“The Power of Being Arrested”October 25, 2010
The aim of nonviolent activists is to change a situation using only the power of nonviolence. How do we know that they are succeeding; that they are on the path to change? How do we actually grasp their achievements? One tool to ‘measure’ the positive effects of such behaviours could be a kind of new scale. Like the Saffir–Simpson Hurricane Scale, or the Richter magnitude scale for classifying the intensity of hurricanes and earthquakes, we could try to classify the nonviolence’s successes by the number of peace activists’ arrests in combination with the intensity of use of force in a government’s reaction. Well you might think that such a scale would be impossible to create, and honestly I would be the first to say that it is actually impossible to do. But still the idea is there. And nobody would deny the fact that the more a government or groups counterattacks using what appears to be ‘disproportionate means’, the more the acts of the people in line of sight are ‘troubling’ them – – because peace activists are doing something right. In the field of nonviolence, that means that peace activists are on the road to success.
Let’s apply the idea to a concrete situation: the Israeli-Palestinian’s conflict. The aim is not to support one party against the other. I do not want people to believe that, while pointing a finger at Israel’s reactions, I am voluntarily ignoring Palestinian ones, or that I therefore do not condemn Palestinians’ violent reactions. I am just using what I think is a relevant example. Indeed, it seems like every time you look for news, you hear new cases in which Israeli authorities use what we can call ‘disproportionate’ means. Some of the latest instances which we can review are the cases of Rami Elhanan, Abdallah Abu Rahma, and Mairead Maguire.
Rami Elhanan is an Israeli Jewish nonviolent activist that has recently been spotlighted. Aged 60, Rami Elhanan is a former Israeli soldier who served in the three following wars: the War of Attrition in 1969, the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and in Lebanon in 1982. After having lost his 14-year-old daughter in a suicide bombing in 1997, he became a member of the organization The Parents Circle-Families Forum that promotes solidarity between Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost close relatives in the conflict. In September 2010, he became a crew member on the boat for peace and justice called the Irene. He was joined by other Jewish activists. Though he knew the crew could not reach Gaza –because of the blockade held by Israel and Egypt- to deliver the boat’s lading, he wanted to be part of this action in order to catch his fellow Israelis’ attention on “the crime experienced by 1.5 million Palestinians”. While attempting to break the naval blockade of Gaza, the sailboat was intercepted by the Israeli Navy on September 28th. The aim here is to highlight the disproportionate reaction of the Israeli government. Indeed, as stated by Rami Elhanan, the sailboat was encircled by an armada of hundreds of naval boats and forced to stop before the army took control of the sailboat. Although the peace sailors had no weapons and didn’t offer any resistance to the army, the crew was escorted to the harbour of Ashdod where about a hundred of soldiers were waiting for them; they were searched and questioned for a half hour. The nine activists were eventually paroled.
Palestinian Abdallah Abu Rahma is a secondary school teacher and the head of the Bil’in Popular Committee against the Wall. The committee was awarded the International League for Human Right’s Carl Von Ossietzky Medal in 2008 for its work in defence of human rights. Though the International Court of Justice stated in 2004 that the construction of the wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territories was contrary to International Law, Abdallah Abu Rahma was arrested at his home in the West Bank city of Ramallah on December 10th, 2009. At approximately 2a.m., ten Israeli military jeeps parked in front of his house, several soldiers entered the house and arrested him in presence of his wife and his three young children. Abdallah Abu Rahm, a nonviolent activist, was arrested because he demonstrated against the wall constructed by Israeli authorities, insisting on the fact that the wall violated the economic, social and cultural rights of the Palestinians. Since his arrest, Abdallah Abu Rahma has been in Israeli detention in Ofer Prison. He was facing charges of “incitement” (Article 7(A) of Israeli Military order 101), “throwing stones” (Article 53(A)(2) of Military Order 378), “organising and participating in demonstrations without a permit” (Article 3 of Military Order 101) and “possession of arms” (Article 53(A)(1) of Military Order 378). The maximum penalty is 10 years of prison for each of the three first charges and for the last one people found guilty can incur a life sentence. On August 2010, Abdallah Abu Rahma was found guilty of “organizing and participating in an illegal demonstration” and “incitement” and acquitted on the other charges.
