Conscience & Peace Tax International

The 14th International Conference on War Tax Resistance and Peace Tax Campaigns in Bogotá coincided with the biennial meeting of the general membership of Conscience & Peace Tax International (CPTI), and most of the international conferees were either individual members of CPTI, were representing a member organization, or were carrying one or more voting proxies from members.

CPTI is a group nominally devoted to advancing the legal right to conscientious objection to military taxation (COMT) on the international level (such as at the UN). I say nominally because I saw almost no evidence of this at the gathering.

Dan Jenkins passes the mic at the CPTI general assembly

I heard a lot about CPTI at the conference but everything I heard about CPTI was about CPTI — that is, about what their bylaws did or should read, who among its board ought to be exercising what powers, where its headquarters ought to be located, how its internal conflicts ought to be resolved, and so forth. It is the most narcissistic organization I have ever seen. We had several hours of sessions of official and unofficial meetings of CPTI, along with much chatter in between other sessions (as well as downright lobbying and intrigue… I not uncommonly came upon people having hushed conversations in corridors who looked up at me suspiciously and stopped their conversation for fear that I might be a spy for the other side!), and exactly none of it had anything at all to do with advancing the cause of COMT.

On a number of occasions I asked individual CPTI members and board members if they could tell me what things CPTI is most proud of accomplishing for conscientious objectors to military taxation over its almost twenty-year existence. They had a devil of a time coming up with anything. Mostly they responded that they’d managed to win UN “special consultative status.” I then would ask what had this status helped them to accomplish for conscientious objectors for military taxation. I would be told that this allows them to put papers on important desks, to make presentations in UN conference rooms, to attend sessions of UN bodies… stuff like that. And what has any of that done to help conscientious objectors to military taxation? Nothing yet, would be the answer, but we hope if we keep at it…

In short, I saw no evidence of anything substantially productive that had come out of CPTI’s two decades of work, and nothing approaching a concrete, specific plan to advance the recognition of COMT on the international stage.

But CPTI didn’t seem to want to talk about any of that anyway. What they mostly talked about was whether they should be based in Belgium or England, whether their by-laws had been translated correctly (or possibly deliberately deceptively!), whether member organizations that are not formally incorporated ought to be expelled from membership, and so forth.

The organization’s by-laws are intricate and legalistic to an absurd extent, especially when measured up against the budget and size of the group (this is, I was asked to understand, somehow a strict requirement of the laws of Belgium), but even so they are so clumsily written that the board members could not even answer basic questions like “do we need a two-thirds majority of the quorum to pass this proposal, or a majority of non-abstaining voters when a quorum is present?” or “for the two-thirds vote do we round up or down?” or “which voting rule applies to this proposal?” There was talk of consulting a lawyer just so that CPTI could get clarity as to the meaning of its own by-laws!

CPTI held what was to be a two-and-a-half hour General Assembly with 18 agenda items. It took them that long to get through the 10 non-controversial ones (1. Welcome, 2. Quorum confirmation, 3. Agenda review, 4. review of the 2010 minutes, 5. review of the 2011 minutes… and we’re behind schedule already). Partially this was because the board is so bitterly divided and the general assembly has become so partisan that they had to reach outside CPTI entirely to choose a neutral chairperson for the meeting — who was chosen almost as the meeting began, who was unfamiliar with the by-laws and process of the group, and so who necessarily had to continually ask for clarification as to how he ought to be doing his job.

The meeting transformed a group of earnest COMT activists into a tense, hostile assembly of distrust and pain. If only it were the case that CPTI were simply incapable of accomplishing anything! Instead, it accomplishes the sowing of discord among COMT activists and the wasting of their time and energy. The hours we spent at the CPTI assembly, at the hastily-scheduled supplemental meeting the previous day, and at the various conspiratorial side conversations that made me feel like I was in the Hells of Congress… what might we who had traveled so far to come to the conference have accomplished with those hours if we hadn’t been distracted by CPTI?

The contrast couldn’t have been greater between the focused, practical, strategic activity led by ACOOC (see ’s Picket Line) and the narcissistic and counterproductive flailing of CPTI. It was an embarrassment to the COMT movement.

Wolfgang Steuer reads from a commemorative book being presented to outgoing CPTI board member Dirk Panhuis

The good news is that at the “conclusion” of the meeting (at item 11 of the agenda after which they finally gave up) the assembly voted to begin the process of disbanding CPTI. The bad news is that they plan to resurrect it like a vampire in England (the dissolution applies to the current Belgian-based organization). The occasion instead calls for a wooden stake through the heart. The COMT movement would be better-off simply disbanding CPTI and leaving it at that. CPTI is a toxic organization and people devoted to furthering the COMT cause should consider it an obstacle at best and an enemy at worst (by which I absolutely do not mean to say that any of its members or board members as individuals should be considered that way).

Many of those involved in CPTI hope that the move to England and the opportunity to rewrite the bylaws will permit the organization to reform into something worthwhile. Few saw wisdom in my advice to simply disband and move on to more productive activities (most citing the hard-won golden apple of UN special consultative status as their reason for wanting to keep CPTI alive in spite of its dysfunction). My advice, though, would be to approach even a newly-reformed CPTI with a garlic wreath around your neck and a silver cross in hand.

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