Strategic thinking at WRI Council

"The best local peace group in France" was how one of the Parisian participants described COT d'Albi (the Collectif des Objectrices et Objecteurs Tarnais), hosts of this year's annual War Resisters' International Council meeting in Carmaux in the Tarn region. COT's joie de vivre certainly proved infectious, and helped the Council deal with some seemingly intractable issues.

Statement of principles

The WRI Council has now produced a Statement of Principles, a daunting task that the organisation has not managed since the 1950s. As well as introducing some of the main tenets of pacifism and nonviolence, this statement also respects the plurality of views within the organisation, and acknowledges the complexity posed by certain situations.

WRI embarked on this drafting mainly as a means of stimulating discussion rather than with confidence about producing a final text. However, a text now exists that commands wide agreement without being the lowest common denominator for the organisation.

Strategic planning

Producing this Statement has been part of a Strategic Planning exercise which has now clarified three central developmental aims for WRI: to become truly global; to integrate "newer areas" of activity alongside conscientious objection; and to have a mote effective influence without compromising nonviolence. These aims have been stated intentions for WRI for some 30 years already, and are reflected in many WRI policy decisions, including the 1990 decision to help to rescue Peace News.

What was important at Council was to analyse the various methods adopted or proposed to achieve these aims, and to determine future steps. Some progress was made: especially in the historic tug of peace between those who insist on the centrality of conscientious objection to WRI as an organisation and those who feel that WRI should do more to reflect feminist, ecological and economic justice perspectives.

Social empowerment

One of the key concepts for WRI now is "social empowerment" - despite the difficulty of translating the term "empowerment into other languages. Moving from the personal level through to the group and the social, this concept offers a perspective for re-interpreting WRI's work. WRI will be approaching a number of local training initiatives to organise workshops evaluating social movementactivity in this framework in the next year, leading on to a conference to be held in India, probably in 1999.

Social empowerment will also be an important theme at next year's WRI Triennial Conference to be held in Croatia. Open to all WRI sympathisers, the Triennial is entitled "Choosing Peace Together" (in contrast to "ethnically-cleansed" peace). It will take place from 19 to 26 September 1998 in the Istrian coastal resort of Porec.

Balkan Peace Team

The most analytical discussion of the week was on the work of the Balkan Peace Team, a small-scale project of nonviolent intervention which WRI helped initiate and with which it is still centrally involved. Encouraging reports on the activities of volunteers in Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia — activities which are based on working alongside local activists from various social movements — led into an evaluation which acknowledged the inadequacy of the support structures for volunteers, and other problems associated with the project's insecure financial base.

Unfortunately, efforts to draw on this into a wider discussion on nonviolent intervention got stuck in the cul de sac of the potential role for conscientious objectors in such projects. Even leaving aside the important political objections to civilian forms of conscription, such proposals are marginal to the discussion when one takes account of the voluntary nature of the projects and the desirability of involving a wide age range (not to mention both sexes!).

The changing role of the military in Europe, its modernisation and professionalisation, and the expansion of NATO are leading to switches in focus in some European WRI groups. The Council was a rare occasion which brought together representatives six of WRI's French affiliates on the eve of historic changes in French militarism. The citizen's duty to bear arms has been a strong and enduring concept in French history for nearly two centuries. Conscription, an important form of socialisation and a contributor to the French sense of specifité is now to be suspended in 2002. However, many issues remain for French pacifists, including France's determination to retain nuclear status, its propensity for international military intervention, and its enthusiasm for the arms trade, as well as the rise of the right and the reaction against the sans papiers (illegal immigrants).