Ten Peace Women

By Metta Spencer | 2014-01-01 11:00:00

For Survivors of Gun Violence

BINALAKSHMI NEPRAM was cooking rice for the staff’s lunch in her New Delhi office when I reached her cell phone. A decade had passed since our last long chat, but instead of mentioning her personal life, she began talking about the work of her organization, the Control Arms Foundation of India, and her reasons for founding it.

Bina is a brave, beautiful woman in her late thirties who fully deserves the fame she now enjoys.1 She is furious because the world knows so little about the conflict in northeast India, and because the United Nations does nothing to protect the 45 million people living in that region from violence.

Northeast India lies to the east of Bangladesh and is connected to the rest of India by only a 14-mile wide corridor. Its people are genetically Tibeto-Burmese and speak about 220 different languages. Because they appear southeast Asian, other Indians often discriminate against them. For the past fifty years there have been numerous ongoing insurgencies in the region—mainly against the Indian government but also among some the insurgent groups themselves.

Bina, who was born in Manipur, says she was brought up assuming that the warlike condition in the area was normal. Human Rights Watch declares that the Indian Security Forces violate human rights with impunity, which fuels the insurgencies. She goes even further, putting most of the blame for the violence on the government, whose officials regard anyone from the area as a potential terrorist. She explained that since 1958 the region had been subject to martial law, which enables the armed forces to arrest Manipur people without a warrant, detain them, torture them, and even kill them. She almost shouted into her mobile phone:

“You can’t even go to court because it’s a martial law that gives the armed forces the right to do this, under the pretext that it is a conflict zone….This is not unique to Manipur now. We have a very violent India. Twelve Indians are shot dead every day. In 2013, India became the largest importer of weapons in the entire world. We launched our organization in 2007 to respond to this weaponization of India.”

The core mission of Control Arms Foundation is a service project called “Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network.” Bina spends most of her time in Manipur, Tripura, and other states in the northeast region, helping destitute women who have lost family members to gun violence. There are two local offices, headed by coordinators who manage the work in 90 villages. They have set up five shelter houses where they support women survivors, train them to become self-supporting, and provide small loans to start their own businesses.

I asked Bina to explain the cause of the wars. Outsiders call them separatist wars, but not all insurgents want independence from India. Bina answered,

“New Delhi treats suspects in the northeast as terrorists. It’s a war for justice and dignity. What happens to people’s dignity in these conditions is that you become slaves or you fight back. So people in this region are fighting back. It’s not about separatism. It’s about ensuring that the 245 million people living in that part of India deserve to be treated as first-class citizens of this country.”

I got the sense that Bina fully understands the decision of the insurgents to fight back, even while her work is that of caring for the survivors. Yet of course, slavery and fighting back are not actually the only possible responses to abuse. She cannot do everything herself, and presumably other people may be teaching civil resistance, using conflict resolution measures, and creating the institutions required for a democratic future. I hope so.

Killer Robots

JODY WILLIAMS is probably the most forthright—even blunt—woman on my list. She won the Nobel peace prize in 1987 for leading the campaign against land mines. When I first saw her, she was onstage in Newark, New Jersey with the Dalai Lama and about forty other luminaries. Obviously she and the Tibetan monk liked each other, and he seemed ready for whatever startling opinions she might express.

As usual, Jody took off her shoes while speaking and challenged the speech he had given. As a good Buddhist, he had been advocating the cultivation of inner peace as a spiritual preparation for overt action, but Jody wasn’t buying that idea. She declared that she rather liked her inner turmoil and even her anger. It was a source of the energy with which she had struggled against land mines. And she had a point; her barefoot confrontational manner woke us all up. This friendly dispute between Nobel laureates was the conversation that was reported in all the newspapers the next day.

Recently (last September) I heard her speak in Stockholm at an International Peace Bureau (IPB) event. Her message there was the warning that “killer robots” are coming. It is still early enough, she says, to block the production of LARs (“Lethal Autonomous Robots”), for they do not yet actually exist but are being planned by a number of countries. These weapons would identify and fire on pre-programmed targets without any human intervention.

A campaign against a single type of weapon is exactly the way Jody worked successfully against landmines. Accordingly, she is a founding member of the new organization, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which is making quick progress. On November 15 at the UN in Geneva, states parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons decided to convene a meeting next May to consider banning the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.

Jody gets around. A month after her speech in Stockholm, she was in Waterloo, Ontario, and often she appears with other female Nobel peace laureates, for one of her main projects now is to work with the Nobel Women’s Initiative, which she founded with Betty Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Wangari Maathai, Mairead Maguire, and Rigoberta Menchú Tum.

