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Human rights, peace activists split on Kosovo

NCR Staff

Talk of “humanitarian hawks” and “militaristic doves” filters through debate over Serbia and Kosovo, a sign of what leaders of some U.S. peace organizations say is uncertainty about what position to take over the war in the Balkans.

Some groups have scheduled or proposed demonstrations, teach-ins, vigils and prayer services to protest the NATO bombing campaign. Yet in the early stages of the aerial assault against Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, several analysts noted an uncharacteristically sluggish response from antiwar groups traditionally opposed to the U.S. war machine.

Faced with harrowing television images of refugees fleeing Serb forces, pacifists and human rights activists -- familiar partners in opposing war -- sometimes find themselves at odds.

Amid the debate, one pacifist who actively defies the U.S. sanctions against Iraq proposes training armies, but of a nontraditional kind -- peace armies that would take risks similar to those taken by armies of soldiers in attempting to disarm and calm hostile situations.

Noting the absence of strong, united opposition to the recent bombing of Serbia, Jonathan Broder of MSNBC.com asked in an article in early April: “Where is the antiwar movement? Where are the left-wing demonstrations, protests and peace vigils that historically have flowered when American forces have gone off to war in foreign lands?” Broder asserted that the peace movement has been “largely missing in action” since the air war in the Balkans began.

In European countries, too, the specter of the Holocaust prevailed against pacifism and anti-NATO sentiment. In England, Germany and France, for instance, former pacifists and doves turned into what some labeled “humanitarian hawks” as reports of genocide against ethnic Albanians galvanized support for a bombing campaign and even for ground troops.

Confronted by genocide

“When you are confronted by genocide and mass human suffering, you cannot sit passively with your hands folded and ignore the killing of innocent civilians,” said Joschka Fischer in an interview with The Washington Post. Fischer, a founding member of Germany’s pacifist Greens Party, the country’s foreign minister, said, “I believe there are certain human values that are more important than pacifism, and those are rooted deeply in my conscience.”

The NATO campaign in Kosovo marks the first time German forces have taken part in combat since World War II, touching off protests in that country (though polls show a majority of Germans support the action). Many have commented on the irony that it is Germany’s traditional “peace parties” -- the socialists and the Greens -- that have led the country into war, justifying the policy on human rights grounds.

The reality of the crisis in the Balkans is also giving some U.S. peace leaders pause. While few strict pacifists have abandoned that position, many are at least acknowledging a need for fresh thinking and strategies if peace efforts are to make any headway in a post-Cold War world.

Analysts involved in the peace movement are calling for more sophisticated political awareness among members of U.S. peace groups -- a better grasp of what is happening in conflicts around the world.

“U.S. peace groups need to realize that Iraq is not Vietnam, and Kosovo is not El Salvador,” said Ron Pagnucco, assistant professor at Mount St. Mary’s College, Emmitsburg, Md., and coordinator of the Pax Christi USA Peace Studies Group. “Viewing these new situations through the old anti-U.S. intervention prism is inadequate.”

Pagnucco, who will join the Department of Peace Studies at the College of St. Benedict, the sister college of St. John’s University, in Collegeville, Minn., this fall, said, “We need to have new thinking about what kind of positive role the U.S. can play in these post-Cold War situations, and -- even more important -- what kind of role international organizations can play.” Up to now, U.S. peace groups have been hampered by a kind of “neo-isolationism,” he said -- a reflexive opposition to U.S. intervention based on its negative results in Vietnam and Latin America.

“The peace movement in the United States needs to think ahead and to define what it sees as America’s role in the world,” he said. “It’s never adequately come to grips with that.”

Further, Pagnucco said, a split has emerged in the historically strong alliance between peace organizations and human rights groups, with the latter in some cases -- though normally antiwar -- being more receptive to military action to stop human rights atrocities in recent conflicts.

Pagnucco thinks that human rights groups and peace organizations in Europe are more effective than the U.S. peace movement, which tends to focus too much on U.S. foreign policy at the expense of gaining better understanding of international affairs.

