By Olive Branch*
The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was founded in The Hague in 1915 by 1,200 women from different countries meeting together with the idea of preventing World War I.
Such idealism, for people who couldn’t even vote in most of their countries, going up against the powerful empires of Germany, Austria, Russia, Great Britain and France, made them the subject of humor, the butt of jokes and silly looking characters in cartoons. In almost 100 years since that historical meeting, the ugliness of war, the waste of human life, the destruction again and again of the Earth, and the economic losses incurred seem not to have abated. And, of course, the planners and schemers far from the battle carnage continue to design and contract for more powerful weapons and delivery systems as if the arms race should go on forever.
But there are also signs that peace may have penetrated global thinking. Is it possible that the idea of negotiating peaceful solutions, of mediation, and the realization that military solutions do not solve problems has finally made an impact? And that world cooperation is helping countries and peoples achieve a more livable world?
Through the years we have seen the power of the people to make changes. Only recently we’ve seen what people can make happen in Tunisia, Thailand and Egypt. Burma, or Myanmar, has finally allowed elections and released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest because of world condemnation. After 20 years of war that produced millions of deaths and refugees, the Sudanese voted to divide their country and reach a peaceful settlement.
Negotiations and interchanges between North and South Korea have prevented a rehashing of the war that destroyed both countries in the 1950s, even though it has been difficult along the way.
China and Taiwan have set aside their mutual aggressiveness and now promote business and tourism ties between two former enemies.
Talks between presidents Hugo Chávez and Juan Manuel Santos have reduced tensions between Venezuela and Colombia, and there is more hope now to settle the internal war with the FARC.
Arms-limitation talks between the United States and Russia may be a start on arms reductions for the rest of the world. In all these cases it was the power of the people through marches, campaigns and popular pressure – often at high risks – to demand changes.
Peaceful resistance to make change is not new. It was used by the Danes against the Nazis and by Indians against British occupation in the 1940s. It was Martin Luther King’s strategy for racial integration. It toppled the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines and Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and opened doors to freedom in South Africa and Poland.
We also find the more economically stable countries of Europe, Asia and North America giving humanitarian aid to countries without resources and in natural disasters. Within countries it is also people-pressure that creates changes, big or small – people writing letters, meeting, marching, holding vigils, speaking out and campaigning.
Organizations like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Fellowship of Reconciliation and many, many more have kept the faith of possible peace alive through peace actions, and have also given credibility to international agencies dedicated to finding peace, such as the United Nations, the World Health Organization and others.
It may be hard to measure our advances unless you look over the long term. The last 50 years have seen a lot of changes in the world, which have led to a more peaceful environment.
There is still a lot of work ahead. True and lasting peace will not really be achieved between countries, races, religions or peoples until there is social and economic justice for all; as long as great disparities exist where the wealth is concentrated in the hands of small groups while others cannot meet the most basic needs; where some are guaranteed all the comforts of life and others struggle for mere survival without education, health care and decent housing; where one part of the world lives on the highest plane of technology and others live without electricity or water; where some governments spend millions of dollars and euros and yuans to build up armies and arsenals designed to kill, while others go to prison for minor offenses; where some travel in first class comfort and style and others migrate in the backs of overstuffed trucks or boats because they can’t earn enough to eat in their homelands; where big business and big agriculture decide how we live and what we eat while smaller companies and farms are forced to sell out or disappear; or where speculators reap in the money trading paper while workers see their jobs move off to countries where labor is cheaper; and apathy, indifference and ignorance about the rest of the world permit such injustice.
It is when people have nothing more to lose, be it individuals, classes of people or countries, that tensions leading to aggression, provocation, terrorism, war or crime arise.
The road to peace is long and we are gaining ground. We are living in a more peaceful world but we must also address the problems of social and economic inequality within and between countries to bring about real peace. We believe we can do it.
*Olive Branch is the collective name for the Heredia group of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Costa Rican section. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.