Empowerment: International Dimensions

Although international cooperation among political movements is as old as the movements themselves, it has become more important in times of economic globalization. Since the UN Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, solidarity has entered official discourse in discussion of an international "civil society." Rather than add to that discussion and the growing NGO-ization of popular movements, I want to examine the experience of one movement--War Resisters' International (WRI)--with international cooperation through the lens of empowerment. As an international network of pacifist and nonviolent organizations, WRI focuses on the grassroots level and works to achieve change at the leadership level by indirect means.

My approach to these issues is shaped by my experience as a "total objector" to both military and alternative service in Germany in the 1980s. I have been involved in the nonviolent peace movements and their anarchist or direct action wing since the mid-80s and got involved with WRI as a representative of the Federation of Nonviolent Action Groups (FöGA), the network of nonviolent anarchist groups in Germany. In this essay, I will explore three areas of international cooperation: solidarity actions, international nonviolent interventions (both of which are acts performed by "outsiders" to a conflict in cooperation with parties in the conflict) and, finally, the formation of a joint struggle against militarism.


Solidarity Work

War Resisters' International's solidarity work has focused primarily on supporting conscientious objectors who face imprisonment and other form of states repression. In the conflict between conscientious objectors on the one side and the state and militaries on the other side, War Resisters' International "intervenes" as a partisan third party[2] - providing support for the antimilitarist movement, and promoting the common cause of conscientious objection. During the second half of the 1990s, a major focus of WRI's solidarity work was the antimilitarist struggle in Turkey especially the imprisonment of conscientious objector and WRI vice chair Osman Murat Ülke[3].

The Turkish antimilitarist movement

The antimilitarist movement in Turkey is still quite young. It began with the first public declaration of conscientious objection by Tayfun in 1989. A second declaration followed in 1990by Vedat Zencir, combined with a campaign against conscription. Both conscientious objectors were prosecuted and sentenced under Article 155 Turkish Penal Code and charged with "alienating the people from the military," but not for conscientious objection itself.

Early in its development, the Turkish antimilitarist movement looked for international cooperation. In 1993 the International Conscientious Objectors' Meeting (ICOM) gathered in Ören, Turkey. Although the meeting did not enjoy legal status in Turkey because it was never approved by the Turkish authorities, the contacts made were important for the movement that followed. On 17 May 1994, İstanbul Savaş Karşıtları Derneği (Istanbul War Resisters' Association) organized a press conference to mark International Conscientious Objectors' Day, celebrated on May 15. Four Turkish COs used the forum to declare their conscientious objection publicly. Three German supporters gave presentations on the situation of conscientious objectors in Germany and Europe. Organizers of the press conference raised a demand for the right to conscientious objection, supported by more than 100 signatures (Nadler 1994: 7).

After the press conference, 17 Turkish participants and the three German delegates were arrested. The Germans were released the following day, but were prevented from leaving Turkey. After trial in early June, they were forced to leave the country and banned from visiting again. While most of the Turkish people were released on the same day, four remained in prison for weeks and even months--among them was Osman Murat Ülke. They also were charged under Article 155. İstanbul Savaş Karşıtları Derneği was banned.

Although Osman Murat Ülke participated in the press conference only as a translator, he was the most outspoken person during the trial. In June 1995, at the anticipated end of the trial, an international delegation was organized to observe the proceedings at the Military Court at the General Staff in Ankara. Faced with huge international interest, the court postponed the trial ended until August 29, 1995. Another international delegation was organized, this time smaller than the first. While three of the accused were convicted and sentenced to prison terms equal to the time they had already spent in prison, Osman Murat Ülke was acquitted. But he was sent immediately to the recruitment office and called up to report to his military unit at Bilecik two days later. He was allowed to go home and to travel to Bilecik on his own. Not surprisingly, Ülke did not obey the call up order, but used World Peace Day on September 1 to make a public statement. At a press conference in Izmir, he burned his draft papers, and publicly declared his conscientious objection. Although everyone expected his immediate arrest, nothing happened for more than one year. Then on October 7, 1996, Osman Murat Ülke was arrested and taken to the Mamak military prison in Ankara (Speck 1996: 1/8)


International Solidarity

The development of Osman Murat Ülke's case made it possible to prepare for solidarity actions. Osman Murat Ülke was not only well known in the international antimilitarist movement when he was arrested in October 1996, but also a practice of cooperation existed between Izmir Savaş Karşıtları Derneği (Izmir War Resisters Association or ISKD) in Turkey and several groups of the WRI network. The ICOM gathering in 1993, several delegation visits to Turkey, and travel Osman Murat Ülke to groups in Europe laid the ground for a large solidarity campaign.

