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Peacework: women in action across Europe

The full engagement of women at all levels of negotiations is essential in order to promote nonviolent solutions that address the causes of conflict and build peace and justice. Sue Finch and Liz Khan report from the European Women in Black conference in Belgium on a critical moment for Europe’s future.

A hundred women, dressed in black, with banners and flags Over 100 Women in Black (WiB) from 22 countries met in Leuven, Belgium to discuss challenges to peace and security in Europe, and of people around the world suffering the impact of European economic and military policies. Deeply concerned at the levels of militarism and nationalistic and sexual violence in our countries, the European conference called for the full engagement of women at all levels of negotiations to promote nonviolent solutions that address the causes of conflict and build peace and justice. 

The international Women in Black - For Justice, Against War network was forged out of opposition to militarism and ethnic cleansing in Israel-Palestine, then the Balkans.  Opening on May Day, in the 100th anniversary year of the destruction of Leuven in World War 1, the European conference explored critical issues for Europe. These included Ukraine’s recent crises, Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestine, and European arms sales and military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, DR Congo and Mali…. to name just a few. 

Women in a workshop session discussing one of the topics Key themes included the expansion of NATO, implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, lesbians in the peace movement, and feminist activism against nuclear weapons and militarism in Europe. 

Women against NATO

Cynthia Cockburn from WiB London led a workshop on the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Women who organised against the Strasbourg NATO Summit in 2009 made the case that NATO perpetrated wars that had dire and gendered effects, and increased the militarisation of the EU and the risk of war through its patriarchal logic and language of enmity. NATO has expanded to include 12 ‘Eastern bloc’ countries, 28 countries in all, and is trying to secure control of the melting Arctic by putting pressure on Finland and Sweden to join.

The current NATO Strategic Plan pursues full-spectrum dominance worldwide through its ‘Mediterranean Dialogue’ (Israel and North Africa), ‘Istanbul Initiative’ (Middle East) and ‘Partnership for Peace’ (Japan, South Korea etc) arrangements, as well as approaches to Caribbean and South American countries. Increasing interference in former Soviet states like Armenia and Azerbaijan, the continued NATO commitment to nuclear weapons, and the conflict with Russia over Ukraine mean that peace and security are increasingly threatened.

Peace Event Sarajevo 2014

The largest international peace event in 2014 will take place in Sarajevo, June 6 - 9th with over 170 workshops, arts activities and a youth camp. A century after the beginning of World War I and two decades after the end of the bloodiest war in Europe since World War II, 1914-2014 can be seen as a century of a “Culture of War and Violence”. This event will bring together world-wide peace movements, nonviolent actions and alternatives to war and violence.

Action against the NATO summit in Wales

A week of activities organised by No to Nato from August 30th – September 5th against the NATO summit in Newport, Wales, on September 4-5th. There will be 60 world leaders, including President Obama, attending the summit. Plans include two counter conferences in Newport on August 30th and Cardiff on September 1st, both with sessions on women and militarism; a demonstration in Newport on August 30 th; and a peace camp during the week of action. European Women in Black groups agreed to hold vigils and demonstrations outside parliaments in their own countries at the same time.

UN Security Council Resolution 1325

London and Belgrade Women in Black presented a workshop carrying forward the resolution made at the international WiB conference in Montevideo, to launch a campaign against the immunity of peacekeeping forces from prosecution for rape and sexual exploitation. They showed that despite attempts by the UN, including Kofi Annan's zero tolerance policy, and measures set out in UN Security Council Resolution 1325, to prevent and prohibit sexual violence, and punish the perpetrators, abuses still continue to be reported. Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (passed in 2000 following pressure from 40 women’s organisations) promotes the prevention of sexual violence, human trafficking, domestic violence and other forms of violence primarily affecting women and girls in conflict-affected contexts, the protection of women and girls from such acts, and the participation of women in conflict-resolution and security enforcement strategies. Although some progress has been made since the first reports came out of post-war Bosnia, troop contributing countries are still failing to prosecute their peacekeepers.

WiB agreed to take part in an action on UN day, and to write letters to their governments calling for an end to impunity.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

Two women stand arm-in-arm holding a sign each: one in English, one in Arabic. The one in English says: Stop the Occupation Marijke Kruyt from the Netherlands introduced different aspects of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) that many WiB groups are working on:

Boycott - personal economic boycott of goods from Israel, cultural boycott of Israeli artists and cultural institutions, academic boycott of Israeli academics (who work in Israeli universities) and research collaborations, and sports boycott.

