Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Wish You Were Here: Banning the (Cluster) Bomb, 1958-2008

The Philippine Campaign to Ban Landmines (PCBL) designed the postcard above for the Dublin Diplomatic Conference on Cluster Munitions in May this year. The postcard was distributed to participants there with a message to support a cluster munitions ban treaty this year, and also commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and its Ban-the-Bomb symbol – a symbol that later became the more broadly meaningful Peace Symbol.

It’s timely to bring this up again on the occasion of the Oslo Signing Conference for the new Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), which comprehensively bans them as a class of weapons, and which commenced on Wednesday. When we made the postcard before the Dublin Conference, achieving such a comprehensive ban treaty wasn’t yet certain. After the successful treaty negotiations at Dublin, the treaty is now about to become a reality in international law.

Through the main motifs in black and yellow orange on the front of our postcard, we wanted to show the continuing a link, from left to right, between the oldest (A-bomb) and the newest (cluster) bomb ban advocacies between 1958 and 2008. It reflects a historical continuum of 50 years of bomb banning and peace advocacy, as well as an element of solidarity with and outreach to other generations and causes in peace activism, especially those who have advocated nuclear disarmament.

The postcard was meant to recall and honour those who were generations ahead of the current Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) and paved the way for humanitarian disarmament campaigning.

The cluster bomb motif provided by CMC also indicates, aside from a cluster bomb itself, a victim’s hand and upper arm as if signaling “Stop!” or “No!”. That seems simple enough. That wasn’t the case though with the peace symbol originally designed by British anti-war activist-artist Gerald Holtom in 1958 for an Easter weekend protest march to an A-bomb research facility in Aldermaston in England. In his own words explaining it 15 years later in 1973:

“I was in despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards in the manner of Goya’s peasant before the firing squad. I formalized the drawing into a line and put a circle round it….”
In Holtom’s original design, the lines were not so cleanly straight as they have been in more recent years (as adopted in our postcard), but instead were curved outward on both sides of the lines where the hands palm outstretched, the head and feet of the despairing figure were supposed to be.

Almost as an afterthought, Holtom also saw that the symbol represented a composite of the semaphore signals for the letter N (someone holding a flag in each hand stretched outwards and downwards) and D (a single flag held vertically above the head) – thus Nuclear Disarmament. So, in those earlier years in Britain, it was known more as the “disarmament symbol,” “ND symbol,” or “CND symbol.” Holtom himself was said to have regretted the connotation of despair and wanted the sign inverted to instead connote something more like hope, resurrection or elation. Also, the inverted image of a figure with arms stretched upwards and outwards represented the semaphore signal for U – Unilateral, as in unilateral action as the key to nuclear disarmament. But the original symbol is what stuck and caught on.

Bayard Rustin, an American activist in the 1958 march, took the symbol back to the U.S., where it eventually became the Peace Symbol globally. From a symbol of despair, it came to acquire near universal significance as a symbol of peace and protest, especially of the anti-war sort.

At the back of our postcard pictured above, we indicated in upper left the occasion and venue: “DUBLIN DIPLOMATIC CONFERENCE ON CLUSTER MUNITIONS, 19-30 May 2008, Croak Park, Dublin, IRELAND” with the Irish shamrock symbol to its immediate right. (We misspelled the name of historic Croke Park.) Because the venue was Ireland, we wanted to use the Irish colour green for this text, but decided to stick with black to economize on production costs.

And so that text and the Irish shamrock at the back of our postcard came out in black. When we showed the postcard to Irish peace activist friend Clem McCartney and his Chilean anti-war activist partner Roberta Bacic on meeting up with them in Dublin outside the conference, surprisingly they commended us for its “black shamrock,” – which we learned from them is an Irish symbol of mourning and resistance. Huh, PCBL had inadvertently used an Irish protest symbol?

And so – perhaps like Holtom – our postcard was loaded with anti-war symbols to a greater extent than we had originally intended. In fact, toward the end of the Dublin conference we actually came across that “Black Shamrock” symbol again on the T-shirt of an Irish anti-war activist who participated in a side event to the conference, a Public Talk on “Achieving a Cluster Munitions Ban: Blueprint for an Ethical Foreign Policy?” with former Irish Assistant Secretary General Denis Halliday, sponsored by Action from Ireland (Afri).

At the end of the conference I chanced upon Finnish campaigner Jan Koskimies of the Peace Union of Finland/Committee of 100. He was wearing on his lapel a Peace Symbol pin of Holtom’s original design. Seizing the moment, I asked Jan if I could buy (yes, buy) his pin. He said, no, he would give it to me since there were many more of them back where it came from in his organization. It turns out that the Committee of 100 was the more widely known successor to the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War (DAC), which had planned the 1958 Easter weekend protest march to Aldermaston. To somehow return the favour, I could only give Jan our postcard – maybe not the fairest exchange.

Exchange? Yes, let’s learn the lessons from each other’s campaigning histories and so connect the dots between arms control, disarmament, humanitarian law, human rights, and peace. Let’s invoke the spirit of the best in humanitarian disarmament and peace campaigning. And we may yet develop a new, more interlinked and holistic, humanitarian disarmament network.

This is a guest blog by Sol Santos. Sol is Coordinator of the Philippine Campaign to Ban Landmines. Image courtesy of Kara M. Santos.