MAIREAD MAGUIRE shared the stage with Jody in Stockholm. Mairead had won the prize in 1976 with Betty Williams for their work to restore peace in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants. She is a warm, devout Catholic who still manages her “Peace People” organization in Belfast and works with other interfaith organizations to promote reconciliation and nonviolence.

Mairead is gutsy—unceasingly opposing US military actions abroad and sometimes getting arrested for her protests—but soft too, imploring us to love our enemies and refrain from harming each other. Her speech reminds me of the Dalai Lama’s approach, for they both invoke a spiritual sensibility to stop warfare. However, in Stockholm Jody did not speak in defence of inner turmoil—perhaps because she knew Mairead was plenty tough herself.

However, Mairead and Jody disagreed in passing about a different matter. Mairead was suggesting that peace workers should try to halt the use of drones in warfare, but Jody considered that already a hopeless cause. It was too late to stop drones, she said, so let’s work against killer robots. Still, they did not argue about it, for Mairead does not talk much nowadays about drones. In May 2013 she had led a 16-person peace delegation into Syria at the invitation of Mussalaha National Movement, and that is her main issue.


I phoned Mairead in November to hear more about her trip. She said,

“We spoke in meetings with activists, members of the government, the opposition parties, people who had been fighters and had accepted the Syrian government’s appeal for amnesty and came in to work for peace. … They appealed to us to ask the outside world for no military intervention because they believed the Syrian people can solve their own problems. They said they were a secular country and didn’t want it to be taken over by fundamentalists, so will support the government until we get elections next year.’‘

She had focused on Syria too in Warsaw in October at the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, complaining against

“violations against international law and humanitarian international law by foreign countries and fighters that are using a proxy war for the purpose of regime change and geo-strategical benefits. We would remind those foreign governments who are training and funding foreign fighters that it is it is illegal under United Nations Charter to arm forces to topple elected governments.”2

Mairead’s group had traveled with a nun, MOTHER AGNES MARIAM, who had headed a monastery in Homs and who has been called “Assad’s nun.” In our phone call Mairead Maguire denied that slur, claiming that she is only “pro-peace.” Out of excessive politeness, I did not ask her directly about Mother Agnes’s shaky reputation, though I did a little checking later.

When the chemical attack on Damascus took place on August 21, Human Rights Watch had confirmed that at least eight rockets struck four sites. A UN site listed at least 588 fatalities, almost all by name. Thirty samples were taken from the impact sites and sarin or its by-products were found in most of them.

The Syrian government claimed that this and other previous chemical attacks had been done by the rebels, not their own military. Both the Russian foreign minister and Mother Agnes Mariam had accepted this argument. Moveover, she asserted that the attack had actually been faked by the opposition. She claimed that the rows of dead children shown on videos had only been sleeping, for the rebels had drugged them so as to frame the Syrian government.

Later, her “fabrication” story was discredited. Assad allowed inspectors to come and seize their chemicals. The weapons that had been used for the attack came from a Soviet-era 140 mm surface-to-surface artillery rocket and an Iranian 333 mm launcher. There is no evidence that rebel forces possessed such rockets or launchers. Also, the inspectors were able to calculate the trajectories of the rockets on a map. Human Rights Watch said that they converged on the Republican Guard’s 104th Brigade, near Assad’s headquarters. The French intelligence assessment confirmed that “the launch zone for the rockets was held by the regime while the strike zone was held by the rebels.” Mairead’s friend, Mother Agnes Mariam, was mistaken.

MARY KALDOR is a professor at the London School of Economics. I had known her in the 1980s and ’90s as the founder of Helsinki Citizens Assembly, which brought together Western peace activists and Eastern European dissidents. We had not been in contact for years when I phoned. She was on a train returning home to Brighton for the weekend, intending to go to her son’s pub for a Halloween quiz. After a sociable chat, we talked about Syria, which is also her main concern these days. She had visited its border with Turkey in April. I can’t think of a single likely solution to Syria’s problems, but she proposed this:

“We should call for the Geneva Conference to take place without the Syrians present, and call for all the internationals to get together. Think of what we’ve achieved on chemical weapons—they did all agree when the Russians put pressure on the regime. Why shouldn’t you do the same to try and stop the killings?”

