Report by Ruth Benn, NWTRCC Coordinator
A weekend spent with people who do not want to pay for war and killing is always time well spent. With constant news of the disastrous invasion of Iraq and the rising body count of civilians in Afghanistan, it is encouraging to be surrounded by people who resist the status quo. NWTRCC gatherings in the U.S. offer this kind of support, but learning first-hand about the pockets of resistance around the world is especially heartening. While our small numbers can be discouraging, the spirit of such gatherings stays with you for a long time.
I was lucky enough to attend the 12th International Conference on War Tax Resistance and Peace Tax Campaigns, held at Manchester College in Manchester, England, September 5–7. Fifteen countries (Nepal, Japan, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Spain, Colombia, U.S., Germany, Italy, Belgium, Britain, Switzerland, Ukraine) were represented by the 60 or so people in attendance. NWTRCC has sent a representative to each of these conferences, which have been held every other year since 1986. Glancing through some of the past reports, the turnout for this conference appears lower than others, certainly reflecting the lack of growth in our movement, but perhaps also the high cost of travel now. In addition, registrants from Ghana and Palestine were refused visas, which may be a growing problem for potential participants.
Our host was Conscience: The Peace Tax Campaign and included the visible participation of some of the Peace Tax Seven, a group of UK citizens who are going to the European Court of Human Rights to claim the right for conscientious objectors to have the military part of their taxes diverted to a peace fund. As is generally the case with these conferences, there is a heavy focus on legislative and legal efforts. Daniel Jenkins from the U.S. reported on the process of bringing a formal human rights complaint to a U.N. body. In Germany a newly formed group of 10 people plan to take a complaint to a German high court based on the 2009 budget being a violation of fundamental rights because of the military spending. The Germans want to get away from appealing through the tax system so instead are trying this direct route to the officials who create the budget. In Norway peace tax fund campaigners take their appeal to local councils; if the council accepts the complaint as an “initiative of national interest” then the council can send it to the next level of government.
As we have found in the past, it is more difficult to resist in most countries (see box at bottom). However, I was also a little surprised at how dismissive some participants were of war tax resistance. Outside the U.S. there is very little effort to do outreach and organizing about WTR options, and in fact many participants seemed to think of WTR as a futile gesture, because of the risks of rapid collection. But I was also struck by the emphasis on combining any resistance or peace tax legislative effort with creating a government fund for peace initiatives or alternative defense systems. The U.S. bill would allow people to pay into a fund that would not be used for violent activities of the federal government, but it would fund other general expenses. In Britain and elsewhere the campaigns are tied specifically to having the military part of their taxes spent on peacebuilding initiatives.
“Towards Sustainable Security” was the topic of keynote speaker Paul Rogers, professor at Bradford University Peace Studies Department. Rogers sees an important opportunity for peace activists, including WTRs, to build on what is so obvious today — that military solutions do not work. He encourages all progressive groups to work together to turn around the climate change/environmental crises and the growing gap between rich and poor, because these are the pressures that are going to lead to further conflict and war in the coming years. To end war and turn things around we need to combine our efforts with other groups and address all these issues in a more cohesive way.
Workshop sessions included “changing the ways governments think” as regards security; legal and judicial approaches; campaign strategy; effective nonviolent direct action; comparing tax structures; youth outreach; and writing personal statements of conscience. Because the U.S. war tax resistance movement is much stronger (!) than in other countries, as the NWTRCC representative I found a certain disconnect in workshop discussions, and we always spent a good deal of time just trying to understand other systems in order to understand the approach of activists in that country.
It was clear that whatever our focus, we all face similar obstacles in our efforts. Bringing in young people is a case in point, and while no group offered a great success story, many are looking for answers in the networking websites and by upgrading our own websites. The Danish peace tax fund campaign works with the model U.N. program in high schools, making “the right not to pay for war” a topic in those discussions. One person noted that the activists groups that seem to be most successful at drawing in young people are the ones that give new members something to do immediately and regularly. There was also a good deal of discussion of language, in particular the use of the word “conscience.” Some of the younger folks feel it is not a word that resonates with young folks today. Many prefer the positive spin of “Taxes for Peace Not War.”
Despite the emphasis on peace tax campaigns, I had many conversations with war tax resisters from countries other than the U.S., sharing our methods of resistance, the differences in tax systems, and the antics of collectors. Pictures accompanying this article give a glimpse into some of these stories.