Divestment - lobbying companies to stop investing and collaborating with Israeli companies, purchasing/distributing/selling Israeli products etc.

Sanctions - EU regulations are in place but not enforced.

Sama Aweidah from the Women’s Studies Centre in East Jerusalem reported that in 2005 they started to work around BDS, with the aim of alerting and informing the world about what is happening in Palestine. She sketched the economic background: in 1967/8 Palestinians left or were made to leave working on the land, to get work for higher wages in Israeli factories, and this trend is difficult to reverse. Much of the land they left is now occupied by settlers. Today, Palestinians work mostly in the Israeli settlements, as it’s easier to get permits for work there than for work in Israel (especially for women).

Another Palestinian speaker, Nabila Espanioly, stressed the need for international solidarity to put pressure on the Israeli government, and to fight for human rights, and that any campaign from the ‘outside’ helps Palestinians ‘inside’ and also helps to break down their isolation. She suggested that checking out companies and products can help to develop BDS strategies and priorities.

Yvonne Deutsch (Israel) explained that in the wake of the effect of the Who Profits website, Israeli laws were changed to ensure that anyone calling for a boycott can be sued by someone who claims to be negatively affected by the boycott. This makes is very difficult to organize a boycott from inside Israel, so the focus of WiB Israel is to ‘end the occupation’. Participants agreed to lobby MEPS to enforce the agreed sanctions.

Lesbians in the peace movement

Lepa Mladjenovic (Serbia) and Rebecca Johnson (London) led a workshop about discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transexuals (LGBT). Audre Lord said that each one of us has some power, as little as it may be, and it is our responsibility to define it and use it in the service of what needs to be changed.

Key actions agreed included supporting LGBT rights in countries where it is a criminal offence, and supporting refugee lesbians/gays to gain asylum from countries where they are defined as criminals.

Feminist activism against nuclear weapons and militarism in Europe

Rebecca Johnson and Heena Thompson from WiB London facilitated a workshop on the ways that militarism disproportionately harms women’s lives, needs and security. Nuclear weapons have reinforced militarism for the last 70 years. Over a 1000 nuclear weapons are deployed across Europe and neighbouring countries: in Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey and Russia. Crises from the Ukraine to the Middle East are used to boost support for more militarism and nuclear weapons. Governments are cutting health, education and other services that support women’s needs and security, while spending billions on keeping and renewing nuclear weapons in Europe.

Participants agreed that information on the costs of militarisation was key to successful campaigning – as well as information about the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons. 146 countries had met in Mexico in February as part of a new Humanitarian process to lay down the basis for an international treaty to ban nuclear weapons led by the non-nuclear states.

Action at Aldermaston Weapons Establishment on August 9th

On Saturday August 9th - the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki – the Wool Against Weapons action will see thousands of people hold a pink knitted Peace Scarf running between Aldermaston Weapons Establishment and Burghfield (another Nuclear Weapons Establishment site 7 miles away) in Berkshire – to protest against the UK’s ongoing involvement with nuclear weapons, and the money the UK Government is intending to spend on renewing Trident nuclear missiles (over £100 billion) The seven miles of pink scarves (1 metre x 60cm) will be recycled to create blankets for homeless people and refugees afterwards.

The European WiB conference ended with a demonstration and flashmob dancing in the main square of Leuven, followed by a Reception at the gothic town hall hosted by the Deputy Mayor. She talked about the devastation that war had brought to Leuven and thanked the Leuven women, and all Women in Black, for their continuing contribution to peace. 

Women in Black in London continues its 21st year of weekly vigils, on Wednesdays from 6 – 7 pm around the Edith Cavell statue in St Martin’s Place London WC2 (near Trafalgar Square). All are welcome !

We will be taking the lovely peace bells used at the European conference to the next international Women in Black conference in Bangalore, India, in November 2015.

Read more articles on openDemocracy 50.50 exploring women's critical perspectives on peace, justice and equality Peacework and Human Security

About the authors

Liz Khan is a feminist peace activist who attends the Women in Black vigil in London, and is a regular visitor to the monthly women’s camp at Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, UK. Liz currently works as a social worker for a London local authority

Sue Finch is a feminist peace activist who is part of Women in Black, a world-wide network of women committed to peace with justice, and actively opposed to injustice, war, militarism and other forms of violence

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