Her proposal was just the opposite of Mairead’s, who claimed that Syrians could solve their own problems if the foreigners would leave them alone. So I hesitated, saying: “What good would that do? Even if all the rest of the world said ‘Guys, cut it out!’ unless they stop the import of weapons, I don’t see how you can persuade them to stop fighting.” Mary replied,

“If the rest of the world says ‘Cut it out!” you should indeed put pressure on the rest of outsiders—Saudis, Qataris, Russians—to stop providing money. But also, you do have a very active civil society inside Syria and perhaps you could strengthen those places and make them humanitarian safe havens. You could put international forces in there. They wouldn’t necessarily need to be military, but an international presence. That is the kind of thing you could do if you really worked with civil society groups. It could be peacekeeping troops sent in by the Security Council.”

I didn’t want to disagree with her; she knows more than I do. Still, I couldn’t warm to this proposal. Listening to the recording later, I realized how clumsily inarticulate I became thereafter. I asked glumly: “Would any peacekeepers go in there? Which ones?” She said,

“Why not have the Russians go in? Or the Chinese? Or the Turks? Suppose Raqqah had been strengthened by asking the Russians to put pressure on the regime not to attack Raqqah, and by having international troops to prevent the takeover by the jihadists. That could have kept an area out of the war.”

Perhaps so. That opportunity has been lost, but Mary is still looking for new ones, bless her.

More Drones

My next three peace women are all fighters by temperament or training. AGNETA NORBERG is vice chair of the Swedish Peace Council. We had served together on IPB’s steering committee, where sometimes she still seemed to be fighting the Cold War. Still, her maps certainly confirmed her insistent protest that American bases have a “stranglehold” on Russia.3

Nowadays Agneta is directing her protests toward her own country, Sweden. As a member of The Global Network Against Weapons in Space, she came to realize the Sweden is far ahead in space weaponization. She counted 20 different organizations that are involved. The main one is Saab—not only a car maker but also one of the world’s leading space manufacturers. It is making one of the world’s biggest drones. Agneta said,

“Most people don’t know how Sweden, a so-called peaceful country, has been transformed into one of the platforms for NATO exercises, predominantly in the north, close to the Russian border. There you have Europe’s largest training field for drones—as big as Belgium. The military forbids anyone to build wind turbines in the area. They couldn’t train drones there if there were windmills.

The north is not populated, so they train there all kinds of other weapons too. The US is training a satellite-driven weapon, and there are all kinds of European air wings—fighter planes. In 2011 the US was allowed to train their air wings, together with Swedish airplanes, in the north.

Sweden is a non-aligned country. We are not in NATO but we are in Partnership for Peace. In Stockholm nobody has heard of this. The media never covers such things—only small ultra-leftist weekly papers. I’m upset.

The new drone is called ‘neuron’—spelled ‘n-EURO-n.’ It’s invisible to radar. It will probably be made in France with the cooperation of Swedish Saab, with Switzerland, Spain, Greece, and Italy. I don’t think they have started manufacturing it. I’ve been talking to Russians privately, and they object to all these war games close to their border. I can understand why.”

ANN WRIGHT is a former colonel in the US Army who was decorated for heroism for helping evacuate people in Sierra Leone. After serving 13 years in the army, she retired and in 1987 went to work in the US State Department. She worked in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Mongolia, and the US embassies in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Grenada, and Nicaragua.

But in 2003, the day before the invasion of Iraq, she was one of three officials who resigned from the State Department. She announced her reasons publicly and immediately became a full-time peace activist. As an unusually belligerent protester, she camped with Cindy Sheehan outside George W. Bush’s home in Crawford, Texas.

Ann is also an active defender of Palestinian rights, and was on another ship in the Gaza flotilla to deliver aid when the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara was attacked by the Israeli military, resulting in nine deaths. As a key member of the women’s peace organization CodePink, she has been arrested numerous times, including in front of the White House, and was once ejected from a Senate hearing yelling “Stop the war!” at Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

It’s hard to imagine Ann yelling at anyone, for she invariably appears professional, competent, and even rather stylish—exactly the kind of person you’d want to see in charge of an embassy or the evacuation of panicky refugees.

In May I had dinner with her in Mons, Belgium, where she had arrived from China just in time to deliver an impassioned speech against American drones. Somehow we discovered, to our mutual astonishment, that we had both spent our childhoods in little Oklahoma towns only four miles (and 16 years) apart and that she still visits relatives there often.

In Stockholm four months later I met Ann again. This time IPB had invited her to receive an award on behalf of the eighth peace woman on my list: CHELSEA MANNING.

I had ambivalently voted in IPB’s Skype board meeting to give the Sean MacBride Peace Prize to Private Bradley Manning. I thought Edward Snowden deserved it more, but he hadn’t become very famous yet, and as I listened to the arguments of the other steering committee members, I become fully convinced that we ought to encourage and support this scared young man.

