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Nonviolent action in conflict (non-war) situations

Several speakers were unhappy with the use of the term "non-war" in the title of this session. While situations in Israel, Yugoslavia (pre-'99) and Northern Ireland were neither full-scale war nor peace, speakers felt that the term "non-war" obscured the long-term, low-intensity nature of these conflicts

Kosov@'s Nonviolence Movement.

Howard Clark, the author of "Civil Resistance in Kosovo", reported on nonviolent action in pre-NATO war Kosovo. Since the early 1990s, the Albanian community, having no military means to resist the Yugoslav army, took up nonviolence as a resistance strategy. However, they did not remain passive. There was an active restraint on responses to provocation, as well as attempts to reform Albanian traditions felt to be detrimental to the community, such as the blood feud, which had led to continuous rivalry and fighting between families.

Women were given a new place in society, accompanied by increased recognition of their rights.

However, there were weaknesses in the 1990s Kosovan nonviolence movement: elitist styles of leadership, refusals to engage in dialogue, stereotyping of others & ethnic discipline, as well as a lack of selforganisation & initiatives from below.

Similarly to the Israeli situation, the great weakness of the Kosovan nonviolence movement lay in its people being seen as undesirable by the Yugoslav regime. The most powerful mechanisms of nonviolent resistance, non-co-operation and mass withdrawal, were useless, as the survival of the regime was not dependent on them.

Rather, both the Israeli and Yugoslav regimes would have deemed it a success if the Palestinians and Albanians had packed up and left.

WRI proposed and established a nonviolence peace team in Kosovo in the early 1990s. Rather than looking at mass intervention, it concentrated on low-key, small-scale, long-term activities. However, at a time when it is not safe to speak Serbian on the streets of Pristina, it must be asked what achievements we can show for this. Should we recognise that "our" grassroots actions are not on and/or cannot be on a scale to stop war and that we have to engage with states or interstate agencies, such as the OSCE or the UN?

How do we deal with the fact that there will always be more people in a population willing to support nonviolent tactics than those subscribing to a "full" nonviolent ideology ?

Using The Legal System Of The Repressive State -- Israel

Uri Davis from the Association for the Defence of Human Rights in Israel presented a successful piece of direct action in which the Israeli legal system had been utilised to establish the first ever Arab home in a Jewish settlement.

While there was disagreement over whether to define Israel as an apartheid state or not, it was generally accepted that the Israeli state did continue formalised and institutionalised discrimination. However, similar to apartheid South Africa, Israel was at pains to present itself as a functioning, non-arbitrary liberal democracy. Like SA apartheid, this meant that several arenas for change are open and justified, including an independent judiciary tied to the constitution.

Israel is constitutionally defined as both a "Jewish" and a "democratic" state, which can and does lead to tensions between the two. However, both of these values of the state allowed a challenge to be brought to the Supreme Court on whether the state was allowed to distinguish people by their religion or nationality: in particular in the matter of allocating land. This resulted in the court deciding that the Israeli state was prohibited from discriminating on the basis of religion and nationality. This decision enabled the introduction of the first ever Arab home into an all-Jewish settlement. However, it will take a long time before this ruling (of non-discrimination) is implemented fully and thoroughly.

This case shows that it is possible to take direct action using legal means, to rely on precisely those courts and existing structures that frequently appear to be part of the enemy. Other groups have recently used a similar mixture of subversive processes and employing legal means, notably the ploughshares movement trying to implement international law.

Working With Ambiguity -- Northern Ireland.

Clem McCartney used Northern Ireland to elaborate on the problems of ambiguous situations.

The conflict in Northern Ireland is frequently oversimplified and presented as a black and white affair, particularly by the media. There is a tendency to divide the many disparate parties and groups with different interests, aims and methods into simple friend-enemy, oppressor-oppressed categories.

There is widespread misuse of language by many groups, evoking fair and progressive ideas even when those being presented are far from fair and progressive. Peace as a goal is difficult -- everybody in Northern Ireland supports peace -- their own peace.

Despite the Good Friday Agreement, there is no common vision of peace. While the simplistic call to rally around "peace" can be good for mobilising people, it masks and avoids essential differences that must eventually be faced. As a result, pacifist organisations in Northern Ireland have had little impact.

Problems of working in ambivalent situations include:

  • How do you find relevant roles and methods to move things forward?
  • It is necessary to find a place or role, to build an image -- not just to support an existing party.
  • The "black and white" situations presented in the mainstream media are rarely the case. Some groups may be much better at putting across their message as "the oppressed" than other groups that are equally oppressed.

It was felt that it would be more productive to state the ambiguities openly. This could then form the ground on which movement towards change could occur. Conflict situations are neither simple nor static. The complex circumstances are in perpetual flux, with roles and statements continually taking on new meaning. As one participant put it, "as neutral peacemakers, we must continually re-define our neutrality to prevent misrepresentation".

It is important to:

  • Recognise the tension between what we ultimately want and what is actually feasible.
  • Explore if it is possible to first acknowledge differences and then try to find common ground.
  • Recognise that ambiguity can be good -- a way of de-escalating polarisation and informing people of complexity.
  • Be able to distance ourselves when necessary from elements of others' positions.
  • Use language that is simple enough to avoid unnecessary ambiguity and complications (without oversimplifying)
  • Critique one's own position, use of language and awareness of global situations.
  • Be empowered enough to each find one's own place within a complex conflict
  • Network and share with others in the same or similar situation

(Investigate imaginative, original direct action such as having tea on the street in the face of a Loyalist march.