Second International Conference on War Tax Resistance and Peace Tax Campaigns

Vierhouten, the Netherlands 1988

Lobbying and Legislation

In this group representatives of eight countries exchanged experiences and discussed underlying questions of content. Conscience is an important aspect of the individual and a very personal matter. It challenges the partner to intensely listen to one’s argument. Far from being noncommittal, discussions on matters of conscience touch on moral and spiritual dilemmas. It is important that such discussions shouldn't deteriorate into arguments about us versus them or good versus bad. In order to get other people to move along with us, it is important to approach them on their wavelength, find their sensitive points. It is also important to leave the other in his/her own value, so as to ultimately get through to them, to appeal to their conscience. It could be argued that political differences overlook the specific problems, which matters of conscience entail. There is a difference in the way politicians deal with such problems, for instance between the USA and the UK.

To many people the issue of making a big argument about paying (or not paying) taxes for war purposes is of no personal relevance, as they consider paying taxes as something in itself and fail to see the link with paying for the preparations of war. One participant agrees with the spiritual roots of the discussion about tax withdrawal, but also voiced a warning to link this too explicitly with the consciences of churchgoing people. It is all right to approach these questions from our own religious backgrounds, but the real discussion must be lifted to the level of practical politics.

The introduction of a draft proposal for legislation in the Netherlands originated in the bosom of a few small churches, with the intention to get discussions started among the own congregation first. The initiators also decided not to appeal for acts of civil disobedience by breaking existing laws. They agreed that all legal possibilities should be explored first. If, however, the proposed legislation would not be passed by parliament, then there would be no other way open than to become lawbreakers.

Some people doubt whether we are right in waiting for this whole procedure to be negotiated. And what kind of legal arrangements suitable for politicians will also satisfy our COs? Anyway, this strategy was meant to get the discussion started in the churches as well.

Possibilities for a legal solution are also scrutinized in Japan and Belgium.

In Sweden a group has recently begun to study the matter. In that country there is no legal provision for COs on taxes yet, but the principle of religious freedom is strongly upheld.

The rights of conscientious objection to military service still have to be recognized as human rights in the sense of the Universal Declaration of the United Nations.

In West Germany the discussion on diversion of tax money of COs to a Peace Fund has been under discussion for some years now. A proposal to establish such a fund was introduced in parliament by the Green Party and it has been read in several committees. Presently it is waiting to be moved beyond this level of introduction, but discussions are now going on whether the first draft covers sufficiently all thoughts on this matter or whether a new draft ought to be carried forward that more thoroughly deals with certain problems. The first draft only dealt with revenues from income tax. In the UK 68 out of 600 MPs, mainly representing the smaller parties, have declared their support for legislation, eventually. But legislation can only be forwarded to the House by a motion of cabinet. Within the framework of the British parliamentary system all hopes therefore are pinned on changes of individual representatives in order to get an increase in the number of supportive MPs. Presently three projects for legislation have been proposed. Neither represents radical or pacifist points of view. Those would find insufficient support anyway. In one of them the freedom of conscience is spelled out in relation to paying taxes, another proposal deals more with technical matters and the third centres down on diversion of tax money and the Peace fund. There is some progress, there are a few MPs willing to stand up for questions related to peace issues and there is a general interest in these proposals and in safeguarding individual human rights.

In the USA proposals for legislation were introduced at Capitol Hill well over 15 years ago. The National Campaign spends at least one day a week lobbying around House and Senate. A number of representatives have come out in favour of legislation and the campaign as such is taken seriously by a good many more. One formula used to exercise pressure by individual voters on congressmen is the 6x6-programme: A number of people are asked to ask six other people to write to their representative and ask six more amongst their friends to do the same and so on. Small groups then keep in touch about the progress so as to encourage and support each other. Such a scheme needs perseverance and patience.

Australia recognises conscientious objection to military service. COs have to appear before a tribunal. It was suggested that in the case of tax withholders it might strengthen their case if they would indicate their willingness to pay even more than the tax assessment into a Peace fund as an additional proof of how genuine their opposition to taxes for war is.

A friend from the USA contested, that a committee to weigh the sincerity of a person's conscience and a Peace Fund are two different things. Politicians may scrutinize our yes or no to paying taxes for peace and find the motivations as an apology to move out. We have experience with politicians demanding young men refusing military service to fill out long questionnaires with questions about their motives, beliefs, how it all came about and how ones conscience influences ones lifestyle. They might want to introduce similar procedures for tax refusers, but we oppose such a way of weighing the motives of individuals in pursuing what they think right. Likewise, expecting COs to pay more in this view would be wrong and unconstitutional.

