Defusing world time bombs

A feminist perspective on peace was the focus of an international meeting of women politicians. Karen Kissane reports from Taiwan.

WAR used to be about the loss of sons and husbands and fathers.

It still is, but the nature of conflict has changed. Ninety per cent of the world’s disputes are now “intra-national” (between peoples who live in the same country), and women and children are suffering as never before.

In some African countries, boy and girl soldiers as young as 10 carry arms and kill. Many of those fighting in domestic conflicts use access to food supplies as a weapon, starving civilians in sieges or forcing them to flee as refugees.
Dr Musuleng Cooper, Foreign Minister of Liberia, says: “The UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) reports show that women and children comprise 80 per cent of the direct and indirect victims of military actions today. Where military personnel were the main targets of action in World War II, today, women and children . . . are exposed to more horrors, to death and mutilation caused by exploding mines, shells and rockets.” Dr Cooper spoke at the Feminist Summit for Global Peace in Taipei at the weekend to mark the anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific. The conference brought together politicians, diplomats and representatives of non-government organisations from the United States, Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Speakers challenged the way international disputes are handled and some questioned the principle that nations should not interfere in each others’ internal affairs.

Dr Cooper, who now cares for 13 foster children who have lost families in the bloody civil war in her country, says: “Should the international community stand idle while governments hide behind state sovereignty to violate the rights of their citizens, especially minority ethnic groups?
“Should governments not be held accountable for the protection of all victims of the breaches of international human rights laws?
“Should the United Nations charter, after 50 years, be revised to remove inhibitions regarding domestic jurisdiction and thus give member states legal standing to intervene in cases of massive human-rights violations?”
Phoebe Muga Asiyo, a member of Kenya’s Parliament and its shadow minister for regional development, says: “The concept of global security must be broadened from the traditional focus on security of states to include the security of individuals and that of the planet Earth.” When the sovereignty of the state is used to abuse the sovereignty of its people, the right to absolute national sovereignty should be forfeited, she said.

If wars continue to explode at the current rate, an obligation to intervene in internal as well as cross-border conflicts might prove overwhelming.

Dr Martina Gredler, an Austrian member of the European Parliament, said Swedish research shows that 28 big conflicts (more than 1000 people killed) and more than 22 smaller conflicts broke out in 1993 alone.

The world picture is not encouraging, says Bernie Malone, an Irish member of the European Parliament and the first vice-chairwoman of its foreign affairs, security and defence committee: “More than half the conflicts ongoing in 1993 had been underway for more than a decade and had claimed the lives of some five million people.”
Even when a conflict ends, the suffering does not. War victims must fight to survive in environments devastated by war. Many are homeless and many others are still being maimed or killed by landmines and other devices left by war.

“According to the UNHCR, the number of refugees and displaced persons has risen from 2.5 million in 1970 to 18 million in 1990,” Ms Malone says. “Abandoned or unexploded ordinance, such as land mines and cluster munitions, render large tracts of countryside uninhabitable in some 25 countries . . . The Red Cross estimates that more than 800 people, mostly civilians, are killed by land mines every month.” It all leaves the world’s once-great hope, the United Nations, looking like the ultimate parody of bureaucracy: better at documenting disaster than at preventing it.

Ms Malone is hopeful that a unit about to be set up by the European Parliament will truly help to hose down potential hot spots before they erupt. The Parliament has just approved a proposal by a former French Prime Minister, Michel Rocard, to set up a European Union Centre for Active Crisis Prevention.

The centre’s goal will be to pinpoint looming conflict, allowing action to be taken in time.

“People say that they knew Rwanda was waiting to happen, that they knew Bosnia was like a time bomb,” Ms Malone says.

“It’s very hard to impose a political solution once people are out in the battlefield. Northern Ireland showed that.”
Northern Ireland also showed that the only way to resolve conflict fuelled by long-standing enmity is to invite everyone to the table: “You have to speak to all sides and bring them in, and that includes the extremists,” Ms Malone says. “That’s the key factor.”
Ms Asiyo believes that the United Nations should set up a rapid-intervention force to respond to crisis and fund it with a global taxation on the arms industry. “The establishment of an international crime court to try leaders and governments who commit atrocities and perpetrate wars against their citizens is long overdue,” she says.

The conference endorsed the principle that the violence of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes against their citizens is as unacceptable as violent conflict between nations and that the issue should be part of the global security agenda.

It said that all sexual violence against women, including the enslavement of “comfort women”, genital mutilation and rape warfare, was criminal and should be punished.

The conference also voted to investigate setting up a women’s peace watch organisation and proposed that the UN declare 2000 an international year of global peace and security.

Achieving peace will require strengthening the economies and democracies of nations such as Africa, where the breakdown of traditional life leaves a vacuum often filled by authoritarian figures who maintain power by exploiting the fears of rival groups. It will require commitment and understanding, says Ms Malone.

“We think in the West that we have the answer to everything because of the type of democracy we have evolved but it has evolved over years and years; it didn’t just arrive.

“These countries in central Africa haven’t gone through any of this yet, and our democracies won’t necessarily suit these traditional societies. But they have the power within themselves to resolve their own conflicts. They can make the great leap forward; it just won’t necessarily be the same leap forward that we made.”

First published in The Age.