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Speaking truth to power at the UN

"This may be the last time our voice is heard here…" excerpt from the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom Statement to the UN‘s Conference on Disarmament. WILPF's centenary conference opens today in the Hague.

 "....this may be the last time our voice is heard here..."

The UN has become a citadel of nations, ruled over by five nuclear potentates with veto power in the Security Council. Periodically the fortress is besieged by civil society organizations knocking on the door for entry, raising their banners for peace and justice. This is most observable at the meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women during the first two weeks of March. Women flood the Church Center across the street from the UN, overflowing into the Armenian Convention Center down Second Avenue, sharing issues, strategies and concerns. Members of each women’s NGO share a limited number of passes to the UN building itself.   

This year, in a different UN body, on International Women’s Day, something unprecedented happened. It was a David and Goliath moment.  It’s been a long time coming. The respected UN affiliated organization, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), took a stand in an environment that has become painfully at odds.

Art exhibition at the WILPF conference

More precisely WILPF resigned from monitoring and engaging with the Conference on Disarmament.

WILPF is proud of being the first NGO to be affiliated with the UN through the Economic and Social Council back when the UN was getting started in 1946; they see – or saw - the UN as a feminist organization dedicated to saving  ‘succeeding generations from the scourge of war’; and they recognized it as one of the few places where small nations could have a voice. In short, they have tried for decades to engage with this body that has been hijacked since 9 /11 by corporate and nuclear powers, and finally they said enough is enough.

For some background:  The Conference on Disarmament (CD), made up of 65 members states, is the only body of the UN that meets annually to (in theory) negotiate disarmament treaties. Other UN bodies, such as the Disarmament Commission and the UNGA First Committee are only of a deliberative nature. However the latter has the “power” to adopt resolutions that can create a process like for the Arms Trade Treaty.  The CD has negotiated the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention. But since 1996, it has not negotiated any treaties, or even agreed on which treaty to next negotiate, and it has put roadblocks in the way of any substantive conversation with civil society. These roadblocks, termed indignities in the statement issued by Reaching Critical Will (RCW), are not experienced at the other disarmament forums mentioned above.

For the last few years, WILPF has been permitted to deliver a statement to the Conference on Disarmament to mark International Women’s Day. This is the only time of year that any voice from civil society is allowed inside the conference chamber.

According to Mia Gandenberger, staff person at RCW, who delivered the statement this year, “We made a point of starting every statement with ‘We, women from many parts the world,’ which was then read out by the (male, middle-aged) President of the Conference.  In 2010 finally one of our representatives was allowed in the room to deliver the statement.”

The statement she delivered this year stated “… this may be the last time our voice is heard here…This is a body that has firmly established that it operates in a vacuum. That it is disconnected from the outside world. That it has lost perspective of the bigger picture of human suffering and global injustice. Maintaining the structures that reinforce deadlock has become more important than fulfilling the objective for which it was created—negotiating disarmament treaties.

We can no longer invest effort into such a body. Instead we will continue our work elsewhere. There is much work to be done….”

Indeed. WILPF is celebrating its 100th anniversary this week in the Hague. 

WILPF was founded in 1915 at a conference at the Hague dedicated to stopping World War 1, by women who were global activists even before they had the vote. Before any super-national organizations such as the League of Nations or the UN existed, they used grassroots diplomacy to reach the men in charge: travelling from belligerent to neutral governments and knocking on the doors of power. 

WILPF is still knocking on doors.  Despite a UN resolution SCR 1325 that mandates women’s role at the table when peace settlements are negotiated, Syrian women - the latest example -  were denied a seat at the failed talks in 2013.

Women are frustrated and impatient at watching wars metastasize around the planet, watching the elements of the sacred earth mined and melted into bullets and missiles.

Nearly a thousand women have brought their energy together here in the Hague at WILPF’s 100th anniversary conference on Women's Power to  Stop War. (April 27 to 29).

Women from the USA, which is the largest exporter of bullets and missiles in the world, are meeting together with women from the front lines of violence, women living in communities that have been decimated by war and rape and dislocation. A source of inspiration at the conference will be the new Manifesto, the result of three years work by women from the 30 WILPF country sections from around the world:

We are renewing WILPF’s commitment to eradicating war by addressing its root causes.  Among them we identify:

Militarism as a way of thought, and the militarization of societies, such that perceived –threats are likely to be met with weaponry rather than words;

The capitalist economic system, involving the exploitation of the labor and resources of the many by the few, wantonly harming people and the environment, generating conglomerates of global reach and unaccountable power;

The nation-state system as it is today, involving dominant states, imperialist projects, inter-state rivalry, contested borders, and inside those borders, all too often, failure of democracy, resulting in political repression and intolerance of diversity;

Social systems of racist supremacy, cultural domination and religious hierarchy;

Patriarchy, the subordination of women by men, in state, community and family, perpetuated by the social shaping of men and women into contrasted, unequal and limiting gender identities, favoring violent masculinities and compliant femininities.

We understand these as intersected and mutually reinforcing systems of power, all founded on violence and together productive of war.

I encourage you to read the Manifesto. It ends with this  challenge to the next generation:

Violence is not inevitable. It is a choice.

We will implement peace, which we believe to be a human right.

WILPF's  centenary conference on 'Women's Power to Stop War' opens today in the Hague. Read more articles in openDemocracy 50.50's series Women's Power to Stop War.  Jennifer Allsopp and Marion Bowman are reporting live from the conference for 50.50.


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