By Greg Ogle
Troops firing on unarmed protesters in Australia? Almost unthinkable, but it is a possibility which is clearly planned for in an official (though secret) Australian army document which was leaked recently. The peace movement got hold of the document, as did Brian Toohey, who blew the army's secret over the front page of the Sunday Age in Melbourne.
The document is part of the army's Manual of Land Warfare and is for use where the army is called out to support civilian authority. The manual outlines a whole range of procedures for deployment and actions in guarding and searching areas, crowd control and dispersal and the use of the media.
It is pretty disturbing reading.
Probably the most startling aspects are the procedures laid out for firing on protesters, either to disperse crowds or in guarding key areas.
After warnings to the crowd, individual protesters are to be arbitrarily picked out. The order will come: "Number one section, adopt the kneeling position; load; man in blue shirt waving axe; number three rifleman, action, instant, one round fire!"
The unfortunate rifleman must then "aim for the centre of the mass", that is at the heart of the even more unfortunate protester.
Crucial evidence (like spent cartridges) is then to be collected by the army and causes of any casualties are not to be reported to the media "to inhibit propaganda exploitation". That is, don't say you shot anybody; which I believe was the Chinese government's line after Tiananmen Square.
While some of the procedure relates to riot control (which the manual admits is a remote possibility) it is also clear that when guarding key points, firearms may be used "even where the crowd is unarmed and not bent on sabotage".
This is particularly important because the army was used in that role during the protests against the US base at Nurrungar in 1989, and again earlier this year.
Those protests were non-violent actions and the Peace Action Collective (PAC), which organised the protests, wants to know what the army was doing there. Through Democrat Senator John Coulter, PAC has asked the defence minister what the army's role was and what its orders were. Senator Sid Spindler is seeking similar information under the Freedom of Information Act.
While shooting unarmed protesters is the most extreme example, the whole philosophy of the document doesn't seem to recognise a democratic right to protest. It lumps a whole range of legitimate political activities with terrorism and violence.
Mass demonstrations are seen as "disturbances" rather than a part of democratic life. Passive resistance to arrest is considered a tactic associated with violence.
And it seems that genuine social injustices don't really exist or need to be addressed, as the army invokes images from Stalinist Russia. "Agitators" are everywhere, creating "hostile attitudes and beliefs". Protesters are "dissidents" who use "propaganda", and crowds are potentially violent mobs stirred up by the "agitators".
Of course the army aims to use "minimum force", but this can include the use of lethal weapons.
Since the manual was made public, the mainstream media have ignored the issue while the army claims that the language might be old-fashioned, but there is no real problem.
One novel response has come from sections of the Australian Anti-Bases Campaign (ABC), which have issued warnings to protesters most at risk from this manual. Taking the army's protester stereotypes seriously (well almost), they have announced that "blue shirts, purple shirts and bearded men are to
be banned from demonstrations near US bases".
The Peace Action Collective in Adelaide has called for the whole manual to be rewritten to take full account of the legitimate rights to protest. PAC has also sought legal advice, which suggests that some of the procedures in the manual may violate international law.
Most obviously, Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights outlaws the "arbitrary" taking of human life. It would appear that picking out protesters in blue shirts is indeed arbitrary, and the ABC will be writing to various international human rights groups, asking them to add to the call for army procedures be revised. [Greg Ogle is an organiser with the Peace Action Collective.]