Second International Conference on War Tax Resistance and Peace Tax Campaigns

Vierhouten, the Netherlands 1988

The United Nations and International Law

Refusal to pay taxes starts with oneself as a matter of one's individual conscience. In Tübingen we already found that by refusing to pay taxes we reach in particular those who are already of a like mind. How do we move beyond that? In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights freedom of conscience is recognized as one of the fundamental Human Rights of the individual. In as much as refusal to pay taxes is a matter of conscience, it ought to be included amongst those human rights, protected by the United Nations.

Therefore we should look ahead to the future and try to reach the human community worldwide!

Quakers, for instance, have achieved a lot in quite diverse situations in bringing about recognition of CO to military service as a human right and worked hard for its inclusion in the Universal Declaration.


When freedom of religion is mentioned as human right, it seems that a number of things must specifically be taken into consideration. That does not mean that under this heading “everything goes”. Where the limits lie must be defined in court. In the case of British Quakers who refused to pay part of their taxes, for instance, the European Commission, i.e., a political body, prevented their case from being presented to the European Court for human rights, so this case was never examined on that level, after all venues in the UK itself had been tried. Here the term “basic principles” comes into the picture. No government will allow an individual by his or her position to undermine its own “basic principles”.

The use of nuclear weapons, under the terms of international law, would implicitly have to be labelled a “threat to mankind” and would therefore be banned. The political world, however, by insisting that they are not meant to be used, but only kept as a deterrent to prevent other countries with nuclear weapons from using them, has on these flimsy grounds claimed a shady legality for them. It must be said here, that the US government has even dropped that principle by declaring that the use of them eventually can be permitted as a form of “self defence”. For this conference it is important to find arguments to counter these positions. In the Netherlands, for instance, a juridical court has been waged against the government. Whereas the population in majority said “No” to nuclear arms, the government said: “Yes”! There is a discrepancy between the right to defend oneself and the fact that the weapons, in store for that purpose, could cause destruction, by far outweighing the damage an attack would cause. In the course of time rules have been made as to how wars between states ought to be fought, but governments refuse to discuss their motives when they refuse to play by these very rules. The International Court of Justice in The Hague is of little avail to civilians here as only governments are allowed to plead cases there. Therefore it would be of great importance to find one or more national states interested in bringing such issues before this International Court. One might think of Australia, Costa Rica, the Netherlands or Sweden to do so. But it would not seem to be right to wait another fifty years before we could move ahead in that direction. First steps towards change have to be prepared now. And in trying to move forward we have to overcome major obstacles.

Like European countries, Australia and New Zealand are both linked in a military alliance. Officially it supports the idea of a nuclear free Pacific Ocean. New Zealand has declared that no ships with nuclear arms aboard may dock in any of its ports. In fact, most of the people do accept alliances as necessary, but what really will happen in case of war nobody can predict. It is still to be seen, whether the US would effectively come to the help of New Zealand in the case of a regional conflict.

Conscientious people should plead for more nuclear free zones. In Western Europe this idea is very much alive and many people are active to get national governments behind it. That is another possibility to get rid of nuclear arms if we cannot get them outlawed. We must use all means which derive from international conventions and international law.

How to make a fist

Like Gandhi individuals ought to be able to raise their fists against the national state. This must be done by non-violent action, as violence deters. We ought to explore first all forms of dialogue. If you don't get any results with your own government yourself, try to get support from abroad by defining a common cause. If that can be realized within the framework of law nobody can blame you for the course of action chosen. Violence or breaking the law is not only a matter of strategy, but can be the consequence of one's conscience. There is, however, no point in sitting back and waiting for fifty odd years. People who are sticking their necks out, now, have a right to our solidarity and support, with words and deeds. What is important is that things get moving.

One such step is that of the friend who says: “here I am, I can't do different”! If somebody feels that he or she should break the law as a matter of conscience, they are at least entitled to our understanding, even if it, at this precise moment, does not fit in with our own strategy. There are times when civil disobedience is the only strategy. This goes for those situations where there may be disagreement over the question whether a specific action, like, for instance, blocking a road, is still to be considered within the definition of non-violent action. We need to find support for such actions amongst the general public. And it is important to remain in open discussion with the legislators and those maintaining the law.

