February 15, 2003: The day the world said no to war

Phyllis Bennis argues that while the day of mass protest did not stop the war, it did change history

February 15, 2013
7 min read


Phyllis Bennis is Red Pepper’s United Nations correspondent, and a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.

Ten years ago people around the world rose up. In almost 800 cities across the globe, protesters filled the streets of capital cities and tiny villages, following the sun from Australia and New Zealand and the small Pacific islands, through the snowy steppes of North Asia and down across the South Asian peninsula, across Europe and down to the southern edge of Africa, then jumping the pond first to Latin America and then finally, last of all, to the United States.

And across the globe, the call came in scores of languages, ‘the world says no to war!’ The cry ‘Not in Our Name’ echoed from millions of voices. The Guiness Book of World Records said between 12 and 14 million people came out that day, the largest protest in the history of the world. It was, as the great British labour and peace activist and former MP Tony Benn described it to the million Londoners in the streets that day, ‘the first global demonstration, and its first cause is to prevent a war against Iraq’. What a concept – a global protest against a war that had not yet begun – the goal, to try to stop it.

It was an amazing moment – powerful enough that governments around the world, including the soon-famous ‘Uncommitted Six’ in the Security Council, did the unthinkable: they too resisted US-UK pressure and said no to endorsing Bush’s war. Under ordinary circumstances, alone, US-dependent and relatively weak countries like Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico and Pakistan could never stand up to Washington. But these were not ordinary circumstances. The combination of diplomatic support from ‘Old Europe’, Germany and France who for their own reasons opposed the war, and popular pressure from thousands, millions, filling the streets of their capitals, allowed the Six to stand firm. The pressure was fierce. Chile was threatened with a US refusal to ratify a [quite terrible – but the Chilean government was committed to it] US free trade agreement seven years in the making. Guinea and Cameroon were threatened with loss of US aid granted under the African Growth & Opportunity Act. Mexico faced the potential end of negotiations over immigration and the border. And yet they stood firm.

The day before the protests, February 14, the Security Council was called into session once again, this time at the foreign minister level, to hear the ostensibly final reports of the two UN weapons inspectors for Iraq. Many had anticipated that their reports would somehow wiggle around the truth, that they would say something Bush and Blair would grab to try to legitimize their spurious claims of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, that they would at least appear ambivalent enough for the U.S. to use their reports to justify war. But they refused to bend the truth, stating unequivocally that no such weapons had been found.

Following their reports, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin responded with an extraordinary call, reminding the world that ‘the United Nations must remain an instrument of peace, and not a tool for war’. In that usually staid, formal, rule-bound chamber, his call was answered with a roaring ovation beginning with Council staff and quickly engulfing the diplomats and foreign ministers themselves.

Security Council rejection was strong enough, enough governments said no, that the United Nations was able to do what its Charter requires, but what political pressure too often makes impossible: to stand against the scourge of war. On the morning of February 15, just hours before the massive rally began at the foot of the United Nations, Harry Belafonte and I accompanied South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu to meet with then Secretary-General Kofi Annan, on behalf of the protesters. We were met by a police escort to cross what the NY Police Department had designated its “frozen zone” – not in reference to the bitter 18 degrees or the biting wind whipping in from the East River, but the forcibly deserted streets directly in front of UN headquarters. In the secretary-general’s office on the 38th floor of the United Nations, Bishop Tutu opened the meeting, looking at Kofi across the table and said, ‘We are here today on behalf of those people marching in 665 cities all around the world. And we are here to tell you, that those people marching in all those cities around the world, we claim the United Nations as our own. We claim it in the name of our global mobilization for peace.’

It was an incredible moment. And while we weren’t able to prevent that war, that global mobilisation, that pulled governments and the United Nations into a trajectory of resistance shaped and led by global movements, created what the New York Times the next day called ‘the second super-power’.

Mid-way through the marathon New York rally, a brief AP story came over the wires: ‘Rattled by an outpouring of international anti-war sentiment, the United States and Britain began reworking a draft resolution… Diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the final product may be a softer text that does not explicitly call for war.’ Faced with a global challenge to their desperate struggle for UN and global legitimacy, Bush and Blair threw in the towel.

Our movement changed history. While we did not prevent the Iraq war, the protests proved its clear illegality, demonstrated the isolation of the Bush administration policies, helped prevent war in Iran, and inspired a generation of activists. February 15 set the terms for what ‘global mobilisations’ could accomplish. Eight years later some of the Cairo activists, embarrassed at the relatively small size of their protest on February 15, 2003, would go on to help lead Egypt’s Arab Spring. Occupy protesters would reference February 15 and its international context. Spain’s indignados and others protesting austerity and inequality could see February 15 as a model of moving from national to global protest.

In New York City on that singular afternoon, some of the speakers had particular resonance for those shivering in the monumental crowd. The great activist-actor Harry Belafonte, veteran of so many of the progressive struggles of the last three-quarters of a century, called out to the rising US movement against war and empire, reminding us that our movement could change the world, and that the world was counting on us to do so. ‘The world has sat with tremendous anxiety, in great fear that we did not exist,’ he said. ‘But America is a vast and diverse country, and we are part of the greater truth that makes our nation. We stand for peace, for the truth of what is at the heart of the American people. We WILL make a difference – that is the message that we send out to the world today.’

Belafonte was followed by his close friend and fellow activist-actor Danny Glover, who spoke of earlier heroes, of Soujourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, and of the great Paul Robeson on whose shoulders we still stand. And then he shouted ‘We stand here today because our right to dissent, and our right to participate in a real democracy has been hijacked by those who call for war. We stand here at this threshold of history, and we say to the world, “Not in Our Name! Not in Our Name!”‘ The huge crowd, shivering in the icy wind, took up the cry, and ‘Not in our Name! Not in Our Name!’ echoed through the New York streets.

Our obligation as the second super-power remains in place. Now what we need is a strategy to engage with power, to challenge once again the reconfigured but remaining first super-power. That commitment remains.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the UN Defy U.S. Power, on the legacy of the February 15 protests. She was on the steering committee of the United for Peace & Justice coalition helping to build February 15.


Phyllis Bennis is Red Pepper’s United Nations correspondent, and a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.


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