In the Netherlands conscientious objections are considered to be a basic right, not a privilege. Therefore the question of paying more as a sort of self-imposed punishment should not present itself. In the Netherlands too COs to military service have to appear before a tribunal. In the draft legislation on tax withholding such a test has been omitted.

No one can fathom how deeply anchored objections can be in a person's conscience. It ought to be enough to establish the fact that they exist. Likewise, in the UK testing is rejected and certainly this should not happen before a kind of tribunal.

It's a matter of solidarity not to differentiate between political, pacifist and nuclear objections. The total number of people concerned is not very large anyway. Our opponents often say, that the modern state is too complex as to do justice to every individual whim. It would lead to anarchy. But exceptions have been made in the past. There are different types of law. To recognise this fact might help politicians to modify their positions. For centuries we have upheld the basic principle that when you make allowance for one demand, you must equally honour others. Governments have a duty to apply this principle generally. In this case however the dilemma that bedevils us requires something extra and that is because it is related to the fact that our money eventually and against our will could be used to kill people.

Another reason to strive for legislation is that many countries do recognise by law conscientious objection to military service. Virtually the same arguments that lead to the recognition of those apply to conscientious objection to taxes for war. And even where no laws referring to COs exist, the principle of religious freedom and the freedom of conscience is on the statute books.

Laws for COs vary in different countries. Most countries have tribunals for testing motives of COs; in some the principle exists that alternative service must be longer than military service. In no country however has the number of soldiers under arms been reduced because of those who refuse to serve. (In Germany at a certain moment so many men refused to do their military service that the army could not fill its quota!)

With legislation on behalf of COs to paying taxes for war, we want to go one step further and achieve at the same time reduction of spending for war in tune with the amounts redirected towards peaceful purposes.

Our discussion led to the conclusion that there are often great cultural differences between various countries. Therefore not everything that is useful in one place can be copied for another. We can learn a great deal from one another by listening carefully, so as not to be too rushed in our judgement or with preconceived ideas. When a person becomes involved in civil disobedience he or she makes a deliberate choice and has to accept the consequences of such a choice. This is a relevant point. At the same time however, we still will have dirty hands as we remain within the total system we reject to varying degrees, even if we become tax withholders.

Politicians often say that safeguarding our countries is a collective and indivisible good. This may be so. What worries us is the way it is carried through and the means it uses for its purpose. When done the right way, we would be willing to pay our full share in tax contributions. Safeguarding our security by military means is not by nature a duty of the state. There are countries with no army or with only a small police force. We ought to liberate ourselves from the idea that armies are the normal thing and will be so forever. For some individuals this might be a motive to graduate from nominal withholding to total tax refusal, in order to underline our opinion that our common weal should strive for our common wellbeing. And the military has no place there as far as we are concerned!

Conscience

The workshop felt the difficulty of explaining the differences between conscientious and political objections. Our conscience imposes itself, is therefore implicitly an individual phenomenon. Others may also recognise collective elements while defining conscience. It is important, when we engage in a discussion about this subject, to clarify such points first in order to eliminate misunderstanding. As human beings we also have a political conscience, in some way one encounters this in political parties.

Another nuance may come from differentiating a horizontal and a vertical conscience (that what we “know” together or that what we know “in God”). One may also find conscience defined as “peace of mind”, the awareness for oneself that there are restrictions and limits one should not cross over.

Let's be practical

The group admonished each other to “remain practical”. There are various categories of people: Opponents, indifferent people, our fellow travellers and those we hope to find our road eventually. The year 1989 will bring elections for the European Parliament.

Is it possible to conceive of activities we might do in relation to this event together?

Agreement on principle was easy to be found. It should be worked out in a separate session. We might be well advised to be inclusive by taking into our considerations non-European initiatives and experiences from other parts of the world.

Even if we assume (as we did in the group) that interest in these elections will be small, they still signal a breakthrough for individual countries. Our movements in Belgium, West Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have already established contacts with MEPs and candidates.

Herman Verbeek, keynote speaker during this conference, will stand as candidate for the Rainbow (Green) Fraction and is one of those who can be approached. As most of the lobbying will have to be done on the national level, exchanges of ideas and experiences could help to safe a lot of work. It was agreed that the available drafts for legislation should be published in one volume. It was further suggested to organize a seminar for European countries within NATO to present our objections on that level. It was mentioned in relation to this that a special gathering might have to be planned for the Scandinavian countries.

The plans, mentioned elsewhere in this report, for a conference in the United States about the history and the present situation of COs versus the state was briefly discussed in this group as well.