For example, he said, “peace groups tend to criticize economic sanctions against Iraq, but ignore the gross violations of human rights” in that country. In contrast to human rights groups, “they simply criticize the U.S. role in the sanctions without criticizing the Iraqi regime,” he said.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch in New York, said the split between peace groups and human rights groups had developed from events in the Balkans -- not Kosovo, but Bosnia and the ethnic cleansing campaign there in 1995. After the slaughter of 7,000 men in Srebrenica, which the United Nations had declared a “safe zone,” Human Rights Watch called for use of military force to stop the genocide, he said, but “the peace groups were opposed” to a military response.

The organization did not advocate military force in the case of Kosovo. “Bosnia was a genocide. It was absolutely clear. It’s not yet clear in Kosovo. There’s a lot we don’t know,” Roth said.

“Our policy is that we will call for military force if that is all that is available to stop genocide,” Roth said. “Usually we are against war, but we believe that pacifism must give way in face of massive slaughter of innocent civilians,” he said. “Some wars need to be fought.”

Other human rights groups, including Refugees International, that were once clearly aligned with the antiwar movement, have called for stronger military action in Kosovo, even including ground troops.

‘We don’t have all the answers’

Nancy Small, national coordinator for Pax Christi USA, says a question worth addressing in light of the Balkans is whether the peace movement is relevant anymore. “We recognize we don’t have all the answers,” she said. Among the problems are effectiveness and timing, she said. Pax Christi had been engaged in conflict resolution efforts on the ground in Kosovo for several years, she said, but in the end, the political crisis overtook that work.

Rose Marie Berger of Sojourners in Washington finds it ironic that political leaders have justified the bombing of Serbia on human rights grounds.

“Part of what we are recognizing is that in some ways the government and military have taken on the language of the churches and peace movement and turned it into a justification for bombing,” Berger said. “Rather than saying we have a strategic military interest in this area, they have insisted that “ ‘the primary interest here is a humanitarian one.’ ”

Berger noted that a lot of people are looking at pacifists and saying, “What do you do now?” -- that is, how can you protest against such a war? How can you reject violence that might have been effective in stopping a campaign of ethnic cleansing? Atrocities are being committed against whole groups of people. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has been eloquent in support of the bombing, posing new challenges for people with an absolute commitment to nonviolence, she said.

But, said Berger, the issues go deeper than a co-opting of language to a recognition that in “a post-superpower world,” the nature of war is also changing. In the foreseeable future, when war is likely to be driven by “rabid nationalism” and ethnic conflicts, “the question is, how do we develop foreign policy, military strategy, international avenues of diplomacy that stabilize regions before we get to the brutality stage?”

“Like a lot of things, it’s four steps forward and six steps back,” Berger said, “but I would say that from the Gulf War to Bosnia, to Rwanda and Kosovo, the peace movement is finally beginning to catch up and say, ‘Oh. This isn’t Vietnam anymore.’ There is a slow shift in consciousness that we need to think about these things differently.

“There came to be a strain in the peace movement, out of the ’60s, that said if our government is doing it, it’s wrong. Don’t confuse us with the facts -- with the reasons the government might be taking this action,” she said. “There’s still some of the legacy of that in the Kosovo situation. But that line of thinking is always a dead end. It’s too simplistic; it doesn’t deal with contemporary reality. Brutal and horrible things go on in the world. It requires some changing of perspective.

“What scares people is that they think changing perspective means giving up pacifism and a commitment to nonviolence. I don’t think it requires that at all. I think it requires some good rethinking. It’s incumbent on people of faith to keep our values current with the situation.”

People who opposed the Vietnam War, who opposed military action on principle, are now saying, “but it’s not right to stand by and watch people get slaughtered. That is really helping to spark new dialogue, new strategic thinking, new creative conversation in the peace community. As Gandhi said, ‘To use nonviolence as an excuse for cowardice is the worst possible twisting of the principle.’ ”

Peacemaking, she said, should be “an act of heroism, not a mask for nonviolence.”

Small said some activists are exploring ways to be more effective when conflicts disintegrate into war. “We don’t have an effective way of responding,” she said. “We’ve talked about establishing a large-scale nonviolent presence, people going into a region on a large scale unarmed.”

