War Resisters' International (encyclopedia entry)


Entry on WRI in Encyclopaedia of Nonviolence (Garland Publishing 1997)

War Resisters' International

International antiwar organization with members and affiliates in over thirty countries. Headquartered in London, War Resisters' International (WRI) co-publishes the monthly Peace News in English and an internal bulletin The Broken Rifle (in English, French, German, and Spanish).

Founded in 1921, WRI adopted the broken rifle as its symbol and a founding declaration that has remained unchanged: "War is a crime against humanity. I am therefore determined not to support any kind of war and to strive for the removal of all causes of war."

Many of its founders had been involved in the resistance to the First World War: its first Secretary, Herbert Runham Brown, had spent two and a half years in a British prison as a conscientious objector. Witnessing the collapse of the policy of an "international general strike against war" (adopted by the Socialist International), they decided to launch an anti-militarist international. Two years later, in 1923, Tracey Mygatte, Frances Witherspoon, Jessie Wallace Hughan, and John Haynes Holmes founded the War Resisters League in the United States.

WRI members refuse to support war or preparations for war. Their conscientious objection to war takes various forms. Some refuse to engage in military service. Others refuse to pay taxes that support the military. Still others refuse to work for military contractors. WRI has been involved in movements that have transformed these individual acts of personal witness into collective acts of noncooperation, such as draft card burnings in the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Each year on December 1, Prisoners for Peace Day, WRI produces an Honor Roll of those imprisoned for nonviolent action against war preparations. If the name gives an image of a network mainly of young men resisting military service, the reality is much more varied. WRI cuts across age groups, drawing on the experience of several generations of organizers of nonviolent action and from a variety of cultures. In addition, it has organized four international women's conferences and has an active Women's Working Group.

WRI members also are fundamentally committed to promoting nonviolent action as a form of social struggle. WRI has provided training in nonviolence, held international conferences on themes such as "Nonviolent Struggle and Social Defense" and "Feminism and Nonviolence," and organized nonviolent action campaigns.

Within the WRI network, from the Dutch anarchist Bart de Ligt and the U.S. Quaker Richard Gregg onwards, there have always been many people interested in nonviolent struggle as a means of social change. This, together with the organization's analysis that the injustice of colonialism was a cause of war, led to a keen interest in the Indian independence struggle and, later, close working relationships with sections of the Gandhian movement.

Peak periods of activity in WRI occurred in the 1930s, the 1960s (with the first wave of antinuclear campaigning, the U.S. civil rights movement, and the international anti-Vietnam War movement), and the 1980s. In the 1930s and 1940s, WRI helped to rescue people from persecution under Franco and under the Nazis and found them safe homes with WRI members in other countries. Under Nazi occupation, Dutch, Danish, and Norwegian members of WRI played prominent roles in organizing nonviolent resistance to frustrate the occupiers' plans and to deny them the fruits of their aggression. (The secretary of the Dutch section was executed by shooting in December 1944 for printing illegal papers and pamphlets.)

During the cold war, WRI consistently sought out war resisters in the Soviet bloc: first individuals, and later groups. After the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, WRI organized protest demonstrations in four Warsaw Pact capitals. In the 1980s, it adopted the idea of personal peace treaties: peace activists from the Eastern and Western blocs declared their loyalty to the values they held in common and not to the machinery of state and military that divided them; they then vowed to support each other in their struggle against the militarism of their respective blocs. Other actions were less public, such as private visits where material or information was smuggled in or out of a country.

There also have been many testing times for WRI. During the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the Vietnam War, and the 1990s' wars in the Balkans, peace movements have found themselves divided. Faced by what they see as a defensive war against a brutal aggressor, many individuals have questioned their commitment not to support any kind of war.

WRI has tried to develop nonviolent strategies for effective action in such situations, trying to pose another way, an alternative between submission and taking up arms, and to find means of breaking the cycle of war and violence. In 1971, when Pakistani troops were blockading what was then East Pakistan, WRI launched Operation Omega to Bangladesh, a nonviolent direct action project to take in relief supplies. More recently, the International Deserters Network associated with WRI has offered support for people resisting the Gulf War of 1991 and, on a much larger scale, the wars in the Balkans. Currently, WRI is engaged with several other peace organizations in an experiment in international nonviolent intervention, the Balkan Peace Team, working for human rights and in support of civil society initiatives in nonviolent conflict resolution.

Programmes & Projects

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