The Hague Appeal for Peace Conference: Impressions of the Meeting

By Tamar Gabelnick

From 11-16 May, 1999, The Hague Appeal for Peace Conference hosted over 9,000 delegates from around the world to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899. The event, organized by the Hague Appeal for Peace under the leadership of Cora Weiss, was alternately described as a conference, a peace party, or a gathering of "like-minded" individuals. Some saw it as an enormous networking exercise, others viewed it as a chance to learn about what other groups were doing to promote peace, disarmament, and conflict resolution in other parts of the world. The conference was attended by students, non-governmental organizations, academics, civil society leaders, peace activists, and even several Nobel peace laureates. Participants ranged from small children to the elderly, and came from over 100 countries.

The themes of the Hague Appeal for Peace were conflict resolution, disarmament (nuclear and conventional), creating a "culture of peace," and human rights and humanitarian law. Seminar topics stressed the role of women and youth in making peace. The notion of "human security, " which represents a holistic approach to building peace, was a central theme of the conference, as was identifying and addressing the root causes of war. There was a seminar each day on Kosovo, and many devoted to nuclear disarmament. Conventional arms proliferation was discussed in the context of Arms Transfers Codes of Conduct and a focus on the problems of small arms proliferation.

A peace conference of 9,000 in another time might have been a rowdy and chaotic event, especially given the participation of many delegates’ states in the ongoing conflict in Kosovo. But this fin-de-siècle gathering was calm and fairly well organized, looking more like a university campus center than an event calling for world peace. An occasional song or dance broke the otherwise placid environment. The few rabble-rousers were removed from conference rooms, and the soapbox for anti-war speakers was placed outside the building, attracting relatively few spectators. Instead, the global market seemed to have extended to the peace movement, as over 600 organizations displayed their peace wares and pamphlets in booths in the enormous "State Hall." At these stands, one could buy a "piece of peace" -- books, pins, other objects for individuals to demonstrate their commitment to the issues of the day.

In other words, the peace movement seemed to be suffering from a lack of consensus as to what constituted the most important issue. No Pershing missiles were headed for the European continent, and no other nuclear disarmament issue seemed to rise to the top of the agenda. The area of shared concern among Europeans – NATO’s involvement in Kosovo – provided more of a point of dissention than a rallying point for peace activists. A palpable split was evident between those who felt military action was justified given Milosevic’s violations of humanitarian laws, and those who felt that NATO was itself breaking international law through these attacks. A student-led march to the International Court of Justice focused on the heightened risk of confrontation between nuclear powers than a condemnation of NATO’s air strikes.

José Ramos-Horta, Nobel Peace laureate from East Timor, made another link between Kosovo and disarmament, this time regarding conventional weapons. "The same countries that are bombing Serbia back to the Stone Age, " he noted, "are the ones that provided the weapons to Indonesia that made the war in East Timor possible." He and other Nobel peace laureates present emphasized the need for their International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers, which would prevent arms sales to states which violate international humanitarian and human rights laws.

Some felt the issue of Kosovo was destructive to the peace movement. But perhaps disagreements over Kosovo simply reflect the general lack of unity of purpose within the peace movement. In the ebb and flow of the peace movement’s history, the conference seems to have fallen at a era of minimal peace activism. On the other hand, conventional arms expert Bill Hartung conjectured, the large participation level in this conference may be a sign of growing interest and may bring the "fresh blood" the movement currently lacks. An estimated 1,500 participants were 25 years or younger, and the young participants seemed to be the most active at the conference, planning ways to organize themselves and become more involved.

Rather than a "movement," the assembly in The Hague represented more of a collage of overlapping interests. While recognizing the interrelatedness of their issues, they mainly pursued them in parallel and in a decentralized manner. Even the conference’s central message was multi-faceted, presented in a list form rather than in a clear and focused agenda. A proliferation of civil society groups around the world indicates a growing global capacity for self-activation, fostering a multiplication, rather than a consolidation, of priorities within the peace movement. Peace groups in Africa, for example, are highly attuned to women’s rights, given their centrality of to the creation of lasting peace in their societies. A Latin American NGO noted that the proliferation of small arms left over from past conflicts pose more immediate problems to human security in their countries than the war in Kosovo. The Hague Appeal for Peace allowed many of these voices to surface, providing a unique opportunity for groups from around the world to see how their interests coincided, and where they diverged.

Perhaps the way forward for the peace movement will be the high tech route, using modern technology to lead campaigns of the 21st century. Several dozen NGOs chose this path by launching the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA). IANSA will act as coordinator and facilitator for groups worldwide working to prevent the proliferation and misuse of small arms and light weapons. A small secretariat will be complemented in its role as information warehouse and facilitator of "mini- campaigns" by heavy reliance on the web and e-mail. This format will help to harmonize the activities of a diverse group of organizations while allowing the flexibility necessary to address all the components of this multi-faceted issue.

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