Immediately after his arrest, the international network mobilized an action alert. Protest faxes and letters from all over the world arrived at the prison, and letters expressing solidarity were sent to Osman Murat Ülke in prison. When he was transferred from Mamak military prison to his military unit in Bilecik following the trial on 19 November 1996, faxes arrived at Bilecik barracks before he did! The same thing happened when he was moved to Eskisehir military prison, where he was tried several times for disobeying orders and desertion. He was finally released on 9 March 1999, after being sentenced to one year imprisonment, which he already served while awaiting trial. Although there were no new charges against him, he was ordered to present himself at "his" military unit in Bilecik again. But everyone knew that he would not report (ISKD 1999). Since then, he has been living in Izmir, officially sought for desertion, but practically ignored by the police and the military. Still, he can be arrested whenever it suits the Turkish state.

In an interview Osman Murat Ülke points to the importance of solidarity - solidarity from within Turkey, and from abroad - while he was imprisoned. He received more than 2,500 letters while in prison, contributing to his own sense of empowerment or power-within while in prison (Ülke 1999). Earlier, ISKD activist Serdar Tekin pointed out, that in case of arrest "international delegations and support are of a practical importance, to reduce the danger of torture and mistreatment". (Tekin 1996).


Excursion: theoretical questions

Because empowerment is about the effectiveness of different strategies, the question arises: why did this work (at least in a limited way) in the case of Osman Murat Ülke? By contrast, why did Serbian war resisters warn their international partners against carrying out a similar solidarity campaign in the event that one of them would be arrested[4]? Why did they fear this kind of international solidarity from below?

A closer look at Gene Sharp's "Consent Theory of Power" (Sharp 1973, 1980) might provide an answer. According to Sharp, power is based on the consent of those governed. If this consent is actively withdrawn, power crumbles, it ceases to exist (see figure 1). Although Sharp's model presents a simplified analysis of power relations within a society, it completely overlooks important issues of international relations and must be modified to address solidarity.In the case of Turkey, the Turkish elites (especially the military) enjoyed strong support from most NATO countries, especially from Germany and the United States. Greece, a nation that is almost at war with Turkey, is the notable exception among NATO members. Following Sharp's model, this international support stabilizes the Turkish elites. A withdrawal of consent by the Turkish population can be neutralized through support from outside elites such as Germany and the United States (see figure 2).

Figure 1

Figure 2

Building on Sharp, Norwegian peace researcher Johan Galtung has suggested another model, the "great chain of nonviolence." Acts of solidarity in those states that support the Turkish elites become very important. Thus, the Turkish elites become dependent on public opinion in Germany and the United States, a power relationship that could be exploited with international delegations to trials and with campaigns of protest letters and faxes to military and prison authorities following Osman Murat Ülke's arrest.

Although additional conscientious objectors publicly declared their objection to military service during and after Osman Murat Ülke's prison term, no new CO's were called up or arrested. It seems that the Turkish state has decided to ignore the issue, perhaps to avoid the emergence of a new human rights issue while Turkey seeks membership in the European Union, a process that has identified Turkey's human rights record as an issue.

The case of Yugoslavia was very different. The antimilitarist movement in Yugoslavia was already accused of being an agent of "the West." Because Yugoslavia and "the West" view each other as enemies (and even went to war during NATO's bombing in Spring 1999), a solidarity campaign by citizens of Western states could have supported the claim the Yugoslav powerholders. These international antimilitarist groups were far from being supporters of the Yugoslav regime, even when they opposed NATO's bombing campaign. To support the Yugoslav antimilitarists, there was no power relationship that could have been exploited for solidarity actions.


Solidarity Work: Other Aspects

Solidarity actions provide support, and that shouldn't be a one-way road. While the Turkish antimilitarist activists receive solidarity from other activists around the world, they are also expressing their solidarity with antimilitarist activists in other countries, like Greece or the Balkans.

From the point of view of empowerment, this mutual support is important not only because of the direct consequences (providing funds for a campaign or carrying out solidarity actions to raise public awareness), but also because of the power that comes from the sense of belonging to an international movement. These exchanges of solidarity provide that experience and the direct human interaction that might help to break the experience of isolation in one's own country. This experience was especially important for Yugoslav peace activists during the era of the Milošević regime. It became increasingly important during NATO's bombing campaign when peace activists felt more isolated and marginalized in an increasingly nationalist Serbian society.

