Amnesty International and conscientious objection in Australia’s Vietnam War

by guest contributor Jon Piccini.

Human rights are now the dominant language of political claim making for activists of nearly any stripe. Groups who previously looked to the state as a progressive institution conferring rights and duties now seek solace in our (at least, until recently) post-national world in global protections and norms – a movement ‘from the politics of the state to the morality of the globe’, as Samuel Moyn puts it.[1]

Yet, a long history of contestation and negotiation over human rights’ meaning belie the term’s now seemingly unchallengeable global salience. What constituted a ‘right’, who could claim them and what relation rights claiming had to the nation state are long and enduring questions. I want to explore these questions by focusing on the role that Amnesty International – a then struggling outfit employing a new, inventive form of human rights activism – played in campaigning against conscription in Australia during the 1960s. While a collective politics of mutual solidarity and democratic citizenship predominated in was dubbed the ‘draft resistance’ movement, Australian Amnesty members worked to have Conscientious Objectors recognised as ‘Prisoners of Conscience’ and adopted by groups around the world.

Founded in London in 1961, Amnesty struggled in its early years to stay afloat. By 1966, “The organization’s credibility was severely damaged by publicity surrounding its links to the British government and strife among the leadership”, as Jan Eckel puts it, and such problems were reflected in Australia.[2] Amnesty’s arrival in Australia was ad hoc: from 1964 onwards groups began emerging in different states, mainly New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, which meant that Australia stood out as the only country without a national Amnesty section, but rather multiple State-based groups each struggling with finances and small membership.

I will argue that relating to the draft resistance movement actually posed many problems for Amnesty members. While for some a clear-cut violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Australia’s two key State sections – NSW and Victoria – came to widely divergent interpretations of what constituted a prisoner of conscience, and what duties citizens had to the State: debates which made their way to the organisation’s centre in Europe. These illustrate how human rights had far from settled meanings in the 1960s, even for their adherents, and point towards the importance of local actors in understanding intellectual history.

Australia (re)introduced conscription for overseas service in 1964, with the conservative Coalition government fearful of a threatening Asia.[3] Troops, including conscripts, were committed to the growing conflict in Vietnam a year later. While initially popular, opposition to conscription began growing from 1966 when Sydney schoolteacher William ‘Bill’ White was jailed after his claim for conscientious objector status was rejected. White and other objectors were not “conscientiously” opposed to war in general, but held what the responsible minister labelled a “political” opposition to the Vietnam War, and as such did not meet strict legal guidelines.[4]

Bringing those believed to be ‘prisoners of conscience’ to light initially united both the New South Wale and Victorian sections. The Victorian section released a statement in support of White’s actions: “we feel it impossible…to doubt the sincerity of his convictions and are gravely concerned at the prospect of his continued detention under the provisions of military law”. Given “the grounds for an appeal to the Government on White’s behalf based on the sanctity of the individual conscience are substantial”, the section recommended White’s case to AI’s London office “for appropriate action”.[5]

The New South Wales section expressed near identical sentiments, reporting in August 1966 that “Conscription had been the overriding issue in much of our new work”, pointing to its transnational nature, with the section collecting material on Australian cases while campaigning for the release of conscientious objectors in the USA and East Germany: “the predicament of Bill White is shared by young men all over the world”.[6] White’s public statement of conscientious objection, reproduced in the NSW section’s newsletter, spoke of rights as “unalterable” and inhering in a person rather than being a “concession given by a government”, and as such these were “not something which the government has the right to take”.[7]

White’s release in December 1966 came before AI could adopt his cause internationally, but more objectors soon followed. What became problematic, however, was when the politics of conscientious objection moved to one of downright refusal – non-compliance with the laws of the land. Unlike White, part time postman John Zarb did not seek conscientious objector status but refused to register for military service altogether. His October 1968 jailing saw “Free Zarb” became a rallying cry for the anti-war movement: it was seen as representing the futility and double standards synonymous with the Vietnam War. As one activist leaflet put it: “In Australia – it is a crime not to kill”.[8] AI NSW section member Robert V Horn described in a long memorandum to London, written in late 1968 and sent after internal discussion some six months later, how “Conscription and Vietnam have become inter-mixed in public debate, and in contemporary style outbursts of demonstrations, protest marches, draft card burnings [and] sit-ins”.[9]

Zarb’s case was however nowhere near as clear cut for Amnesty members as White’s had been. Horn described that while “one might guess that many [AI] members are opposed to Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War” these individuals held “many shades of views”, particularly around the acceptability of law breaking.[10] Horn circulated a draft report on the situation in Australia that he had prepared for AI’s London headquarters to other AI members within his section and in Victoria, reactions to which demonstrate just how divisive the issue of conscientious objectors and non-compliers was for an organisation deeply wedded to due legal process. David McKenna, in charge of the Victorian section’s conscientious objection work, put this distinction quite clearly – arguing that those who “register for national service and apply for exemption”, but whose “applications fail either through some apparent miscarriage of justice or because the law does not presently encompass their objections…are prima facie eligible for adoption” as prisoners of conscience.[11]

