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Open letter from former-Yugoslav peace groups, and WRI response

Representatives of some of the main anti-war groups in former-Yugoslavia met in St Johan, Salzburg, Austria this April. One of the documents they produced was an Open Letter to Peace Movements, written in a private capacity, rather than in the name of their groups. We reproduce the Salzburg Open Letter below, followed by an Open Letter answer by War Resisters' International.

An open letter to peace movements

Three years after the begining of the war on the territory of former Yugoslavia, anti-war and peace groups and organisations in newly risen states work in very dissimilar circumstances, while in Bosnia-Hercegovina their work is nearly impossible. However, on the grounds of our experiences so far and through contacts with peace movements in the world, we came to some common conclusions.

Gathered for the meeting in the Austrian town of St Johan, we decided to send this open letter to peace movements around the world.

  • We believe that peace activists who come to us need to be well-prepared and informed about the situation in the countries they visit. To prepare for their stay, they need to cooperate with activists who have experience in this area, and with domestic antiwar groups and organisations working in here. Actions based on arbitrary assumptions and without analysis and preparation can create effects contrary to those desired.
  • Our common stand is that mass actions of visiting these teritories, like the "Caravan of Peace" in 1991 and "Peace Now" in 1993, are ineffective and a waste of energy. During a short period, a large number of participants can't really understand what has happened, nor articulate any political message except general opposition to war, which is commonplace. Those who come individually or in small groups and who cooperate with us on concrete projects help us much more. Hard long-term work is understood. Delusions that fast and easy solutions are possible must be rejected.
  • The economic situation is bad in all new countries. In spite of this, peace and antiwar groups and organisations for human rights, women's groups, etc work on many projects. They need financial and material support for their activities, as well as independent, progressive media. Independent TV is especially important, as a particularly powerful medium.
  • Xenophobia, chauvinism and neofascism exists today in all European countries. We are a part of Europe where these trends, along with state manipulation, led to genocide ("ethnic cleansing") and mass killing (Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Kosovo). We believe that our struggle for the principles of tolerance and nonviolence are important for Europe, while the work of peace and similar movements against this plague in Europe, in their countries and on a local level, is also a big help for our struggle.

An insight that a priori advocacy of nonviolence from peace groups in Europe and the violent action of Serbian irregular armies in Bosnia-Hercegovina is upsetting. It is the last time to critically examine the connections between war and peace, violence and nonviolence, in the experiences of Bosnia-Hercegovina. This experience is instructive enough for us to conclude that pleading for peace is not the same as making peace, pleading for nonviolence is not the same as creating nonviolence, but that pleading for peace and nonviolence can be one effective bar to creating war and violence.
One of the possible ways out of the Bosnian war is defending the Bosnian- Hercegovian state with all means possible. Without sovereignty in the Balkan states, the people who live there will remain unprotected victims of various armies and armed bands of robbers.

  • In the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Vojvodina) and in the Republic of Croatia exist authoritarian regimes and strong extremist right-wing movements. The effects of war, destruction and suffering are strongly present, causing negative emotions that are easy to manipulate. Nonviolent action is possible and desirable in these circumstances. Peace and similar activists working in these states need support in their everyday political struggles and in long-term programmes of peace education, nonviolent conflict resolution, human rights protection, aid for war victims, etc. The support of our friends who worked in similar circumstances is valuable.
  • In the Republic of Macedonia, peace groups have been working to develop dialogue between ethnic groups inside the country as well as with neighbouring countries. This movement is of great importance and it needs support in its efforts to prevent violence and war. Peace movements from the world have an extraordinary chance to help these preventive activities.
    We appeal to peace movements to lobby governments and international organisations to press the Greek government to revoke the blockade of Macedonia and to start unconditional negotiations.
  • We appeal to peace movements to lobby governments to press Serbian authorities to stop state repression of Albanians in Kosovo, restore democratic institutions in Kosove and start a dialogue with legitimate representatives of Albanians, with mediation from the international community. We also believe that the presence of the international community can be very useful for preventing the escalation of conflicts, as in the case of Macedonia.

We appeal to peace movements to send their activists to Kosovo, because in this situation they can help monitor and decrease violence.

This "open letter" was written by:
Tonci Kuzmanic, Slovenia;
Zoran Ostric, Croatia;
Zdravko Uskokovic, Montenegro;
Teuta Cuckova, Macedonia;
Mirce Tomovski, Macedonia;
Vasvija Orascanin, Bosnia-Hercegovina (now in Austria);
Zorica Trifunovic, Serbia/Yugoslavia; Nenad Zivkovic, Vojvodina/Yugoslavia; Gazmend Pula, Kosove/Yugoslavia.


WRI's statement in response:

Inside and outside former-Yugoslavia: points for cooperation

None of us was prepared for what has happened in former-Yugoslavia -- not even those who warned of the dangers when Slobodan Milosevic began his campaign against Kosovo, or when Franjo Tudjman began to embrace ustashe symbols, or later when the Bosnian elections were fought on ethnic lines.

None of us was prepared, and we have had a lot to learn: you with your lack of a tradition of independent anti-war activity; and Western peace groups who had operated in the framework of the Cold War, campaigning for disarmament, demilitarisation and dissolving the blocs. The Open Letter to Peace Groups from the Salzburg meeting of 17-20 April offers some reflections and can open dialogue on our experience in recent years. It is very useful to hear what the peace groups in former-Yugoslavia have valued in their cooperation with outside groups, but also useful -- although less easy -- to hear their criticisms.