However, solidarity can also be disempowering--both for those receiving solidarity and for those offering it[5]. For those on the receiving end the potential danger is the development of a relationship of dependency in which the local group depends on outside support for almost everything. Even in the best of circumstances, this situation can lead the group to take its political agenda and policies from its supporters, not its constituency. At its worst, I call this dynamic "the NGO syndrome," which involves the development of local or regional NGOs that are completely dependent on outside funding without any local base. This activity might empower those employed by the NGO, but the local community is prevented from self-organization and degraded to receiving foreign "aid."

For those providing solidarity, there are two potential dangers that can lead to disempowerment: the first is an uncritical acceptance of every action and policy of those who receive support. This often happened in the third world solidarity movements of the 1970s. The second danger comes from overlooking the links between international issues and the problems in one's own society. This problem can result from a reticence to confront the reality in one's own country and from projecting idealized or romantic visions on movements that are far away


International Nonviolent Intervention

Although international solidarity is a form of international nonviolent intervention, the term is used increasingly to name nonpartisan interventions in a conflict by third parties. Although the history of international nonviolent interventions goes back to the 1930s, when Maude Royden started to form a "Peace Army" to act as a human shield between the Japanese and Chinese forces during the war between Japan and China (Weber 1993), initiatives for nonviolent intervention became increasingly popular after the end of the Cold War. Some of these projects have been described in the journal, Peace News.

War Resisters' International has a long history of involvement with international nonviolent intervention. After its Triennial meeting in 1960, Gandhi's idea of a Shanti Sena (Peace Army) was taken up on the initiative of Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) to create an "international Shanti Sena," an effort that became the "World Peace Brigade," founded in 1961 in Beirut, Lebanon (Weber 1993: 50-51). Although short-lived, this organization was an important experience for the subsequent creation of "Peace Brigades International" in 1980. In 1971, during the war of secession between Bangladesh and Pakistan, WRI and Peace News initiated a similar project, "Operation Omega" as an international nonviolent direct response that also sent relief to the border areas of Bangladesh (Graham, 1971; Moody, 1971, 1971a, 1971b; Omega 1971).

Balkan Peace Team

In the 1990s WRI's most important project of international nonviolent intervention was the Balkan Peace Team, which operated in Croatia, and later expanded to Kosov@ and Serbia. The project closed in January 2001 when the Kosov@ team left the project.

The Croatia team of the Balkan Peace Team engaged in different activities at different levels of society, usually in close cooperation with local civil society groups. The teams observed trials of members of the opposition or of minorities, documented human rights abuses against Serbs and members of the Croatian opposition. They also contributed to the development of civil society networks through the exchange of information. While the human right monitoring work helped to create political space that could be used by local activists (and served as an indirect contribution to local empowerment) the network building activities contributed very directly to the empowerment of local activists.

In a first study Müller/Büttner (1996) wrote, "The BPTI project plays a strongly supportive role in civil society's development of articulation and conflict resolution abilities (peacebuilding: empowerment through seminars and networking)." In a more detailed analysis, they point out that the most important aspect is "the continuous strengthening of the local partners through the specific additional and supporting work of the team" (Müller/Büttner/Gleichmann, 1999).

Critical Remarks

Some critical remarks need to be made about the growth of activity in the field of international nonviolent interventions, a phenomenon that cannot be viewed in isolation from the poor state of the peace movement in most Western countries, at least in the period from the end of the Cold War. With the advent of the so-called "war on terror" increased mobilization and some coordination offer hopeful signs, but a renewed movement has not yet firmly established itself.

To a significant degree, the fall of the Berlin Wall had a disempowering effect on many peace activists. The changes that it represented may have brought (capitalist) freedom to Eastern Europe, but they also marked the end of any alternative to the Western model of capitalist liberal democracy. It also revealed that, stripped of the simple east-west schema--there are no easy answers to long-standing conflicts and wars in many parts of the world

When the initial hope for a "peace dividend"--massive disarmament (or even demilitarization) and reinvestment in social programs didn't become true, the peace movement in many parts of the West seemed to have been demobilized and even disempowered. In fact, the military even gained ground in most countries and found new justifications for its existence. In response to the war on the Balkans, initiatives for humanitarian aid and nonviolent interventions were widely welcomed in the movement, while the militarization of our own countries continued and the role of our governments in fuelling the Balkans conflicts remained largely unchallenged. It seemed that the peace movement of Western Europe emigrated to Yugoslavia to empower others and support anti-militarist activists there, while it was too disempowered to confront militarism at home.