Mairead Maguire, an Irish peace activist and 1976 Nobel Peace, was arrested on 28 September 2010 while getting off the plane at Tel-Aviv’s Ben Gourion airport. She intended to spend the week in Tel-Aviv, a week dedicated to interviews with international peace activists in Israel and in the Palestinian Territories. Despite an appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court, the deportation order was proclaimed valid on 4 October 2010 and the following morning Mairead Maguire was flown to the UK. Actually, in recent years Mairead Maguire has become an active critic of the Israeli’s government policy towards the Palestinians people. Among other actions, she tried twice to run Israel’s naval embargo of the Gaza strip. On 30 June 2009, she was on board of a ferry carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza. The boat was intercepted by Israel; Mairead Maguire was detained before being deported to Dublin. On 3 June 2010, she was on board the MV Rachel Corrie. The boat was seized by the Israeli Navy; Mairead Maguire was released and deported after she was told she was subject to a 10-year deportation order.
Those stories all point a finger at one core idea: the Israeli government does not know how to handle nonviolent activists. This, in turn, demonstrates the true and undeniable power of nonviolence. How can you stop – on a legal basis – people that express their opinion in a truly legal and non-violent manner? The point is not to emphasize how nonviolence works, but how we can actually capture its efficiency. It proves to be that the more a government uses ‘disproportionate’ means (like ten jeeps to arrest one pacifist man) the more nonviolent activists reach their goal (e.g., to spread the word on injustices and human rights violations); that they are doing things right and thus “annoying” the government. What I am trying to say is that when reading the stories of people like Rami Elhanan, Abdallah Abu Rahma or Mairead Maguire, your first impression could be disillusionment. And how could it not be when you realize that in today’s world people are unjustly arrested, banned from a country just because they demand justice, and freedom and the respect of human rights for everybody? After all, the twentieth century is the century when great human rights conventions and declarations were passed. We can mention the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations’ General Assembly in 1948, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms – known as the European Convention on Human Rights – drafted in 1950 by the Council of Europe; the Charter of the Organization of the American States signed in 1948 which proclaims the need to consolidate democratic institutions and a regime of individual liberties and social justice based on the respect of Fundamental Rights; the American Convention on Human Rights – also known as the Pact of San José – adopted in 1969; and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights – also known as the Banjul Charter – passed in 1981, to cite only those texts. Are they meant to stay texts, ideas, nothing more than declarations? Or are they meant to become a reality?
Thinking about the high number of people being bullied because they stand up for what they believe in (and for what a majority of countries agreed on as they signed the aforementioned conventions) and considering the fact that they wage these fights using nonviolent weapons, a real feeling of indignation arises in me… and I think that many other people feel this same way. But on the other hand, we must say that those ‘disproportionate’ reactions are actually a blessing in disguise. Indeed, the more ‘oppressors’- which can be a government or a group of people – counterattack through violent means and acts of intimidation, the more actually nonviolence has a chance to reach its goal. Because if ‘oppressors’ did not react, it would have meant that pacifists’ actions are too insignificant for them to worry about, whereas while reacting, ‘oppressors’ are acknowledging that their control is in jeopardy. First, they exhibit their inability to handle the situation non-violently, and secondly, they condemn themselves by demonstrating their disrespect for human rights because they arrest or banish nonviolent people – whose stories are eventually reported at an international level. In many cases, these oppressors’ actions are eventually condemned either by the International Community or the civil society.
Furthermore, with today’s advanced technological tools, like cameras and the internet, it seems to be both more difficult and more complicated for ‘oppressors’ to hide what is going on. Of course, there are still countries where censorship remains. China therefore turns out to be a relevant recent example, because Chinese people could not express themselves upon learning Liu Xiaobo had been awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. As far as that goes, the documentary entitled The Revolution Will Not Be Televised proves to be a good example of the increasing difficulty of hiding the truth. The documentary focuses on the events that lead to the 2002 coup d’état attempt in Venezuela, in which president Hugo Chávez was removed from office for several days. The two Irish filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha Ó Briain were originally in Venezuela to make a fly-on-the-wall biography of President Chávez. They followed Chávez and his staff during seven months. They were therefore smack in the middle of the action when the coup took place on April 11, 2001. Bartley and Ó Briain filmed on the streets of Caracas – the capital city – when the violence erupted; they also filmed many of the political upheavals that took place in the presidential palace. So even though the Venezuelan private Medias tried to stifle what was really going on, the two filmmakers succeeded in telling what they really saw by making and broadcasting their documentary.
