[web editor’s note: Articles written for the 1990 Nonviolent Struggle and Social Defence study conference in Bradford, described below, were edited and published in book form by War Resisters’ International in 1991. An online version is available at http://wri-irg.org/nonviolence/nvsd.shtml.]
“IT’S WONDERFUL TO MEET A GROUP of people whose time has come,” said James O’Connell of the University of Bradford (UK). Re was greeting the 100 participants of an international conference on social defence which took place from 3 to 7 April. Sponsored by War Resisters’ International and the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, in association with the Bradford School of Peace Studies, the conference brought researchers and activists together from Europe, North and South America, the Pacific, South Africa, Palestine and China. In a week- long series of workshops and plenaries, issues such as the abolition of the military, social defence under martial law, women’s perspectives and social defence and the environment were discussed. With over 100 different definitions of social defence, the participants’ toughest challenge seemed to be coming up with a common definition.
While activists may differ on an exact definition, most would agree that at its most basic, social defence means the nonviolent protection of a society and its way of life. Pacifists at the conference saw social defence, sometimes called civilian based defence, as a way to decouple politics from military violence and a way to democracy.
IN ONE WELL-ATTENDED WORKSHOP, U.S. professor Gene Sharp, an internationally recognized authority on civilian based defence, argued that such a system of nonviolent resistance could co-exist alongside military defence, and could indeed provide a transition to a totally nonviolent defence system. Marko Hren, a Slovenian peace activist, said that the two systems were incompatible. The military model was based on centralized power, hierarchy and obedience, he argued, while nonviolent resistance was by its very nature decentralized and non-hierarchical. Hren also cited the example of his own country, Yugoslavia, as an example of a non-democratic society where people were, until very recently, organized into civilian militias.
Speaker Maris Diokono spoke on the mistakes of the “people’s power” nonviolent revolution that brought Cory Aquino to power in the Philippines. Along with several other participants from the South, she questioned the relevance of Western-based experiences and theories of nonviolence and social defence in dealing with violent regimes where the “enemy” in not an invader, but your own government.
Some definitions of social defence do include this possibility. Today’s ideas about social defence have their roots in the ideas of nonviolent national defence developed by anti-war anarchists in Europe between the World Wars, especially from those in the Netherlands. Johan Galtung, a contemporary Norwegian peace researcher, coined the more recent term of social defence. In the nuclear age, he reasons, it no longer makes sense to base a military defence on weapons of mass destruction. Social defence, he proposes, doesn’t defend territories and borders, but rather the autonomy and democratic structures of a society, and society’s values, culture and economy. Social defence, which Galtung adapted from Gandhi’s methods of nonviolent action, can be used against aggressors both from within and outside the society. The basic ideas remains: an aggressor cannot gain control over a society whose members resist and refuse to cooperate.
Pacifists argue that anyone can participate in defending a country using this model, not just a country’s elite (such as an army). In fact, social defence is only possible if the entire population takes an active role. Therefore, only democratic societies, or ones where the government has a lot of popular support, can use this model. It requires a high degree of readiness to take responsibility, plus decentralized political and economic decision making. The whole society must be prepared and trained in nonviolence, while power and tasks must be decentralized. The people must be prepared to take responsibility and to practice a grass roots democracy. This is the way, supporters believe, that social defence can contribute to democratizing societies. It can change a society’s value system and replace violence and domination with nonviolent conflict resolution and a sense of community.
NUMEROUS GRASSROOTS GROUPS, particularly in Western Europe and North America, are developing more concrete ideas. In the FRG in June 1988, over 1,000 people attended the national congress “Without Weapons, But Not Without Defense,” which was held to evaluate their work around this issue. The Union for Social Defence was founded after this congress in order to improve coordination and political effectiveness. Working groups were organized over issues like social defence (SD) and local peace work, women and SD, SD and military defence concepts, arms conversion and anti4ow intensity warfare. One group developed simulation games in order to teach SD methods. The groups have asked the government to establish a Ministry for Disarmament, Conversion and SD. Participants are also involved in the Campaign for the Abolition of the German Army (BOA), and have proposed three-month long basic training courses in non-violent conflict resolution and SD for all conscientious objectors.
THE WORKING GROUP ON SOCIAL DEFENCE and Women, established in 1983, has conducted workshops and networked with other women in order to stimulate thinking around SD and the specific role and values of women in developing a culture of nonviolent defence.
There has been much discussion on what values women want to defend and how they can become prepared for SD. The working group has also evaluated women’s nonviolent resistance campaigns in other parts of the world.
In 1987, thanks to an initiative by Nicaraguan Foreign Minister d’Escoto, Peace Brigades International and the Peace University in Costa Rica began cooperating on the project “Social Defence for Nicaragua.” A working group of foreign trainers, experts and Nicaraguans was set up in order to develop and implement SD ideas. The groups visited researchers, unions, politicians and women’s groups throughout Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan National Defence Concept already contained many SD concepts, through combined with military defence. The groups has organized contacts with 50 delegates from religious based groups. There is a proposal to set up a Chair in Social Defence at the Peace University in Costa Rica, led by foreign resource people who could do research and counseling for the different groups in Nicaragua involved in the project.
By Gunther Schonegg of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, Spoorstraat 38, 1815 BK Alkmaar, Netherlands. Tel:072 123014. Fax 072 151102.