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Searching for solutions: remembering peace activist Mient Jan Faber

Mient Jan Faber worked for peace and human rights during the Cold War and the tumultuous years that followed

Mary Kaldor
29 May 2022, 12.00am
Mient Jan Faber died at the age of 81
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BNA Photographic / Alamy Stock Photo

Dutch peace activist Mient Jan Faber died on 15 May. Combining strong Calvinist morality with reasoned analysis and an intuitive and empathetic understanding of people and their social and political contexts, he inspired a generation of peace and human rights activists across Europe.

I was active in European Nuclear Disarmament (END) and we worked closely together first in the peace movement during the 1980s and later in the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly (HCA) during the 1990s.

Many of us in the 1980s peace movement had grown up hearing stories of the Second World War, and especially the role of wartime resistance movements. Mient Jan’s father and uncle were both in the Dutch resistance, and one of his earliest memories was of his mother refusing an order from a German soldier to take down a picture of the Dutch queen from her wall. He was three years old and remembers standing by his mother in righteous indignation. The soldiers abandoned the order, leaving Mient Jan with a life-long faith in the power of appealing to conscience.

In 1979, NATO approved the decision to deploy a new generation of intermediate nuclear weapons, cruise and Pershing missiles, in the UK, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium. Groups sprang up in all these countries to protest the decision. At the time, Mient Jan was secretary-general of the Inter-Church Peace Council (IKV) in the Netherlands, after abandoning an academic career as a mathematician. He was one of the people, along with historian EP Thompson and German green politician Petra Kelly, who provided a narrative – a way of framing issues – for at least parts of the movement.

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It was a narrative about transnational civic solidarity, both in relation to Western Europe and the need to oppose the undemocratic decision-making of NATO, and Eastern Europe and the need to cross the Cold War divide. It was Mient Jan who coined the phrase “detente from below” to describe the links between West European peace movements and opposition groups in Eastern Europe like Solidarność or Charta 77, and the need to bring peace and human rights together.

The idea of ‘detente from below’ was not universally accepted in the peace movement. Indeed, the debate within the movement is partly echoed in debates on the Left about Ukraine today. There were those who felt that peace must come before human rights – that a nuclear war would be the worst thing that could happen to the world and therefore links with official peace committees in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe took precedence over support for human rights groups there. Support for human rights groups, according to this view, appeared to be endorsing the Cold War rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. In some cases, there was also residual support for what was viewed as the socialist character of the Communist regimes.

Those of us who promoted ‘détente from below’ argued that links with official peace committees discredited peace movements in the West, which were often accused of being a Soviet fifth column, and that bringing about democracy in Eastern Europe would be the best way to end the arms race.

The Dutch campaign succeeded in preventing the deployment of the missiles in the Netherlands. In 1987 the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed by Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, and the cruise and Pershing missiles, along with Soviet SS-20 and SS-23 missiles, were destroyed. Mient Jan and I were both invited to Kazakhstan to witness their destruction – an eye-opening trip to what had been a closed area of the Soviet Union.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Mient Jan began to withdraw from the annual END conventions and focused on building a new East-West network that linked up with groups in Eastern Europe. The network gave rise to new, younger groups in the Eastern bloc, such as FIDESZ in Hungary (originally the West-East Dialogue group), Freedom and Peace in Poland, the Initiative for Peace and Human Rights in the GDR, and the Independent Peace Society and the John Lennon Society in Czechoslovakia. These groups were to play a pivotal role in the peaceful revolutions of 1989.

Out of this experience was born the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, founded in Prague in 1990 at a huge event hosted by the then president of Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel. Its aim was to be a sort of people’s version of the Helsinki Process –the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe that arose from the 1975 Helsinki Accords and was institutionalised after the end of the Cold War as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The HCA aimed to hold pan-European security institutions like NATO and the OSCE to account, to construct a pan-European civil society, and to help civil society in difficult places.

Almost immediately, wars broke out in the former Yugoslavia and the post-Soviet space, giving rise to new debates about how to bring about peace and justice in those areas. As in the 1980s, there were debates and disagreements. Should peace movements support the use of force to protect ordinary people from forms of violence including killing, forced displacement and rape? And, if so, how?

For Mient Jan, solidarity with the victims was always the priority, even if this involved the use of force. In Bosnia, the HCA campaigned for safe havens and local protectorates as well as the need to bring war criminals to account, though these measures were never properly implemented. The massacre of more than 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica was particularly painful to Mient Jan since Srebrenica was a safe haven supposedly defended by Dutch UN peacekeepers; for many years, he pursued legal cases on behalf of the victims in the Netherlands. He built a long friendship with Hassan Nurhanović, who had been a translator for the peacekeepers and whose entire family was brutally killed.

This experience – as for many others including me – explains Mient Jan’s support for NATO intervention in Kosovo in response to the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians, something that was particularly controversial within the peace movement, although he was critical of the means – the use of air strikes to protect people on the ground.

Mient Jan always said that being in the peace movement was an adventure. And he had many adventures...

Mient Jan always said that being in the peace movement was an adventure. And he had many adventures, some of which I participated in. During the 1980s, peace activists travelled to Eastern Europe to meet with dissidents and independent peace groups. It was never easy; we were often refused entry. On one occasion, some of us were arrested in Prague – Mient Jan wasn’t there but he tried to direct our strategies by phone! And in the 1990s, international HCA delegations travelled to conflict zones guided by our local HCA friends – including Bosnia, Kosovo, Crimea, Nagorno Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Diyarbakir in south-east Turkey.

Perhaps the most memorable trip was when an HCA delegation escorted Arzu Abdullayeva, then the chair of the Azerbaijani HCA, to the Armenian capital, Yerevan, in the middle of the war over Nagorno Karabakh. Her visit was compared to Yuri Gagarin’s space flight in one of the Armenian newspapers. When we got to the border, all the men, including Mient Jan, were taken away and forced to stand for several hours before we were allowed to cross.

On that same trip, Mient Jan and I went to Nagorno-Karabakh from Yerevan by helicopter. We missed the flight back because the mother of our HCA representative in the disputed territory had cooked us a delicious meal. Eventually we were able to take another flight, which was carrying wounded soldiers; it was night and there was bombing. On the last day of our trip we met with Eduard Shevardnadze, the then President of Georgia. He wanted to inform us that he had sent military forces to Abkhazia, but we didn’t quite take in the importance of what he was telling us as we were so preoccupied with asking for his help, on behalf of our HCA colleagues, with the release of hostages.

In the early 2000s, Mient Jan turned his attention beyond Europe to the Middle East and Kashmir. His sense of solidarity with those he had met on a trip to northern Iraq meant that he refused to oppose the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq or to participate in anti-war demonstrations. He left the IKV and became professor of human security at the Free University of Amsterdam. He also taught at the University of Houston in Texas, passing on his experiences and ideas and giving the same commitment to his students that he had given to his fellow activists.

We need Mient Jan now. He would have been so enthusiastic about the Ukrainian cause, pressing the Ukrainian HCA for information and ideas. He would have wanted to go to both Ukraine and Russia, and especially Crimea and Donbas. And it would have been so important to hear his thoughts on the future of NATO and the European security system, the role of civic movements, and how to end this war.

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