Conscience and Peace Tax International held their business meeting during the conference. They reported on their activities monitoring or participating in U.N. committees; presenting briefing papers to the Human Rights Committee on conscientious objection to military service (and taxation where relevant); sponsoring reports to Committee or NGO members by the Peace Tax Seven; and establishing a Legal Committee to better coordinate collection of legal documents, court records, and information about ongoing cases. U.S. activist Daniel Jenkins and Connecticut lawyer Fred Dettmer serve on this committee.
NWTRCC is supportive of but not a member of CPTI as it was founded to link peace tax fund campaigns internationally; the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund in D.C. has been very active with CPTI over the years. However, many conference attendees have come to see CPTI as the umbrella group for “taxes for peace not war,” and CPTI was asked by many participants to take on the role of officially sponsoring the conferences and coordinating work more generally. CPTI was asked to post more organizing successes and ideas on its website. The CPTI board will discuss this proposal, and we will talk about it at future NWTRCC meetings.
On the one hand nothing monumental came out of this conference — no grand success stories or dramatic actions — but I came away with better insights into the work of many of the groups and the certain knowledge that wherever there are taxes for war there are individuals of conscience who won’t pay voluntarily. For some years I have thought that a legal peace tax fund option might come to pass in a European country long before legislation passes in the U.S. While all the campaigns report small groups and marginal inroads, they also all seem to be experimenting with new tactics and strategies. Whether it is war tax resistance or peace tax campaigning, we’re not giving up!
By Ed Hedemann
U.S. peace activists who want to refuse to pay for war have it easy, at least compared to most of the rest of the world. In the United States, everyone who wants to resist taxes can do so.
We must file — or refuse to file — income tax returns, which makes refusal possible, whereas in most countries that option doesn’t exist. For example, in Britain, unless you’re self-employed, there is no income tax return to file. Income taxes are taken directly from your paycheck (through Pay As You Earn — PAYE) and employees cannot control the amount that is withheld unless their employer is willing to be complicit (as with War Resisters’ International in London).
In the United States very few non-income taxes contribute to war, except for the excise taxes on tobacco, alcohol, and local telephone service. But in many other countries, the taxes that go to the military not only come from income taxes but also from the general sale taxes or VAT (value added tax). Buy a television and part of the tax goes to war.
What percent of the budget goes to military spending? In the United States about 50% of our federal income taxes goes to past and present war. However, paychecks in Britain do not have separate amounts withheld for income taxes, for social security, etc., so the percentage of their PAYE taxes that goes to war is around 10%.
The consequences for those who are able to resist (mostly the self-employed) are also a bit different. Generally, a court order is required in Britain to seize personal property, which is done more frequently than in the United States. In other countries (such as Germany), if there is a judgment against a resister, tax agents can come to your house and put stickers on personal property (TV set, computer, bicycle, etc.) to indicate that these items will be seized in 30 days unless the government gets paid. Also, it appears that the percentage of resisters being sent to jail — though small in number (only four in the last 20 years) — is higher in Britain than in the United States. The sentences have ranged from a week to four weeks.
As a result of these restrictions, the numbers of war tax resisters in other countries are much smaller than the several thousand in the United States. For example, in Belgium, only one person is known to be a war tax resister.
Consequently, many feel that their only option is to agitate for peace tax fund legislation and hope their government will see the light. One additional interesting difference is that the U.S. peace tax fund legislation would allow the government-approved conscientious taxpayers to funnel their taxes into existing nonmilitary parts of the budget. Whereas peace tax fund efforts in other countries are geared towards having their taxes put into new programs established to develop systems of nonviolent defense as an alternative to the military.
Ed Hedemann attended the international conference in Manchester. He is the author of War Tax Resistance and active with NYC War Resisters League.
Sample of the Differences Among Tax Systems
|United States||Britain (and some other countries)|
|Sources of War Taxes||income, corporate, some excise||income, VAT, etc.|
|Who can resist||everyone||mostly just the self-employed|
|How to resist|
|self-employed||refuse to pay||refuse to pay|
|payroll control over withholding||W-4 allowances to reduce withholding||PAYE, so generally no option (unless employer agrees)|
|income tax form||yes||no (unless self-employed)|
|some options to file in Italy, Germany, Norway, Belgium|
|letters and notice||yes||yes|
|court order before seizure||no||yes|
|bank account seizures||yes||yes, after court order|
|property seizures||very rare||not unusual but after court order|
|jail||very rare, generally not for nonpayment*||rare but does happen because of nonpayment|
|Peace tax funds|
|tax checkoff for church, etc.||no||in Italy and Spain, but not in most countries|
|alternative nonviolent defense||no||yes|