"Maybe we got our priorities wrong," said Nenad Vukosavljevic of the Sarajevo based Center for Nonviolent Action one day after NATO started its bombing campaign in March 1999 (Berndt 1999). Perhaps the concentrated peace work on the Balkans combined with the lack of campaigning against militarism in the NATO countries was one factor that contributed to NATO's bombing campaign. His question points to the need for linking international nonviolent intervention with antimilitarist campaigning and organizing at home (Berndt/Speck 1999, 2000), something that is in the present proposal for an International Nonviolent Peace Force.

A similar pattern can be observed in conscientious objector movements in countries were conscription has been abolished or where conscientious objection is no long a political issue. Many of these groups turn to solidarity work with CO movements abroad, a strategy that often means that only a small group of activists continues to be concerned with CO issues. Rarely do they develop new strategies to challenge a professionalized army at home.


Joint Struggle Against Militarism

Although War Resisters' International (and the larger peace movement) has decades of experience with international cooperation, the organization is still far from a joint struggle against militarism. Some international campaigns like WRI's efforts surrounding Prisoners for Peace Day on 1 December, or International Conscientious Objectors' Day on 15 May--or campaigns against nuclear weapons or to ban landmines--have been successful to a limited extent. Yet it seems that the more successful they can be, the less they challenge the roots of militarism itself. Indeed, the ban on landmines has even been supported by powerful militaries.

In developing a joint struggle against militarism, we need to be aware of internal power relationships among anti-militarist movements in the West and other parts of the world. While the major military powers reside in the West, antimilitarist movements from the West express their solidarity with movements elsewhere and often provide material support. Although this support is needed, it does not represent a joint struggle--something that would include challenging the military might of the Western nations.

We, who live and campaign in the "First World" need to be aware that we benefit from the West's militarism, even as activists. We enjoy from freedom to travel (and cheap fares), benefit from social security and welfare, and purchase inexpensive imported products (which are the result of a globalized economy and cheap labor secured by militarism). In short, we benefit from the massive military strength of the West.

Thus, a joint struggle against militarism needs to put capitalism--and patriarchy--on the political agenda, issues that are often avoided by the Western peace movement because they require us to acknowledge our own contradictions and to questions the Western way of life. Without tackling these issues and promoting a fundamentally different social, economical and political order, we will be stuck in solidarity work that risks the dangers outlined above. But we will never achieve fundamental change nor develop at a shared struggle that tackles the roots of militarism


Closing Remarks

On the first day of the Nonviolence and Social Empowerment conference, the Indian Sarvodaya activist Daniel Mazgaonkar made some important remarks. He raised the question about what kind of democracy we mean when we talk about the need for democracy, for democratic change? Are we talking about parliamentary systems, which are presented today as the ultimate ration of democracy? Or do we think of a new kind of democracy, one that is not based on state systems, but developed from the grassroots, and embedded in people's lives--a democracy that we might call Gandhian, or anarchist?

Western peace activists also need to ask questions about what kind of economy we want, when we talk of economic empowerment, and self-reliance? And what kind of technology?

International solidarity is an important aspect of War Resisters' International's work today, and makes important contributions to the empowerment of activists. But in the long run, it can only be the beginning of a process in which we need to empower each other to face global militarism, and to develop a joint struggle for a just social order.



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[1] This article is based on a presentation at War Resisters' International's Nonviolence and Social Empowerment study conference which was held in Puri, India, in February 2001, and was originally published at https://wri-irg.org/en/nonviolence/nvse06-en.htm

[2] Diana Francis and Norbert Ropers make the distinction between partisan, semi-partisan and non-partisan actors in a conflict (Francis/Ropers 1996). Even more explicit are Berndt/Francis in a diagram used in KURVE Wustrow's trainers training (Berndt/Francis, without year). WRI's solidarity work is clearly partisan.
[3] a brief overview of the Turkish antimilitarist movement is included in: Movement Action Plan for Turkey. Documentation. Patchwork 1998, especially from page 9 on.
[4] So did Igor Seke from Serbia at WRI's seminar "From Kosov@ to Seattle: what role for nonviolent action?" in Oxford in August 2000, a few months before Milosevic finally lost power in Yugoslavia.
[5] On some problems of solidarity work and international cooperation see Rohwedder 1998