Militarism and non-state actors: ‘the other invasion’

'What they call transnational development companies. For us they represent death and destruction’, yet when it comes to the pursuit of justice through law, too often activists are on the wrong side. Jennifer Allsopp reports from Belfast at the Nobel Women’s Initiative Conference.

Jennifer Allsopp
30 May 2013

Several plenaries and workshops that I have attended in the last two days at the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference here in Belfast have, in addition to demonstrating the central role of states in committing, perpetuating and tolerating violence, shed more light on the role of non-state actors in perpetuating militarism and insecurity. As one participant put it this afternoon, ‘in the world we live in we’re talking about militarised non-state actors, global neoliberalism...the outsourcing of responsibility. This demands different strategies in terms of how we respond to this global proliferation of non-state threats of security’.

In a presentation which sought to draw attention to the relationship between conflict, climate change and social justice, climate lawyer Farhana Yamin similarly explained: ‘corporations...have corporate police officers and militaries of their own. They are bigger than states. We have to use our inventiveness to challenge what’s going on’.

Non-state actors and insecurity

The role of non-state actors in global insecurity has received much more attention in recent years, in, for example, the 2010 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Right Defenders. The theme was also a recurring one at the 2012 AWID conference on Women Transforming Economic Power where 2,500 women activists from more than 150 different countries came together. One of the main non-state perpetrators discussed by speakers today was transnational companies. Introducing today’s plenary, Cynthia McKinney, a politician and activist from the US, reported that such companies often operate in a climate of government complicity and with ‘total disregard for indigenous cultures’.

Speaking on the panel on “Demanding Accountability and Regaining Our Moral Compas”, Aura Lolita Chavez Ixcaquic, Co-founder and Coordinator of the K’iche People’s Council in Guatemala, described the situation of militarised environmental destruction occurring in her region caused by companies investing in mining, hydroelectric power and oil monoculture. They have another term for this development in their region: it’s ‘la otra invasiòn’ (the other invasion). ‘In our town we have rebuilt our social fabric after the 36 years of war during which we had a militarisation, genocide and a burning of the land’ Chavez Ixcaquic explained, ‘the new invasion for us is the sacking and destruction of the land and the death of the land of people – what they call transnational development companies. For us they represent death and destruction’.

This devastation crosses borders freely. Crystal Lameman, an activist with Beaver Lake Cree Nation and Sierra Club, Canada described how her community has been similarly devastated by the onslaught of oil sands and ground pipes. Such actors are increasingly able to penetrate and instrumentalise the state. Referring to recent measures by the Canadian government which have decimated environmental protections Lameman claimed ‘our government is being run by this industry’.

Recent measures listed by Lameman include the pulling out of the Kyoto agreement and Bills C35 and C35. The latter is known by the Green Party of Canada as ‘the environmental devastation act’. The consequence of these measures, Lameman explains, is that in addition to the loss of life, whole ways of life are being destroyed: ‘we become economic hostages in our own communities...we’re constantly having to deal with atrocities...we now have the Sahara desert in what was once forest. That cannot be reclaimed’. She described a situation where fish don’t taste good anymore, moose have puss under their skin and children are airlifted to local hospitals because they have drunk contaminated water.

Tactics to tackle non-state actions and to reclaim our security

This morning’s conference workshops focussed on some of the tactics used to challenge emerging state and non-state actors in order to reclaim our security, ranging from nonviolent direct action to legal challenge. Though, as was stressed throughout today, campaign tactics depend on context, the workshops anticipated many of the methods described by Lameman and Chavez Ixaquic in their accounts of stepping up to challenge human rights abuses in their communities.

For Chavez Ixcaquic, nonviolent direct action is a core part of their movement to say si a la vida (yes to life); part of both creating and asserting themselves in a space of consultation with the authorities. To date their movement has consulted more than 1 million people in 85 different consultation processes, and together, she explains, they have said ‘no to the transnational companies, no to the mining, yes to life’. Though peaceful, in today’s discussion Chavez Ixcaquic explained how these consultations have nevertheless become militarised: ‘our consultations are a festival of life but they sent out the soldiers’. As her presentation moved from photos of armed personnel in black riot gear charging forwards to images of people eating, everyone looked slightly bemused. She then explained that their response to this militarisation was to feed the soldiers. But to what reaction? ‘Instead of repressing us’, she said, ‘they joined us.’

The main tactic which Lameman, in turn, expounded on in her presentation on the situation in Beaver Lake Cree Nation was that of documentation and legal challenge. The First Nations people are taking the government to court, she explained, in defence of their constitutionally protected rights. The case, which began in May 2008, is making good headway, Lameman reported. Indeed on April 30th 2013 the courts announced that there would be a trial. This is the first time in Canada’s history, she explained, that a petroleum constitutional challenge has been given the green light.

‘I’m a terrorist?’ – on whose side is the law

The challenges to the work of Lameman, Chavez Ixacquic and many other activists here are many, not least because of the violence and persecution they face on the ground. When it comes to the pursuit of justice through law in particular, Yamin explained, too often activists are on the wrong side: ‘many of the people who are now listed and surveyed are environmental activists. Suddenly we have become part of the problem.’

Chavez Ixacquic explained that she currently has 22 law suits against her, the last of which calls her a threat to national security and a threat to the constitution of her country. ‘I’m a terrorist?’ she asks us, standing on the podium speaking with contagious humour and a slightly incredulous smile, ‘me?’. ‘If they say that I’m a terrorist for loving life then I have a different version of what a terrorist is’. She also explained that on June 4th last year ‘they tried kill me. They sent criminals to try to kill me. They were men with violent weapons’, she continued, ‘but they were unable to achieve their goal...’.

Lameman too spoke of her recent experience of being served a threat of defamation and conspiracy law suit and, in particular, the toil that takes on her personal life and activism. It’s both shocking but also not that surprising, she says: ‘I’m standing here as a woman trying to take on one of the biggest industries in the world.’

The stakes in ‘rising up’ as Iranian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi called on participants to do this morning are clearly high, especially when it comes to situations of insecurity or militarism which are reinforced by the nexus of state power and corporate impunity. Discussions on what one participant called ‘the price of voice’ too, have no easy answers. Yet the challenges we face, whether it be insecurity, violence and/or environmental degradation don’t either. Yasmin explained that in 2012, for example, extreme weather drove more than 32 million people from their homes and, according to the 2012 World Energy Outlook, within 5 years we will have “locked-in” a 2 degree rise in temperate through the construction of high-carbon infrastructure such as coal-fired power stations.

How, in this urgent context, conference participants asked, can we not act to stop impunity and to support those working to recapture the state by using law to prosecute those who would jeopardise our human security? How too can we act in solidarity with the work of people like Lameman and Chavez Ixcaquic? With the students in Doha who, Yasmin reports, have recently held their first ever citizens' march for climate justice with the message ‘we are more than oil’? How, Chavez Ixcaquic asks, can we say ‘Si a la vida’? This is one of several questions around which participants will seek to draw conclusions in the remaining day of the conference.  

Jennifer Allsopp is reporting for openDemocracy 5050  from the Nobel Women's Initiative conference  Moving Beyond Militarism and War: Women-Driven Solutions for a Nonviolent World  May 28-31, Belfast, Northern Ireland.   Read 50.50's full coverage of the conference

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