Small noted that nine national organizations, including Pax Christi, organized a six-week campaign in Haiti in 1993 called “Cry for Justice.” About 100 people were trained and sent to Haiti to support Haitians during the expected return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the country and the transition to democracy. Several people who were arrested during that period said their lives had been saved by the presence of outside witnesses who demanded that human rights be upheld, Small said.

Several of the major peace groups are calling for the United Nations to take the lead in resolving the crisis in the Balkans. John Dear, executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Nyack, N.Y., said his organization is among those making that proposal. Still, Dear believes the United States should devote resources and expertise to supporting “nonviolent movements of resistance to oppressive leaders.”

“There was really a nonviolent leadership in Kosovo a couple of years ago,” he said. “The U.S. should have been supporting that government as it was trying to nonviolently resist Belgrade ... instead of waiting, then when genocide happens, going in and bombing.”

Kathy Kelly of Chicago, co-coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness, a 3-year-old campaign to end economic sanctions against Iraq, said she regrets that she didn’t give more attention to the ethnic Albanian resisters in Kosovo.

Paying attention to resistance

“There were sustained and costly efforts at nonviolent resistance,” she said. “Some say it was one of the strongest nonviolent efforts against an oppressive government since the Gandhi movement” -- the nonviolent movement that led to India’s independence from Great Britain. “I think a number of people knew this was going on, but it just wasn’t grabbing our attention. At the same time, we can also trace the outpouring of Serbian dissidents filling streets by the thousands, tens of thousands, because they were in vigorous disagreement with Slobodan Milosevic, with his policies. At what point did the United States give any attention to that resistance?

“I’m just dealing with the suggestion that the United States says there were no alternatives” to bombing, she said. As for the future, “We as a peace community need to improve vastly in our ability to move into situations of violence, to help persuade people that it is in their interest to lay down weapons and begin negotiation,” she said.

Kelly envisions for the future large, well-trained but unarmed, “nonviolent armies” -- “people who go into situations with the same understanding as a soldier: that they are putting their lives on the line.”

Pax Christi’s Small is among those who hope for a larger role for the United Nations and also for deeper exploration of ways the United States might be involved before conflicts escalate to war. “We’re seeing different kinds of conflicts from the Cold War years,” she said. “What we’ve seen in Bosnia, in Rwanda, are civil conflicts. The question always arises: What should the role of the international community be? Some would say no role, yet in Rwanda the violence was at a completely unacceptable level. The world wants to respond but doesn’t know how.”

As NCR went to press, many U.S. peace activists were attending The Hague Peace Appeal, held May 11-15, in the Netherlands to discuss ways to create a “culture of peace” in the new millenium. The crisis in Kosovo was a focus of concern at the worldwide meeting, which marked the 100th anniversary of the first antiwar conference at The Hague.

James A. Everett, director of the Kansas City Interfaith Peace Alliance, led a delegation of local activists to the meeting, where, he said, strengthening of international laws and institutions would be high on the agenda. “The entire U.N. charter needs to be thought through,” he said.

Among institutions being promoted by peace and human rights groups is the proposed International Criminal Court, a permanent tribunal for prosecuting crimes against humanity and war crimes. The court has been approved by 120 countries. The United States is the only Western nation opposing the court, joining such countries as Iran, China, Libya and Algeria.

David Cortright, who teaches at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, believes new strategies to support “humanitarian intervention” are needed in the post-Cold War world. “We all realize now that war in this era is civil, related to ethnic and religious strife, and the old concept of strict nonintervention, which we inherited from Vietnam and applied in Central America, doesn’t make sense when we’re faced with a situation like Rwanda,” said Cortright, who also is president of the Fourth Freedom Forum, a private foundation in Goshen, Ind., dealing with international security issues.

Though Cortright is a “pragmatic pacifist” -- a supporter of Christian just war principles, which he is convinced the present war fails to meet on several grounds -- he also feels that pacifists play an important role.

“They keep us centered on the principle of nonviolence and the simple principle of compatibility of ends and means: When we employ violent means, we usually end up with violent results. I think there’s a real value to that position,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 1999