Focus, variety, change

By Bart Horeman (Netherlands)

The Dutch war tax resistance movement started in the 1980s. At that time half of the Dutch population was affected by a disease called Hollanditis, according to the outside world. They were against the stationing of US nuclear missiles on Dutch territory and had huge campaign against this government decision. On this wave of Hollanditis the war tax resistance movement grew enormously.

Around 1986 the movement had its height; we had some 3000 donors supporting us. The focus of the movement was to get political pressure by organising war tax resistance-actions. The actions were a means to raise awareness in the broader public. One of the most widespread actions was to refuse to pay part of the taxes on the gas bills. At that time all the gas came from state owned energy companies. When these companies decided to cut people from the gas because they hadn't fully paid their bills, it usually led to much publicity and a public outcry: how can you cut these people from their energy supply if they are protesting against war?

In those years the movement had its successes. As a result of the widespread war tax resistance and to prevent themselves to have to take unpopular measurements like cutting them from the gas supply, several local municipalities decided to install peace funds to give the war tax resistors a legal means to divert part of their taxes to these local peace funds. 

At the end of the 1980s the movement started to decline when government decided to have the nuclear missiles. Also the local regulations for war tax resistance were dismissed by the national government that decided they should be reversed. Meanwhile a group outside the organisation of war tax resistance worked on a law proposal which appeared in 1988 and was amended in 1992.

Another setback was a change in the policy of government repression of war tax resistors. The Netherlands has a 500 year history of tax resistance and so the Dutch government has a 500 year experience of how to deal with it. In the 1980s government used the ‘normal’ method of a public auction to get the war tax resistors' withheld war taxes. And the war tax resistance movement used these auctions as a public feast to get much publicity. In the beginning of the 1990s this changed and the public auctions stopped as government tried to get the taxes in more invisible ways, like robbing one's bank accounts or even one's salary.

The focus of the movement remained on awareness raising, mainly advocating symbolic war tax resistance actions, like withholding a very small amount.

At the end of the 1990s the focus changed away from war tax resistance actions to actions to press the government to spend more on peace building activities. In 2000 started a large campaign called Release money for non-violence demanding the government to spend money on peace building initiatives in stead of on the military. At the moment the Dutch government spends quite a lot of money for peace building in a non-military way, but it could be much more. In the last years the focus has even further shifted away from only taxes and also started to look more into how every person contributes to violent conflict and war as consumer and taxpayer. We have started a campaign called the ‘Clean Handshake’ following the model of the ecological footprint, trying to raise awareness on how all aspects in life may relate to wars around the globe, e.g. through questions like: do you use a mobile phone which has coltan in it coming from a conflict area?

In the course of the years in the Netherlands we learned various lessons which may be of interest to other national organisations:

  • if you do not want to pay for war, you need to withhold or redirect ALL your taxes, not just the percentage that goes to the military. This was said by a judge in the case of a war tax resister, when the judge asked: I do not understand why you want to withhold a part of your taxes, because how can you be certain that money from the remainder will not end up in the military budget? A similar lesson was learned in the US.
  • in order to achieve legal recognition, one needs to compromise to the extent that only individual freedom of conscience can be achieved. Any attempt to achieve that part of your taxes are redirected to certain purposes (peace-building and the like) will conflict with the budget-right of the parliament. This is also similar to the US lessons learned. The bills that did not succeed in getting adopted, lacked this insight, and if they had had, they would have had much chance of getting passed.
  • many of our supporters, although sympathetic to our cause, are not 100 percent against the military. After the end of the cold war, the military have successfully acquired peace missions as a legitimate reason of existence. Many of our supporters are not in principle against the idea of military peace keeping missions.
  • at this moment the Dutch government spends far more on peace building initiatives than 20 years ago, and much more than the total amount of taxes that war tax resistors would want to redirect.
  • in government income, there is a considerable shift from income tax (direct taxes) to the indirect taxes (Value Added Tax (VAT) ).

As a positive conclusion: we managed to survive and we still have some 1000 donors supporting us, but there is a constant challenge to keep renewing our organisation, because slowly our supporters are dying and we need to attract and to listen to new (young) people.