SMALL ACTIONS – BIG MOVEMENTS: Report on the WRI meeting in July


Franco Perna, the friend and representative of the Italian commitment to nonviolence, writes a report for us about the WRI (War Resisters’ International) International Conference, in which he participated as a delegate from the Azione Nonviolenta.

The conference, which took place in Africa for the first time, was preceded and followed by at least 6 other meetings of organizations affiliated with WRI, including: Pan-African Nonviolence/Peacebuilding Network and Women Peacemakers Program/Gender & Militarism Consultation. The WRI held its own statutory assembly with session delegates and affiliated organizations, as well as meetings with its council (the one that is outgoing at the beginning, and the new at the end) – the latter being elected by the assembly that is comprised of 12 members (chosen from 17 proposed candidates from the sessions), who came from Korea, Israel, Nepal the United Kingdom, Serbia/Mexico, Spain, South Sudan, Sweden, Turkey, Venezuela, Zimbabwe/Sweden.

This all occurred from July 1 to 12 near the famous City Hall in the city. The conference itself began on Friday evening, July 4, with a public welcome session (some 500 people) and with participation from prominent figures such as the Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, among others. It was from this very place that Tutu launched the famous March of Freedom from Apartheid, and where Nelson Mandela gave his first public speech in 1990, after 27 years of imprisonment.

The Conference participants/delegates numbered about 200, the majority of whom were Africans, and many young people from 50 countries from every continent. The general theme: Small Actions – Big Movements/Nonviolence in Progress, was covered in 4 plenary sessions in the morning with the help of 17 representatives from Mauritius, Malawi, Paraguay, United Kingdom, Sri Lanka, South Africa, South Korea, South Sudan, Uganda, USA, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. Each plenary session was then followed by thematic working groups, 13 in total, among which were: military alliances/interventions, domestic violence/urban security, people power, militarization of youth, peace construction, economic crisis and militarism, nonviolent education, integrity of the creation and transnational solidarity.

The first 3 afternoons were busy with about 45 workshops. It is impossible to list them here, but they vary, for example, from converting swords into ploughshares to prostitution, passing on to nonviolent alternatives in Syria; from nonviolent spirituality to the Arab Spring challenge; from solidarity’s past roots to the rise of modern nationalism. In all, these workshops were coordinated/facilitated by about 100 participants coming from over 20 different countries. There were also musical events, art exhibitions, not only from Africa, but also from Latin America and other places. We also participated in a special session to celebrate the life of Howard Clark, former coordinator/Chair of WRI, who died prematurely towards the end of November 2013, shortly before the passing of Nelson Mandela. It was Howard’s dream to coordinate this grand event, since it was he who had presented the idea of holding it in Africa.

Finally, the evenings were devoted to concerts, screenings of compelling films, among which were ‘Miners Shot Down’ (The Marikana Massacre/South Africa, August 2012) and an interview of a World War II German deserter along with a modern-day American conscientious objector. In addition, the walls of some of the large conference rooms in the City Hall were covered with exhibits of various kinds, which were inherent to the theme of the conference. It was truly a remarkable event financed by the participants themselves, by the sessions/organizations affiliated with the WRI, and by about 20 international, nongovernmental organizations related to the areas of peace, nonviolence and human rights. Despite this, the WRI council indicated that there will be a debt well over 20,000 Euros.

The general summary of the event ends here. There would be so much more to say, but it’s not that easy. It would certainly be possible to check some media outlets which kept up with the matter, websites of the various participating organizations (around 60 from small to large). Unfortunately, I must limit myself to some personal impressions and perhaps some criticism which I hope will be constructive. The first thing I want to say is that I was positively impressed with the discovery of so many groups, especially African ones, engaged in a social/cultural/community renewal in their respective countries, beginning at the grass roots, at the local level. In South Sudan, for example, a small group, which is part of a network of 75 non-governmental organizations, works to promote nonviolence and social development. Also, on behalf of the network, the group publishes an interesting monthly magazine, ‘ONAD Newsletter’ (Organization for Nonviolence and Development).

