Revolutionary impatience?

A group of seven war tax resisters — the Peace Tax Seven — are about to commence legal action against the British government by seeking a High Court judicial review of the policy of compulsory military taxation. Some in the peace movement have argued that this approach is not only doomed to failure, but also that it could end up doing more harm than good. Eager to learn more, PeaceNews asked the two sides to put their case. This is what they said:

Simon Heywood: In our view the policy of compulsorymilitary taxation contravenes human rights, as stated in theEuropean Convention, thus making it illegal under theHuman Rights Act 1998. If the court agrees with us, then the policy will be declared illegal,as was the case with the Bel marsh detentions. Our view isthat, as a means towards peace and justice, war doesn' t work,and is never seriously intended to. We believe we already havethe right to have that view recognised. We want the courtsto uphold this right, and, in the process, we want to raise theprofile of peace issues and the peace movement, and, not least,spread the news about the non violent alternatives to war ,which yield so much more peace per tax pound spent.Andreas Speck: I agree with you on the need to resist mili -tary taxation. As War Resisters' International staff we started towithhold war tax in January 2002 following the war onAfghanistan as the first "act" in the so-called war on terrorism,and to date WRI has been taken to court for this twice. However, I have my prob lems with your legal approach.First of all I find it too narrow-- war tax refusal is not just abouta human right, it is about "resistance": that is, it is an actof civil disobedience, and thus a very powerful act. Legalisationwould take away a lot of the power of the refusal. Secondly ,legal action only makes sense if there is a chance to win. I donot see that chance, as there hasn't been any debate withinthe legal profession, and none of the international humanrights or ganisations has taken on conscientious objection tomilitary taxation as a human right yet. If legal action istaken and you get another court judgement against the right torefuse to pay war tax, then this will block the legal path for thenear future.
SH: Whilst we must be real -istic, there'd be no point keep ing slavery, for example, simplyin order to heighten the impact (as resistance) of civil disobedi -ence against slavery . The point of resistance is to makeprogress. Of course, there are always risks associated with aloss in court, but it is hard to think of a better time to try .We have a very clear example of a war to which a reasonable per-son might in conscience object; the courts are busy with casesrelating to war; the relationship between the state and the law iscertainly a matter for discussion among legal specialists; andthere is evidence that some con cessions are beginning to bemade internationally--in Italy , for example. The legislationallowing appeals to human rights is untested, but the bestever yet in Britain. None of these things guarantees a win, orlessens the consequences of a loss, but these dangers wouldalways exist. So, if not now, then when?
AS: I don't believe now is the right time to go through thecourts with tax resistance, as I think you're bound to lose, andthe Human Rights Act does not really make a differencehere. The final point of refer ence will be the EuropeanCourt of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbour g, andthere it doesn't look very prom ising. The ECHR declared a taxrefusal case from Britain as inadmissible back in 1986, as itdid with similar applications in 1983. Any case brought to anEnglish court based on the Human Rights Act will befaced with these inadmissibility decisions. So, when? ...Whentax resistance is an issue legally and politically: When we havesucceeded in getting the big human rights or ganisations onboard (for example when Amnesty International includesconscientious objection to mili tary taxation in their countryreports) and in getting some discussion going within themore mainstream legal profes sion. I'm all for revolutionaryimpatience (although legal recognition is hardly a revolu -tionary measure), but I'm also for realism. And my under -standing of the political and legal situation tells me that weare in for the long haul.
SH: The Strasbourg inadmis-sibility decisions are as relevant as any other decision from twodecades ago. There has been a lot of case law at the ECHRsince then, and the law has evolved in the process. Interpre-tation of ECHR Article 9 was much narrower then than isnow usual, and we have good grounds for ar guing that youcan't read off decisions today from decisions made twentyyears ago. Whatever a judge' s view of the basic ar guments, itwould take an odd kind of lawyer not to sense that 2005 doesn't necessarily follow 1983--especially since, in the years between, there have been manycases going forward in Europe and North America, a numberof books and articles, ar guments, decisions and writtenopinions, significant-sounding moves towards legal recogni -tion in Italy, and many leading members of the legal professionworking on the issue. So, the issue is pretty well aired withinthe legal profession. It has been national news recently, and as Iwrite there's no sign of this interest letting up. But in theend, recognition of rights is a legal issue. In going to courtnow, we are continuing a wellestablished, decades-old, inter -national legal campaign. It won't achieve everything, but ithas a good chance of doing much good and no harm.
AS: The Peace Tax Seven focus on legal action, at a time when war tax resistance is notyet strongly established--let's face it, we are still very few innumbers. I am not optimistic about the likely outcome of thelegal review. I don' t see the debate in the legal profession, Idon't see the debate within human rights bodies, within theUN, the Council of Europe, etc. I'm not opposed to using thelegal path but if you don't have a chance of winning, which I don't think you have, then it can actually do more harm than good.

Simon Heywood is one of the Peace Tax Seven. See
Andreas Speck is a staff member at War Resisters' International. See .

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