As I entered the grand Belfast City Hall for “Celebrations of Peace”: a conversation with six women who have won the Nobel Peace Prize, I was surprised to find that one of the first people that I spoke to was a man draped in a gold chain. Counsellor Brian Kingston, High Sheriff of Belfast, seemed at once incredibly humbled, pleased and dare I say bewildered by the phalanx of rain-splashed women dressed in brightly coloured clothing descending on the City Hall. I asked him what hosting the fourth conference of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, ‘Moving Beyond Militarism and War: Women-Driven Solutions for a Nonviolent World’ in the city meant to him: ‘It’s quite a gathering to have six Nobel Laureates, women who have won the Nobel Peace Prize, here in the City Hall’, he retorted, ‘it’s attracted a lot of interest locally. Thankfully our troubles in Northern Ireland are now largely in the past’. After a sober pause, Kingston continued, ‘it’s important to recognise the particular role that women play in peacebuilding, which is not a soft process. I was talking to women here involved in banning landmines and the use of rape in situations of ethnic cleansing. These are not soft issues.’
The discussion that ensued among the six Nobel Laureates this evening demonstrated that peacebuilding is not simply – as negatively defined - ‘not a soft process’. Nor, as has often been pointed out, is it simply the opposite of – or an antidote to - war. Rather it is a positive and self-sustaining way of life.
As Laureates were invited by a representative of Peace People, who hosted the event, to describe their ‘journey into peacebuilding’, three themes stood out for me. The first was that peacebuilding should be seen as a day-to-day iterative experience which extends an obligation to each individual and to each act of violence. The second was that peacebuilding must be sustainable. The third and final theme struck me as more of a question than a characteristic: what does peacebuilding look like beyond borders – or – what place for the nation-state as we move towards a nonviolent world?
In sharing their personal stories of how they came to be peace activists, each Nobel Laureate demonstrated, according to the age old adage, how the personal can be political. Moreover, that the political is often experienced in a deeply - and often unjustly - personal way.
The panel opened with a moving black and white film charting the history of the Northern Ireland peace movement. It told the tale, now recited as a parable for peace the world over, of how the shooting of IRA (Irish Republican Army) member Danny Lennon in Belfast on 10th August 1976 led to the murder of three children, provoking widespread protest in the city. Innocent by-standers, they were murdered by a dead man: the murdered driver, Danny Lennon, whose car sped out of control. The children’s mother, Anne, took her own life 41 months after the incident.
In the video, Mairead Maguire, Anne’s sister explained, ‘in the very early 70s in Northern Ireland it was a time of chaos, destruction and killing...it was our normality. There seemed to be no way to break this cycle of violence’.
But, as we know, break the cycle they did. Through reclaiming the space of ‘normality’, Mairead, along with Betty Williams, a bystander who had witnessed the killing, mobilised a mass movement of women to demonstrate ‘the absolute waste of human life and the senselessness of it all’. Women came out in their thousands to walk for peace and played a crucial role in securing the accord that followed. This is the work for which Mairead Maguire and Betty Williams received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978. This is also the work for which Mairead Maguire received a standing ovation in her home town this evening, her home town where, as the High Sheriff pointed out to me, ‘we now have a political arrangement where conflicts can be worked out via political means.’
Like the work of Maguire and Williams, the work of Liberian Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee also emphasises the role of the bystander in confronting violence and building peace in our day-to-day lives. Gbowee’s account of being the only person to assist a young victim of sexual violence in a hotel in the Democratic Republic of Congo which was hosting humanitarian workers shocked the audience in the City Hall. Instead of an account of the much acclaimed peace movement in Liberia which we may have anticipated, we were transported into a foyer at a conference not unlike ours where a young girl was kicked and slapped as scores of certified ‘humanitarian’ bystanders failed to act. History teaches us that even in those situations that we are meant to identify as ‘peaceful’ there can lie a hidden, private war. Peace must therefore be discerning and persistent. We must, as Gbowee says, answer every single call.
