Stand up and be counted

18th November 2011 at 00:00
Prisoners of conscience deserve to be celebrated in schools, argues Howard Clark

A US soldier suspected of leaking state secrets to WikiLeaks and a long-term hunger striker in India will soon have something in common. Both will be sent goodwill messages by pupils and others across the globe on 1 December, Prisoners for Peace Day.

The event has been observed since 1956 by War Resisters' International, a global anti-war organisation. This year, its list of prisoners - or "Honour Roll" as it was originally called - includes the two mentioned above, as well as conscientious objectors to military service, non-violent activists imprisoned for trespassing on a nuclear weapons base, and a hunger striker in Egypt being punished for denouncing human rights abuses by the country's security forces.

The cases of the US soldier, Bradley Manning, and the Indian hunger striker both raise central issues about obedience - not only about respect for freedom of conscience, but also about how to respond when governments lie to their citizens and violate international human rights standards. Their stories can be used to discuss these issues in the classroom in a personal way.

Originally, the prisoners for peace were all "conscientious objectors", and they still make up the majority on the list. Conscription has now been phased out in most of Europe, but it exists elsewhere - and often without recognition of the rights to conscientious objection upheld by the United Nations and other bodies.

Some conscientious objectors have challenged the military system in their countries, using court proceedings and subsequent prison sentences as a way of bringing attention to their critique of militarism. One I know personally is Moon Myungjin in South Korea, now serving an 18-month sentence. The Colombian objectors placed on the list of prisoners for peace earlier this year were picked up in the street by the military, even though Colombia has been condemned by the United Nations for this type of press-ganging.

Many Israelis who would be willing to defend their country object to the role and the conduct of the Israeli Defence Forces in Palestine. Hundreds have been imprisoned - usually for weeks rather than months, but in many cases repeatedly - for refusing to take part in activities they see as immoral or illegal.

Most of the objectors on this list, however, are Jehovah's Witnesses - people merely wishing to follow religious beliefs that prohibit joining any government's armed forces.

One conscientious objector is British: Michael Lyons (pictured above), a naval medic ashamed of what British forces are doing in Afghanistan, who has been sentenced to seven months in prison, but is due to be released later this month. The information Bradley Manning passed to WikiLeaks made Lyons think again about going to Afghanistan. Manning has already served 18 months in pre-trial detention.

Some of those imprisoned have deliberately committed non-violent offences regarded as criminal by their governments. Most are peace activists who enter weapons bases and try to disable nuclear weapons. They want to be taken to court, where they will challenge the morality or legality of nuclear weapons - weapons that, by their very nature, cause massive destruction that does not distinguish between civilian and combatant.

Some of those imprisoned are there for saying or doing what they believed was right. Dr Rafil Dhafir was sentenced to 22 years because he organised humanitarian aid for Iraq, violating US sanctions. Irom Chanu Sharmila began a hunger strike 10 years ago in protest against the massacre of 10 civilians in Manipur in north-east India. She has been imprisoned for "attempting to commit suicide" and kept alive through a feeding tube ever since.

In Egypt, blogger Maikel Nabil was jailed for "insulting the military" after he complained that they were still committing human rights violations after the downfall of President Mubarak in the Arab Spring revolution earlier this year. Initially sentenced to three years, his trial has now been annulled, yet he remains in military prison and for two months has been on hunger strike.

The willingness of people to go "against the herd" - to stand up to their governments, perhaps to popular opinion, to whoever the bully happens to be - is fundamental to challenging violence at any level. Since the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War, it has been accepted that "only obeying orders" is no defence for participation in crimes orchestrated by those in power. These prisoners are all prepared to pay the price of living according to their own conscience, their own moral code, or their belief that their government is violating international standards of human rights.

When military recruiters visit schools, they do not raise these issues - the British Armed Forces does not even supply troops with a copy of the Nuremberg principles to remind them of their responsibility not to comply with illegal orders, including co-operation with the illegal activities of allies such as torture, summary executions or attacks on civilians. Veterans for Peace is one of the groups willing to visit schools to offer a counter-view.

Howard Clark is chair of War Resisters' International. This year's full list of prisoners for peace can be found at, and has further information about nuclear weapons protesters


Prisoners for Peace Day, 1 December

National Tree Week, 26 November - 4 December


Classroom activities

Ask each student to choose a prisoner and research him or her, and send the prisoner a greetings card.

Ask teams of students to prepare the prosecution and defence cases concerning particular prisoners. Stage a mock trial or a formal debate.

Ask if any pupils know someone who has been imprisoned for peace activities or who was a conscientious objector. Invite them to talk to the class about their experience.

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