One friend stressed how important education on a personal basis is. Real change comes about through better understanding of issues. You may even have to change yourself. One criterion should be to reach as many people as possible. People can change; can become more radical in their thinking. Over the past years, many people took a big step, when they decided to come out of their homes to demonstrate in the streets against nuclear arms and be counted for. This in itself should have been an important signal to political leaders.

The United Nations

For peace activists in the US the dilemma is that there is very little confidence in the UN. This resistance ought to be broken down first. The relationship between the individual’s conscience and his religious beliefs is an important item.

Many radical pacifists (total objectors, for instance) come from anarchistic backgrounds. When we look at tax resisters we see the same. The national state under all circumstances commandeers what is right. If laws were passed, recognizing CO to paying taxes for war it would not change anything in the militaristic system. Therefore tax resistance is subordinate to one's view of the national state. Space to push back the military system and expenditures must be painfully conquered, step-by-step, both with governments and within the civilian population. Our strategies therefore should be aimed at changing people's attitudes and in confronting them with very strong arguments to join us in our struggle.

Preparing legislation is something that we can work at, in international cooperation. And we should consider and reconsider constantly what this may do to the position of conscientious objectors.

As an example, the situation in the Netherlands was mentioned:

Here we have a number of radical pacifist groups and a few large peace organisations. Because in our system politicians are reasonably well accessible, it is possible to raise questions on the national level and get things moving. Within the large peace groups there is an increasing amount of sympathy for tax resistance. In other countries we may however see a growing sense of risk.

Personal lifestyles get bogged down by registration and technology. This opinion was countered with the remark that on the other hand opportunities for publicising one's reasons in public have been improved and that the press shows more interest than in the earlier days of the peace movement. In the Netherlands the conservative Christian Democrats have on occasions shown understanding and awareness of the point of view of conscientious objectors. But they are strongly opposed to our ideas of cuts in the military budget, as well.

Australia is prepared to study international cooperation for legislation on behalf of COs and offers it collaboration with others in this matter. The group regrets that especially in the USA the importance of the international status of the United Nations and cooperation within its framework is so poorly understood, in spite of some positive changes that were also reported. Internationalisation remains a soft spot as far as groups from the US is concerned. It was stressed how important it is for especially peace groups to set an example and find spheres of activities where they can cooperate internationally. As nongovernmental organisations we could form a network to help each other exercise influence on our own governments.

Interest is expressed in the views of friends in other countries where the situation that leads to tax refusal is totally different. South Africa was mentioned and the boycott of rents. Palestinians refuse to pay taxes for political reasons.

Others are busy in different ways. It would be good to hear more about this in future conferences. We do not pretend that we can change everything all by ourselves.

A Proposal

One concrete proposal that was discussed in this group was the organisation of a two-day seminar for MPs, MEPs, experts and ambassadors to generate more understanding for our aims.

This ought not necessarily to get started on the level of the United Nations, but, for instance, first on a European level. A question was if something of the sort could be organised by the Dutch Foreign Ministry. We might let such an activity follow its own course and find out where it might lead us.

In favour of this suggestion is that the lines of communication between citizens and their government in countries like the Netherlands (and for instance, Australia) are much shorter than elsewhere. There is also a wide spectrum of activities at grassroots level. Many action forms have been tried and experienced with. It would be necessary to get public opinion involved. To direct ourselves with such an activity directly to the UN would at this time be too long a road to go. This would ask careful and patient planning over a long time.

One reason for the fact that it is so difficult to get conscientious objectors recognised might be that we are good in saying what we don't want. Sometimes people think that we want to throw over the whole system. Our strong adherence to non-violent action should become part of the argument. It must be our task to show that conflicts can be solved in a non-violent way. Which research institute working on a European or wider scale has already been looking into such problems? Reports prepared for Strasbourg on similar topics have turned out rather negative. Still the matter is important and should be pursued. We must somehow move towards the Council of Europe.

As laws can only be changed starting at the national level, governments and parliaments must be worked at. When laws show blanks, we might make use of these in court cases. The conclusion was that there are those amongst us who have pinned good hopes on legal provisions for COs, but it was also clear that others don't expect any fundamental changes to come about through them. Most of us feel that legal provisions will not be enough to stop the militaristic tendencies in our societies. We should be attentive to use all international possibilities, but not as a purpose in themselves.