This leads me to think that ‘oppressors’ have less and less room to maneuver and so I am willing to think that planned executions, like Archbishop Oscar Romero’s, will rarefy. Oscar Romero was a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador. On February 23, 1977, he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador. This appointment was welcomed by the government, but many priests – especially those who openly supported Marxism – were disappointed because they feared that Romero’s conservative reputation would negatively affect liberation theology’s commitment to the poor. The assassination of priest Rutilio Grande – a personal friend – had a great impact on the archbishop. Romero urged Arturo Armando Molina’s government to investigate, but his request was simply ignored. This led Romero to radicalize his position and began speaking out on poverty, social injustice, assassinations and the use of torture that took place in the country. The country’s situation worsened in 1979 when the Revolutionary Government Junta came to power. A wave of human rights abuses by paramilitary right-wing groups and the government took place. To this, Romero – now becoming noticed at an international level – reacted by sending in February 1980 a letter to the U.S. president Jimmy Carter, demanding the U.S. stop sending military aid to the new government. He stated that this would “undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the repression inflicted on the organized people, whose struggle has often been for their most basic human rights”. Archbishop Romero was assassinated one month later, on 24 March1980 while celebrating a mass. The day before, he delivered a sermon demanding Salvadorian soldiers to stop supporting the government’s repression and violation of human rights. In 1993, an official U.N. report identified former Mayor and School of the Americas graduate Roberto D’Aubuisson as the person behind Romero’s assassination.
In the same vein, we can talk about South African Stephen “Steve” Biko. Steve Biko emerged in the late 1960s as a new nonviolent leader. He forcefully reasserted the principle of struggle through open and nonviolent resistance. He was arrested in 1977 after breaking the banning order that required him to stay at his own King William’s Town home. Biko was interrogated and tortured by the police; untreated, he succumbed to these injuries. Although the police claimed that Biko had been injured in a scuffle, the government was directly responsible for his death.
We can also look to the recent Israeli raid – in May 2010 – against the humanitarian ships of the ‘Gaza Freedom Flotilla’, in which 9 passengers lost their lives, and several dozens were injured. The Israeli government could not prevent the event from becoming internationally known as videos from the raid were made and broadcasted in foreign countries. Widespread international condemnations followed the raid. While Israel’s government set up the Turkel Commission to examine the legality of Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza and the flotilla raid, an international demand – calling for an independent investigation – arose. Subsequently, the United Nations Human Rights Council started a fact-finding mission to investigate violations of international law that might have taken place during the raid on July 23, 2010 and on August 10, 2010 the United Nations’ panel started its work. This last example proves first that these kinds of events may become publicly known, and second that international pressure can result in investigations for the truth, and possibly prosecution of the guilty party(ies). Though hard work remains to be done in order to make international sanctions and convictions become effective, at least governments have to change their behaviour if they do not want to garner international attention for their actions.
To conclude, I just would like to remind the people that the more they hear stories like the ones of Rami Elhanan, Abdallah Abu Rahma or Mairead Maguire, they should feel hopeful instead of indignant or disheartened. First, because of the fact that we have indeed hear about them (they have not been squelched); secondly, because it demonstrates the government or groups’ difficulties in effectively handling or controlling non-violence (responding with the only means they are used to: violence); and finally, because the more people hear about these ‘disproportionate’ reactions, the more they feel outraged and are thus willing to act to make these situations stop. That leads eventually to an increasing number of non-violent proponents. And if governments continue to act in the way they do, they are likely to arrest or banish their whole people, so that at the end they will have to answer one key question: on whose behalf are they governing?
– Aude Feltz, MPT intern