As one of those fortunate enough to attend the Nobel Women’s Initiative gathering, 'Redefining Democracy for Peace', I’m filled with hope for how women’s leadership can help pave the way for a more peaceful and sustainable future that is free from the prevailing ideology of militarism. For far too long, world leaders have accepted the logic of using military intervention or violence as the most effective way to resolve conflict. The past century and the first decade of the 21st century have been marked by bloody military conflicts. Whether in contesting differences in political ideology, in facing different religions, or in dividing natural resources, nation states have not only condoned, but also glorified the use of violence to maintain law and order, defend their boundaries, protect their sovereignty, and exercise their dominance over others.
The costs of this approach to conflict resolution are not just measured in the appallingly high figures of those killed and wounded, but in the fact that violence rarely, if ever, succeeds in ensuring justice or peace. Instead, we have learned by experience what Gandhi so wisely warned us when he said, “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”.
In modern times, nation states have witnessed how the logic of militarism has been turned against them as resistance movements forgo peaceful civil disobedience, which is invariably met with overwhelming state violence. Instead, minority groups, ethnic communities and nationalist movements, in the struggle for self-determination, voice, and freedom, have consciously chosen to do as nation states do, rather than what they say. From the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to militias in the wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Somalia and the Congo, violence and the use of arms has become the preferred option of resistance movements. Over the past ten years, such armed resistance to nation states has been labelled as “terrorist”, as though the brutal actions of state military forces create no terror in civilian populations.
Despite some efforts by the world community to hold militarism in check, the use of violence and armed forces, both by state and by non-state actors has continued to escalate. The production and sale of weapons, such as nuclear arms, landmines, and chemical weapons, but also handguns, assault rifles, automatic weapons and other lethal instruments of death constitute a huge and profitable industry which accounts for a significant portion of the world’s trade. From 1998 to 2001, the USA, the UK, and France earned more income from arms sales to developing countries than they gave in aid. Again, the contradictions are stark: consider this from Shattered Lives, a report by the control arms campaign, "the five permanent members of the UN Security Council together account for 88% of the world’s conventional arms exports; and these exports contribute regularly to gross abuses of human rights".
Militarism does not just result in direct harm to the victims of violence, be they civilians, military forces, or militia groups. Rather, it is a system that prioritizes investments in military forces, weapons, and activity over any other kind of investment, thus it actively impedes and blocks progress towards democratization and sustainable development. In 2007, nation states invested a staggering US $1,339 billion worldwide in military budgets: nearly US $4 billion per day. Although the U.S. accounts for nearly half of global military spending, developing countries have been devoting more of their limited budgets on the military. In 2008, Pakistan spent $4.4 billion on its military budget, or 4.5% of its GDP, and in Africa, which has the world’s highest HIV rates with one in eight afflicted, spent $7.7 billion on the military. In contrast, Costa Rica, which abolished its army in 1949, spends one fourth of its budget on education, and this, combined with a thriving health sector, has engendered life expectancy rates comparable to the West.
The United Nations spends about $20 billion each year, just 1.5% of the world’s military expenditure, which currently is at $202 for each person in the world. Yet for nearly two decades, theUN’s persistent budget shortfall has forced it to cut back on all major program areas. And, the future does not look promising. According to a 2008 National Intelligence Council report of the U.S. government, “the world will be likely more tense and unstable by 2025 with increased potential for conflict” due to scarcity of resources like food, fossil fuels, and water, widening inequality, and the uneven impacts of climate change.
These are the harsh realities that catalyzed the creation of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, whose mission is to create “a united effort for peace with justice and equality”. Their collaborative efforts speak to the urgent need to resist further militarism, to reclaim peace, democracy and justice, and to restore human dignity as a principle across the world. These women, part of an elite few honored by the Nobel Committee, are using their visibility and prestige to amplify women’s contributions to peace. Examples include Leymah Gbowee who mobilized women in Liberia to bring an end to the brutal civil war by physically forcing opposition leaders to sit down for peace talks. Similarly, in Colombia, Patricia Guerrero, a lawyer who has fought for the recognition of forced displacement as a war crime, founded the City of Women where women can live with their families in safety, free from paramilitaries, guerrillas or state security forces.
Since 1901, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to 96 individuals, of which only twelve have been women. This unequal balance is particularly striking when one realizes that Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, owed the idea of creating such a prize to the extraordinary Baroness Bertha Sophie von Kuttner. She was both the inspiration for the idea and a true advocate for non-violence, peace and unity, calling for a society based on the principles of Darwin and Spencer that would achieve ultimate progress though achieving peace. Her novel, Die Waffen Nieder (Lay Down Your Arms) published late in 1889, was such a compelling indictment of militarism that it tremendously impacted the reading public. Leaders of European nations, however, failed to heed her plea for “unity and peace” in their rush to World War I.
Unlike the dozen women Peace Prize laureates, who were mostly civil society activists, the majority of postwar peace prizes have been awarded to male statesmen and politicians who negotiated treaties, boundary disputes, and in general promoted “fraternity among nations”, as Alfred Nobel stated in his will. Yet the dominant theme of militarism is evident in most of these settlements, many of which quickly collapsed when new tensions arose. In some instances, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to individuals whose struggles for self-determination have led to their being labelled as terrorists by their enemies, includingYasser Arafat, Jose Ramon Huerta, and Nelson Mandela. Others have been active proponents of racism, such as President De Klerk of South Africa, or stand accused as war criminals, such as Henry Kissinger, who was instrumental in the secret bombing campaign in Cambodia that fueled the Cambodian Civil War and the subsequent atrocities by the Khmer Rouge. The underlying injustices and inequalities of the Israel/Palestine conflict remain alive, althoughShimon Peres, Yasser Arafat, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin have all been Peace Laureates.
In contrast, the six founders of the Nobel Women’s Initiative are using their leadership in unique ways to chart an alternative vision of security and peace, overcoming differences in nationality, class, religion and faith. As women, they understand all too well what it is like to be subjected to violence even in times of so-called peace. In fact, each one’s personal histories tell the tale of the impact of militarism on women’s lives.
The Laureates, in their various roles - the environmentalist, the human rights lawyer, the aid worker, the writer, and the community organizer - have chosen to use non-violent resistance strategies to challenge a dominant worldview where repression and violence are commonplace. In societies where violence or force are used by those in power to move an agenda, there can be no real freedom, human rights or personal safety. Those who are voiceless will remain marginalized, unable to participate in the mechanisms that participatory democracy offers.
These women leaders are taking on facets of militarism, such as the lack of participatory democracy, which they understand to be far more than just elections. It includes the rule of law, an active civil society, a free press, and respect for social, economic and political human rights. And for democracy to function well, the military must be held accountable by an elected civilian government. Otherwise, spending on security forces and armed personnel always trumps expenditures on education, training, and citizen participation.
The Nobel Women’s Initiative offers principled, non-violent examples of collective action that can mobilize and inspire people to work for long-term systemic change. The gathering in Guatemala comes at a critical moment in the world’s trajectory: women’s movements the world over have the potential to breathe new life into a global movement that can resist militarism, reclaim peace and justice, and restore human dignity to all.