2003 – Iraq war protests

On 15 February 2003, millions of citizens in over 800 cities worldwide poured onto the streets to stop the invasion of Iraq in what remains the largest global protest the world has ever seen. While their call was ignored and many years of conflict in Iraq ensued, their actions spurred pro-democracy movements and protests across the world.

Global estimates of the number of people that turned out to stop the Iraq invasion vary, but the consensus (reflecting the Guinness Book of Records’ own estimate) is that 15 million took to the streets. What is not in question is that the protest spanned 60 countries and all continents, including a protest by scientists on Antarctica.

Governments around the world resisted pressure from the US and the UK to endorse the war. Under ordinary circumstances, US-dependent and relatively weak countries like Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico and Pakistan could never have stood up to Washington, but the combination of diplomatic support from countries such as Germany and France, and popular pressure from millions of protesters, helped them stand firm.

The day before the protests, the Security Council heard reports from UN weapons inspectors for Iraq that stated unequivocally that no such weapons had been found. The UN refused to sanction the invasion.

While the protests were not able to prevent the war, they demonstrated the isolation of the Bush administration’s policies, helped prevent war in Iran, and inspired a generation of activists. They were also a global show of solidarity with the people of Iraq.

February 15 also inspired other significant movements. On the night the bombing began, a small number of dedicated Egyptian activists gathered in Tahrir Square to protest the invasion. This sowed the seeds for the Arab Spring, which in turn inspired Spain’s indignadoes and later, the Occupy movement, both protesting against austerity and inequality. Fittingly, the February 15 mobilization has been described by the New York Times as the emergence of “the second super-power”.