However, those who “basically refuse to co-operate with the National Service Act” merely “maintain a right to disobey a law which they believe to be immoral”—and as such were not a concern for AI. McKenna here makes use of a similar typology as the Minister for National Service, casting refusal as a “purely political stand” as opposed to those who hold a “moral objection to conscription” and pursue this through the legal system. McKenna brought to his defence the UDHR, noting that in article 29/2 “freedom of conscience is not an absolute, nor is freedom to disobey in a democratic society”.[12] Concerns were raised about “to what extent we uphold disobedience to the law by adopting such persons”, noting that AI had chosen not to adopt prisoners “who refuse obedience to laws [such as] in South Africa or Portugal”, referencing recent debates regarding the adoption of prisoners who had advocated violence. Taking on prisoners who refused to obey laws not only opened the road to similar “freedom to disobey” claims – “are we to adopt people wo refuse to have a T.B. X Ray on grounds of conscience” – but McKenna also feared that in taking “such a radical step…our high repute would be seriously damaged”.[13]

Horn and others in the NSW section “decr[ied] such legalistic interpretation” – “the Non-Complier in gaol for conscientiously held and non-violently expressed views suffers no less than the [Conscientious Objector] who has tried in vain to act ‘according to the law”.[14] While at first divisions on this issue were across and between sections, by late 1969 the Victorian section had solidly decided “that non-compliers should not be adopted”, and sent a memorandum to London to this effect in preparation for the 1970 AI Executive Meeting, to be held in Stockholm.[15] The position of the NSW section was equally clear, expressed in a resolution adopted during ‘prisoner of conscience week’ in November 1969 requesting Amnesty and the UN General Assembly adopt “firm restrains upon legal and political repression of conscience”. “[T]he expression of honest opinions regarding matters of economics, politics, morality, religion or race is not a good and sufficient reason” to justify imprisonment of a person, the Section petitioned, and “no person should be penalised for refusing to obey a law…which infringes the principles here set forth”.[16] The Stockholm gathering backed the NSW Sections views, with the Victorian Section wondering whether this geographical placement and the strength of the Swedish Section – “who have the same problem as Australia and have come to the opposite view” – swayed results.[17]

This small case study provides insights into how the idea of human rights has been contested over time. Australia’s two Amnesty Sections – not amalgamated until the late 1970s – developed polar opposite views around the veracity of law breakers as beneficiaries of Amnesty’s human rights activism. This arguably came down to a fundamental opposition in how both groups conceptualised human rights – as global and inhering in the person, as such not requiring compliance with laws of the Nation State – or as the product and result of citizenship, which gave rights and imposed duties onto a subject. The AI Executive Council’s decision to stand on the side of the individual’s inalienable rights also provides a pre-history of how human rights moved from its 1960s meanings –, best exemplified by the 1968 Tehran Declaration’s deep wedding to the State – to a ‘rebirth’ in the 1970s as a global set of enforceable norms against states – a history that can be fruitfully explored at both the global and local levels.

Jon Piccini is a Postdoctoral Development Fellow at the University of Queensland, where he is working on a book provisionally titled Human Rights: An Australian History. His most recent book, Transnational Protest, Australia and the 1960s, appeared in 2016 with Palgrave. 

 

[1] Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Harvard, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2010), 43.

[2]  Jan Eckel, “The International League for the Rights of Man, Amnesty International, and the Changing Fate of Human Rights Activism from the 1940s through the 1970s”, Humanity 4, No. 2 (Spring 2013), 183.

[3] Australia’s main two main conservative forces, the Liberal party and what was in the 1960s the Country party, but is now known as the National party, operate as a coalition in federal elections.

[4] Leslie Bury MP to Lincoln Oppenheimer, 31 March 1966, reproduced in Amnesty News 21 (May 1969), 3-4.

[5] “Statement from the Victorian Section of Amnesty International. Bill White Case”, Amnesty Bulletin 16 (November 1966).

[6] Lincoln Oppenheimer, “President’s Report”, Amnesty News 10 (August 1966), 3.

[7] “Copy of Statement by Mr W. White, Sydney Schoolteacher and Conscientious Objector”, Amnesty News 10 (August 1966), 2-3.

[8] “Australia’s Political Prisoner”, Undated leaflet, State Library of South Australia.

[9] Robert V Horn, Untitled Report on conscientious objection and noncompliance in Australia, Robert V Horn Papers, MLMSS 8123, Box 33, SLNSW.

[10] Ibid.

[11] David McKenna to Robert V Horn, 2 March 1969, Robert V Horn Papers, MLMSS 8123, Box 33, SLNSW

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Horn, Untitled Report.

[15] David McKenna to Robert V Horn, 19 February 1970, Robert V Horn Papers, MLMSS 8123, Box 33, SLNSW

[16] “RESOLUTION – Prisoner of Conscience Week, November 1969”, Amnesty News 24 (February 1970), 15-16.

[17] “International Council”, Amnesty Bulletin 28 (October 1970), 4-5.

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