The day-to-day work of a peacebuilder also, Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum of Guatemala suggested, involves the day-to-day on the ground work of documenting and relentlessly pursuing redress for violations of human rights. Peace is not something that is ‘achieved’, but a long process. Menchu Tum, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for ethno-cultural reconciliation work based on respect for rights of ingenious people in Guatemala, has spent the last 33 years of her life denouncing, documenting and trying to protect evidence of genocide in Guatemala. She was met with waves of applause as she recalled that two weeks ago the first perpetrator of genocide in her country had been brought to justice. But, echoing Gbowee’s persistence, she was quick to stress that ‘many more people remain to be brought to justice; we have not stopped and it’s not finished.’ Furthermore, the case of General Efraín Ríos Montt shows that, to quote a recent New York Times article, ‘justice can be interrupted’.
In the peacebuilder’s arena peace and justice are always fragile. In this context both Tawakkol Karman, 2011 Nobel Laureate from Yemen and Shirin Ebadi, 2003 Nobel Laureate from Iran, called for a continued focus on sustainable and comprehensive peace in the countries of the Arab Spring where the movement beyond militarism and war is still in its ‘early stages’. As Karman stressed ‘getting rid of dictators is just the first step. The revolution must be continuous until we achieve all its goals’. New laws are needed as well as new leaders.
Transnational peacebuilding – or – peacebuilding beyond borders
Tonight’s panel demonstrated both the vast temporal and spatial scope of peacebuilding as a way of life: in our day-to-day, in the past and the future, and in the world over. To me, the discussion demonstrated that the question of sustainable peace is fundamentally linked to the question of how to build peace transnationally. Gbowee captured this spirit in her remark, ‘I like to refer to myself as the local girl with a global platform; my work is borderless’. She went on to explain, ‘the pains of women are the same – they have no borders. Rape is the same in Democratic Republic of Congo as it is in Belfast. Domestic violence is the same in London as it is in Liberia. Wife beating or whatever you want to call it is the same in the world. I’m not a foreigner and if there is something happening to one woman in one part of the world that is my issue and I’m going to jump in. So’, she added with a wry but committed smile, ‘as I’m in Belfast, tell those bad boys...’
The question that strikes me from Gbowee’s remarks – and from tonight’s discussion as a whole - is this: how to promote ‘women-driven solutions for a nonviolent world’, as this week’s conference calls upon participants to do, in a way that respects the right to self-determination? In a way that respects, as Ebadi stressed, the fact that democracy is not something than can be ‘sold’ or imposed (whether though violent or ‘non-violent’ means). Perhaps, as Ebadi suggested in response to a question from the floor, one effective nonviolent response is for ‘Western counties’ to simply stop supporting foreign dictators at home by means such as bank accounts and visas. Today’s panel certainly – and unsurprisingly – suggests that resolving this tension is easier in the context of women’s solidaristic peace movements than in the context of state interventions.
Aligning these two poles, US Laureate Jody Williams who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, stressed that her own activism stems directly from the sense of responsibility she carries as a US citizen: my country, she declared, with its budget of 711 billion dollars a year on the military, weapons and war, is ‘the most militaristic in the world’. The war in Vietnam made her realise that ‘the US wasn’t all it said it was’, she explained. What Williams refers to as her ‘burden’ as a US citizen led her to work with fellow Laureate Rigoberta in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s – when the US was intervening on her behalf, she sought to exercise her own citizen ethic of transnational responsibility. As the panel discussion came to a close I found myself musing on a further point that Williams recalled in her speech: the controversy over a recent UN Human Rights Council resolution based on the idea that all people in the world have a right to peace. If ‘the pains of women have no borders’, as Gbowee claimed tonight, what role is there, and should there be, I wondered, for the nation-state in moving beyond militarism and war? When did a political formation in theory designed to preserve our ‘common good’ become a ‘burden’, a machinery of war? Or does the nation-state depend on militarism for its very existence? In order to create a nonviolent world, do we need to move beyond nation-states as well as militarism and war?
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