Revolutionary impatience?

IssueMarch 2005
Feature by Andreas Speck, Simon Heywood

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, Peace News asked the two sides to put their case. This is what they said:

Simon Heywood: In our view the policy of compulsory military taxation contravenes human rights, as stated in the European Convention, thus making it illegal under the Human Rights Act 1998. If the court agrees with us, then the policy will be declared illegal,as was the case with the Belmarsh detentions. Our view is that, as a means towards peace and justice, war doesn't work,and is never seriously intended to. We believe we already have the right to have that view recognised. We want the courts to uphold this right, and, in the process, we want to raise the profile 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 military taxation. As War Resisters' International staff we started to withhold war tax in January 2002 following the war on Afghanistan 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 problems with your legal approach. First of all I find it too narrow-- war tax refusal is not just about a human right, it is about “resistance”: that is, it is an act of civil disobedience, and thus a very powerful act. Legalisation would take away a lot of the power of the refusal. Secondly ,legal action only makes sense if there is a chance to win. I do not see that chance, as there hasn't been any debate with in the legal profession, and none of the international human rights organisations has taken on conscientious objection to military taxation as a human right yet. If legal action is taken and you get another court judgement against the right to refuse to pay war tax, then this will block the legal path for the near future.

SH: Whilst we must be realistic, there'd be no point keeping slavery, for example, simply in order to heighten the impact (as resistance) of civil disobedience against slavery . The point of resistance is to make progress. Of course, there are always risks associated with a loss 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 cases relating to war; the relationship between the state and the law is certainly a matter for discussion among legal specialists; and there is evidence that some con cessions are beginning to be made internationally--in Italy , for example. The legislation allowing appeals to human rights is untested, but the best ever yet in Britain. None of these things guarantees a win, or lessens the consequences of a loss, but these dangers would always exist. So, if not now, then when?

AS: I don't believe now is the right time to go through the courts with tax resistance, as I think you're bound to lose, and the Human Rights Act does not really make a difference here. The final point of reference will be the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, and there it doesn't look very promising. The ECHR declared a tax refusal case from Britain as inadmissible back in 1986, as it did with similar applications in 1983. Any case brought to an English court based on the Human Rights Act will be faced with these inadmissibility decisions. So, when? ...When tax resistance is an issue legally and politically: When we have succeeded in getting the big human rights organisations on board (for example when Amnesty International includes conscientious objection to military taxation in their country reports) and in getting some discussion going within the more mainstream legal profession. I'm all for revolutionary impatience (although legal recognition is hardly a revolutionary measure), but I'm also for realism. And my under -standing of the political and legal situation tells me that we are in for the long haul.

SH: The Strasbourg inadmissibility decisions are as relevant as any other decision from two decades ago. There has been a lot of case law at the ECHR since then, and the law has evolved in the process. Interpretation of ECHR Article 9 was much narrower then than isnow usual, and we have good grounds for arguing that you can't read off decisions today from decisions made twenty years ago. Whatever a judge' s view of the basic arguments, it would 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 many cases going forward in Europe and North America, a number of books and articles, arguments, decisions and written opinions, significant-sounding moves towards legal recognition in Italy, and many leading members of the legal profession working on the issue. So, the issue is pretty well aired within the legal profession. It has been national news recently, and as I write there's no sign of this interest letting up. But in the end, recognition of rights is a legal issue. In going to court now, we are continuing a well established, 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 not yet strongly established--let's face it, we are still very few in numbers. I am not optimistic about the likely outcome of the legal review. I don' t see the debate in the legal profession, I don't see the debate within human rights bodies, within the UN, the Council of Europe, etc. I'm not opposed to using the legal 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.