Another important discovery was the citizens’ nonviolent campaign in Gangjeong, South Korea, in order to halt the construction of a military naval base on Jeju Island, which is called the Island of Peace, where about 400 people live in perfect harmony with nature. They would like the island to be left intact for their descendants. As such, they are encouraging other nature lovers and artists the world over to visit Jeju, and, if possible, to settle there.

These are just 2 examples, but there are other initiatives in other countries/continents, which could also be described here. In fact, a major publication from the University for Peace/Africa Programme – Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (‘Only Young Once – An Introduction to Nonviolent Struggle for Youths by Christopher A. Miller), which was distributed at the City Hall, mentions several countries where many significant nonviolent struggles are in process, among which are Belarus, Botswana, Burma, Iran, Nigeria, Western Sahara, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.

At the end of the conference, several proposals were presented, some of which were discussed and approved by the assembly and WRI council. Among these, were a motion on Ukraine and one on Israel/Palestine (both can be seen on the site). Thanks to the noted Palestinian, Omar Barghouti (Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel), a well-attended, high-level meeting took place at the University of Cape Town. Furthermore, during the morning of July 9, which was reserved for an important site visit connected with the theme of our conference, some participants joined with local residents in front of the South African parliament to call for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and the recall of the South African ambassador from Israel, given Israel’s political/military actions towards Palestine at this tragic time.

During these days of intense discussion at all levels, some ‘old’ arguments resurfaced such as, conscientious objection to military service which, notwithstanding many resolutions by United Nations organizations, several human rights courts and politicians, the problem persists in many countries outside of Europe, and not solely, and many youth end up in prison. Another emerging issue was the tendency towards ever increasing military spending, in spite of the economic-financial crises, especially to maintain missions abroad, euphemistically called humanitarian peace missions. Moreover, it was emphasized that many youth today would be willing to participate in other kinds of service or volunteer, and thereby improve the social conditions of the respective local communities. However, governments continue to declare that they lack the necessary funds.

There was much concern expressed about the political and military interferences particularly by America, but not solely, in several African and Middle Eastern countries. The work of Tony Blair, former Prime Minister, and who was once an advisor to Kazakhstan, the Arab Emirates, and now to El Sisi in Egypt, with personal and economic benefits in millions of euros, is not something that can be appreciated. In fact, Blair was criticized even by his own Labour Party. It would be possible to continue along this path, but I fear dwelling on this too much, therefore, I’m about to conclude, and will not weary the reader any further. I only wish to add that this great event came off in the absence of noted political/cultural personalities, except for Desmond Tutu and Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, former vice minister of defence, and after the greetings from South Africa, at the opening ceremony. The general climate at the various meetings was defined by the fact that no one was indispensable, but that everyone is important, and hence, a democratic atmosphere.

Many of us would have preferred if the general theme of the conference were inversed, that is, Big Actions – Small Movements…I have made the situation in Italy an example of this: many small groups successfully filled the Verona Arena in order to promote peace and nonviolence. I could have enhanced the information to Nonviolent Action with photos and articles published in newspapers and magazines, i.e. Nigrizia. Those who listened to me mentioned that back there, in that arena, it was a major action for peace. It was the same for the 50th anniversary of the Nonviolent Action in Modena, and so forth. To be sure, movements are important, but their practical initiatives to involve many people are even more so.

Another interesting thing would be to have short presentations of the many groups represented, and from where they came at the beginning of the WRI Conference. This would also have been useful for the journalists. The only thing visible on each one of us was our own name. It was not decided when and where the next conference will take place, but many let their voices be heard to say that the WRI centenary should take place in the Netherlands where it as founded in 1921. It was also underscored that certain regional meetings, such as those to be held in Tunisia in February 2015, and in Sierra Leone, in 2 years, will contribute to the expansion and strengthening of the network of organizations affiliated with the WRI.

Franco Perna

Cape Town, 14 July 2014

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