Saturday, 25 April 2009

Stop the War annual conference

350 people attended this weekend's Stop the War Coalition national conference. There were motions passed, experiences shared, a new committee elected. Here, though, I'll merely attempt to summarise the diverse contributions from a range of platform speakers during the day. Simply glancing at the names is to be reminded of the strength of our movement, and this report should bring to attention how many issues we are campaigning over but also how interconnected they are.

Andrew Murray (Chair, Stop the War) opened the conference and commented on the need to re-assert our right to protest, noting that all the Gaza national demonstrations in January were attacked by police. Stop the War President Tony Benn said that the wars and occupations we oppose are imperialist and, in the context of colonial occupation, it is understandable if people resist with force. He also reminded us of the enormous contribution our coalition has made to British political life over more than seven years.

Lindsey German (convenor, Stop the War) celebrated the upsurge of protest in response to the assault on Gaza, in particular the university occupations that marked a revival of student activism, and warned that the economic crisis will make the world more unstable. Campaigning MP Jeremy Corbyn remarked that if Barack Obama isn't careful, Afghanistan will become the 'new Vietnam' and asserted that we must demand removal of ALL foreign troops. He called for a big turnout on 16 May - the national 'Free Palestine' march - partly because the media images will be reach the Middle East and give millions of people solidarity and hope.

Seumas Milne (Guardian columnist) also noted the longevity and futility of the Afghan occupation, commenting that the 'war on terror' - which is in fact a war OF terror against ordinary people - has now lasted longer than World War Two. The war is now spreading into Pakistan, which raises the stakes even further. Rose Gentle (Military Families Against the War) talked about how she turned the grief following the death of her son Gordon in Iraq into a determined campaign for justice - and to bring the troops home. She said the troops have been treated disgracefully and also called for the Iraq inquiry this summer to take place in public.

Daud Abdullah, the Deputy General Secretary of Muslim Council of Britain who has been vilified by the government, said the attacks on him have really been a backlash against the wider Muslim community being politically engaged. He warned that not only has Islamophobia increased in recent years but now the BNP is jumping on the bandwagon and using it to boost its prospects.

Jane Shallice (Stop the War officer) talked of the long history of imperialist intervention in Afghanistan by the great powers. There is, under Obama, a new liberal rhetoric to justify the occupation which we need to challenge. Mohammed Asif, an Afghan-born journalist now based in Glasgow, said that it's ordinary Afghans who are suffering, but it's also (contrary to most media reports) ordinary people, not just the Taliban, who are resisting the occupiers. UK policy is tied to US policy and we must seek to break that link.

Sarah Colborne (Palestine Solidarity Campaign) acknowledged the strength of the relationship between PSC and Stop the War, which stretches back to the early days of the latter's formation. Public opinion on Israel has changed and we should build on this - and the recent protests - to campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions targeted at Israel. She commented that the Scottish TUC led the way by passing a motion making these demands. We should build a mass demonstration on 16 May.

Stop the War officer John Rees, in possibly the most well-received speech of the day, asserted it is vital that the Gaza movement has been simultaneously broad and radical. This movement represented the return of mass involvement of British Muslims in political protest, displaying renewed confidence despite the brutality of the police. He also stressed the centrality of the Palestinian question to the whole politics of the Middle East, with the US relying on Israel as its proxy in the region. Karma Nablusi, Palestinian writer and academic, reported on visiting Gaza recently, seeing friends and being asked by them for pictures of the big London demonstrations because they were so inspired by them. She praised the many students in this country who organised occupations in solidarity with Palestine.

George Galloway reported on the hugely impressive Viva Palestina mission, noting that he spoke at some very large meetings in the North West to build it and there were hundreds of people attending these who had never been involved in our movement before. He announced that he and Ron Kovic, the Vietnam veteran, will lead a similar American convoy which is to be launched on 4 July.

Iraqi-born academic Sami Ramadani gave a briefing about the situation in Iraq and answered delegates' questions. He emphasised that Iraq is part of a bigger strategy of imperialist domination in the region: they may shift their forces, e.g from Iraq to Afghanistan, but there is no serious change. Walter Wolfgang of CND (and former Labour Party NEC member) brought the issues of nuclear weapons and US military bases into focus, taking inspiration from the Czech movement that has mobilised effectively against bases in their country.

Steve Bell (Stop the War Treasurer) announced, on behalf of the steering committee, a new drive to increase the coalition's national membership. He observed that there's a contradiction between Stop the War undoubtedly being a mass movement and the realtively low levels of membership. We also need to raise more regular income, through members taking out or increasing standing orders, to make the organisation more secure and to enhance what we can do as a movement.

Conference was rounded off with speeches on our practical tasks. Joseph Healy of the Green Party reported on the demonstrations at Strasbourg's NATO summit and stressed the importance of making connections with movements elsewhere. Tahmeena Bax gave an inspiring account of the occuaption at Queen Mary's University she was involved in and said there needs to be co-ordination amongst student activists around the country. Chris Nineham (Stop the War officer) closed the conference with a rallying call to keep the movment on the streets. He also called for rallies across Britain on what's happening in Afghanistan, and urged us to use the new national petition on the issue as a tool for mobilising. Finally, he made it clear we must always be prepared for an attack on Iran - if it happens we have to mobilise in massive numbers to protest, occupy and bring the country to a halt.

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