We see three central truths in the Salzburg open letter:

  • that nobody should have delusions that there can be fast and easy answers, neither through nonviolent action nor through military escalation.

Yes, there have been many facile statements by Western peace groups. But it was not only Western peace groups who suffered delusions. In particular, those who have called for military intervention have often underestimated the risks involved, the difficulty in controlling and limiting military intervention.

Also the delusions are not only about fast and easy answers, but about big and central. You point to the need for independent media. We agree, and stress the need to build on the independent media that exist and have some local credibility rather than making extravagant plans for centralised transmitters like Droit de Parole (Radio Boat).

  • that the main contribution to be made through nonviolent action at this point is through preventive engagement, such as in Kosovo or Macedonia (and we would add the Sandzak), or as an antidote to the poisonous war mentality of the governments of FR Yugoslavia and Croatia.

Now is also the time to prepare action plans to restore community and rebuild social life in Bosnia-Hercegovina, using the experience of work for reconstruction and reconciliation in other post-war areas. Social healing necessitates a non-propagandistic truth-seeking and truth-telling about the crimes of this war that is far removed from the nationalistic manipulation of issues such as rape to fuel the war psychosis. There will also remain a continuing need to protect the human rights of those returning and those who have previously been enemies.

In our view, it should now be a priority for Western peace groups to campaign for financial guarantees from their own governments for programmes for the future of Bosnia-Hercegovina which can breathe hope into everyday life: programmes that will be locally based, harnessing the talents of the people of the region, including the refugees, and developed mainly by non-governmental organisations.

  • that groups outside the region need to behave as partners to those inside, taking our lead from those in the situation, consulting thoroughly and carefully when we propose initiatives.

This has to mean groups inside and outside the region understanding and respecting each other's situation and background.

Yes, mistakes have been made. The worst mistakes are in attitude: for instance, where an outside group promises what it cannot deliver, or where it puts its own political agenda or its relationship with its own support base and funders above the needs of groups in former-Yugoslavia. Consultation with local groups has too often been partial. At worst, it has been instrumentalist: in particular, we think of those outside bodies -- not only peace groups -- which tend to bypass local groups who raise awkward questions; instead of thinking hard about the questions, they have merely looked for some other local group to use.

It is vital for outside groups to be clear about what we can offer and what we cannot, and what we cannot is a matter not only of resources but of politics.

A major problem in the relationship between anti-war groups inside and outside former-Yugoslavia has been over the question of military intervention in Bosnia-Hercegovina. The purpose of this letter is not to debate military intervention, but to clarify our working relationship.

There is an alarming phrase in your statement, when you suggest defending the Bosnian-Hercegovinan state "by all means possible". This could be taken to mean "warfare without limit": at worst, nuking Belgrade; more probably, the sanitised language of "surgical strikes" belying a reality of massacred civilians and children, as in Baghdad. We assume that this is not what you meant. Perhaps our reaction to this phrase shows a difference in sensibility.

Many of us are from countries whose armies have fought criminal wars or have committed war crimes, whose industries have profited from dealing in death, and whose governments care for human rights only when it suits some other interest. "Not in our name" was a slogan we used during the Gulf War -- we will be responsible for our own actions, but we will not legitimise their military taxes, their arsenals of mass destruction, and their military alliances. So even now, even over Bosnia-Hercegovina, we cannot give a go-ahead to military operations by governments which have neglected to develop any effective policies towards the massive human rights violations to be found in former-Yugoslavia (and in several countries in other continents). The governments of the world and the United Nations have shown repeatedly that they lack any principled commitment to the people still in Bosnia-Hercegovina and to those who have escaped. Their record -- a record of rhetorical posturing while mistreating refugees, obstructing war crimes investigations, and refusing to take any number of practical measures of help -- is a matter of shame.

As an international network of pacifists, WRI's job is to put the case for nonviolent action and demilitarisation. Even when we recognise there is a strong case for defence by military means, as in Bosnia, our work is try to develop any nonviolent options that exist or that have not been tried. We recognise that these might not amount to a full alternative to military means in a given situation. However if sometimes our work is likely to be marginal, at least it is in the hands of people dedicated to expanding the possibilities for nonviolence. We have to function within our limits, and we ask those of you who urge military intervention to respect that on this point we cannot join you.

Our refusal to endorse military intervention leaves plenty of scope for continued co-operation. We have not sought, and do not seek, to be highly visible -- most WRI members active about former-Yugoslavia take action in the name of their local or national organisation (indeed, one of the signatories of the Salzburg letter is the secretary of a WRI affiliate), while some of our other work is carried out through joint initiatives such as the Balkan Peace Team and the Coordinating Committee for Conflict Resolution Training in Europe. Nevertheless, we do feel very engaged in the region, and intend to remain so.

Ultimately, we recognise that success for those of you in Serbia and Croatia will depend on your ability to arouse your own populations; while those of you from Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia-Hercegovina will need stronger allies than the depleted and confused forces of the international peace movement. However, WRI's commitment to work together with you is firm, and we hope that our relationship with you will continue to deepen.

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