From the 30 September – 3 October, MAW Youth (Jen Harrison, Becky Garnault, Maddy Ridgley) plus 2 competition winners (Ella Johnson and Khem Rogaly) attended the International Peace Bureau world congress in Berlin.
For 4 days we were immersed in fascinating panel discussions and workshops delivered by an impressive collection of academics, activists, writers, politicians and economists. In our spare time we engaged in stimulating, nuanced and informative discussions with fellow attendees of diverse ages and nationalities. Together, we created a breeding ground for progressive ideas and fostered a community intent on building a climate of peace, reducing military spending and challenging the destructive power structures pervasive to our world.
A theme common to many of the plenaries and workshops was the effects and causes of global military spending. Though the strapline to the conference was the “the world is over armed and peace is underfunded” (Ban-ki Moon), the economist Samir Amin pointed out that it would be more appropriate to say that “the West is over armed”, as Western countries account for 75% of the total global military spending ($1.7trillion). This shocking figure is made worse when the huge cuts to social and public services across Europe and the USA in recent years are considered. The speakers emphasised the extent to which war is a systemic problem intimately connected to global capitalism, European colonialism and patriarchy. Over the course of the conference, the nature of militarism as a metastatic cancer, infecting different levels of thought became ever clearer.
A panel discussion that offered practical alternatives to extortionate military spending was called "arms conversion reloaded: turning swords into ploughshares in the 21 century". The speakers emphasised that the huge profits companies can make from arms production makes the dissolution of such companies near unthinkable. Yet if the resources and technology that produce weapons can be converted into sustainable products with peaceful applications then the arms industry may consider an organisational transformation. Of course, as long there is high demand for arms around the world then it will be a profitable business. Thus, we must concomitantly challenge the pervasive notions that security can achieved through military build-up and convince both politicians and civil society that tackling climate change and spending money on welfare, not war, is more conducive to human security. Security must be thought of not in terms of a defensive frontier, but as an expression of the things humans need. After all, can there be anything in the world a species needs less than the tools to exterminate itself?
A particularly interesting workshop was by Nick Buxton who outlined his research on the Global North’s plans for future humanitarian crises caused by climate change. His paper revealed the highly militarised and violent responses that powerful actors (primarily USA and allies) will use to ‘settle’ unrest and preserve the existing international order. He used historical examples, such as the government response to Hurricane Katrina which involved using military force to repress ‘looters’, many of whom were simply trying to find food sources. He outlined how many Western governments are developing security strategies in response to climate change with the focus on maintaining control over military assets and capital. With this prevalent mind set of securitisation, the victims of climate change become threats, rather than the disaster itself. This workshop conveyed part of the huge task ahead for activist groups working against systemic militarism and climate change.
Throughout the conference it was emphasised that education is the most accessible and vital tool in our arsenal as peace advocates. A key advocate of peace education was Betty Reardon from the International Institute of Peace Education. This organisation delivers programmes which encourage comprehensive and holistic thinking towards conflictual situations. For example, Betty pointed out that what crucially needs to be addressed in regards to the ongoing refugee crisis is the problem of how we identify to other human beings who we see as different. Refugees are often de-humanised in political and public discourse; they are delineated as ‘others’ who threaten our way of life. This drastically effects the way the public and politicians respond the crisis. We must ask ourselves if the European Union would allow 4,000 Europeans to die in the Mediterranean Sea?
As MAW youth, we also ran our very own workshop which focused on the militarisation of youth in the UK – particularly the expansion of cadet forces into schools. We wanted to voice our concerns over the increasing interaction between young people and the armed forces within society, highlighting that this fosters an uncritical stance towards war and often ‘sells’ the prospect of an army career to young people without giving them full idea of the risks. We were keen to make the workshop a space for discussion and so encouraged the attendees to think about the level of militarism in their own country. It was particularly interesting to hear that Japan’s military has little interaction with the youth and also that in some German schools and universities, students have been successful in kicking the military off school and university campuses.
Though the content of the conference could be overwhelming at times, we were kept positive by the energy and expertise around us. In particular, great hope was found in the Youth Gathering. Each day, 15 – 20 ‘youthful’ conference attendees would meet to discuss topics from the conference and also to build networks between young peace activists – we thus created a small community within a larger one. It was brilliant to be able to discuss issues such as war, militarism, feminism and capitalism through a youthful lens within a space where our opinions and ideas were more valued. An outcome of the youth gathering was the establishment of an IPB youth network where we will keep in touch, share ideas and organise a conference dedicated to young peace activists in 2018. Though the entire conference was inspiring, the youth gathering in particular highlighted how much the future is in our hands. After this congress, we have the hope and determination to make it a peaceful one.