that the United Nations was able to do what its Charter requires, but what political pressure too often makes impossible: to stand against the scourge of war. On the morning of February 15, just hours before the massive rally began at the foot of the United Nations, Harry Belafonte and I accompanied South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu to meet with then Secretary-General Kofi Annan, on behalf of the protesters. We were met by a police escort to cross what the New York Police Department had designated its “frozen zone” – not in reference to the bitter -8 degrees Celsius or the biting wind whipping in from the East River, but the forcibly deserted streets directly in front of UN headquarters. In the secretary-general’s office on the 38th floor of the United Nations, Bishop Tutu opened the meeting, looking at Kofi across the table and said, “We are here today on behalf of those people marching in 665 cities all around the world. And we are here to tell you, that those people marching in all those cities around the world, we claim the United Nations as our own. We claim it in the name of our global mobilisation for peace.”