By September, Bradley Manning had become Chelsea, and was on her way to indefinite imprisonment. It was splendid of Ann to come in her place and deliver an excellent talk on behalf of a fellow soldier who had demonstrated ethical awareness in circumstances of great moral complexity. In her lecture Ann discussed whistleblowing, as did all the other speakers on that ceremonial occasion. I hope Chelsea will hang the award on her prison wall and feel supported by it.

Defending and Using the Law

EMIKO HIRANO works in the Japan Women’s Association, which peace activists founded in 1962 as part of the anti-nuclear weapons organization Gensuikyo. Its 150,000 members pay about $9 per month and work on projects of their own choosing. The organization publishes documents and even a weekly newspaper, and maintains offices in all 47 prefectures.

With a strong English language background, Emiko began working in the association’s Tokyo headquarters 15 years ago. This mother of four lives in Chiba prefecture and commutes by train 1.5 hours to work every day, then home again every afternoon. This, she assures me, is normal in Japan. Sometimes she goes to the United Nations, where she sometimes meets Canadian friends, including Janis Alton.

I asked Emiko how I could join her association if I were a Japanese woman. She explained that I’d need to find two friends in my community or workplace. We three would combine to work as a unit, accepting the founding principles: to (a) work for nuclear abolition, (b) oppose the remilitarization of Japan and defend the peace constitution, © promote the wellbeing of women and children, (e) work for democracy, and (f) promote women’s solidarity all over the world for peace. Our unit could then work on anything we want, from lobbying to get potholes fixed, to organizing after-school courses for children who are behind in their studies, to defending Article Nine of the Japanese constitution.

Article Nine is especially important—and has become even more important with the re-election of Prime Minister Abe, who wants to amend Japan’s “peace constitution” and make it into a war-fighting country.

As Emiko explained, after the Liberal Democratic Party had been in power for over fifty years, in 2009 they were replaced by the Democratic Party, which only lasted two years. Those years were marked by an economic crisis and the Fukushima Disaster. Therefore, the Liberal Democratic Party was returned to power, and Abe became prime minister again. Emiko is among the peace activists fighting against the legalization of Japan’s rearming. [For an account of this struggle, see page 6.]

ANA MARIA RODRIGUEZ VALENCIA is a Colombian human rights lawyer whom I met in Geneva, where she goes every few months; there she attends all sessions of the UN’s Human Rights Council. She has been working in Bogota fifteen years for an NGO, the Comisión Colombiana de Juristas. Recently she and other NGOs had prepared a “shadow report” on the situation of women in Colombia, which had been presented only this fall.

The International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is one of the big UN human rights treaties. Every four or five years its committee reviews the situation of every country that has ratified the convention. Civil society is allowed to present information about their country to the committee in the form of a “shadow report,” which usually paints a picture diametrically opposite to the government’s report. The government lists the ways they have tried to address the problem, but the shadow report gives more figures, such as how many women have access to education; how many have actual security; and how many judicial investigations are resulting in convictions for sexual violence.

Ana Maria and the NGOs go to Geneva for the review. The committee listens and questions the delegations, then meets again in a closed session, finally producing a document that recommends how the Colombians can improve the situation of women.

She was elated because a breakthrough had just occurred in Cuba, where peace negotiations are underway to end the long civil war in Colombia. Agreement had been reached on one of the four crucial disputes required for a full solution.

Now Ana Maria is working on a shadow report for the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which will take place in 2015. She has also sent a report to the Human Rights Committee addressing the impunity for members of the paramilitary group for extrajudicial killings, and also on controlling the abuses of intelligence activities by the security agencies.

“That has been a hot topic in Colombia for two or three years,” Ana Maria told me, “but after this huge scandal, almost nothing has happened.”

“It’s the same here, too,” I replied. “But thank God for Edward Snowden. Like you, he has produced exactly the ‘shadow report’ that’s needed.”

These ten women are serious and committed. While recognizing the supreme value of peace, they sometimes do fight—but without harming others. Having given themselves over to a project larger than themselves, having put their own personal lives second, they have made themselves magnificent.

Good women, we thank you all for making our world a safer, saner place.

Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.


1 See Binalakshmi Nepram on video when she received the 2011 “Indian of the Year” achievement award in 2011: www.youtube.com/watch?v=82X-7RHtlLs

2 www.peacepeople.com/?p=411

3 (See Agneta Norberg’s video www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLAlzQaz2Mk)

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2014

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2014, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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