THE HAGUE, Netherlands—One hundred years ago, more than 1,000 women gathered here in The Hague during World War I, demanding peace. Britain denied passports to more than 120 women, forbidding them from making the trip to suppress their peaceful dissent. Now, a century later, in these very violent times, nearly 1,000 women have gathered here again, this time from Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as Europe and North America, saying “No” to wars from Iraq to Afghanistan to Yemen to Syria, not to mention the wars in our streets at home. They were marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of WILPF, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Dr. Aletta Jacobs, a Dutch suffragist who co-founded the group a century ago, said the purpose of the original gathering in 1915 was to empower women “to protest against war and to suggest steps which may lead to warfare being an impossibility.”
Among the women here were four Nobel Peace Prize winners. Shirin Ebadi was awarded the prize in 2003 for advocating for human rights for Iranian women, children and political prisoners. She was the first Muslim woman, and the first Iranian, to receive a Nobel. Nevertheless, she has lived in exile since 2009, and has only seen her husband once since then. “Had books been thrown at people, at the Taliban, instead of bombs, and had schools been built in Afghanistan,” Ebadi said in her keynote address to the WILPF conference this week, “3,000 schools could have been built in memory of the 3,000 people who died on 9/11—at this time, we wouldn’t have had ISIS. Let’s not forget that the roots of the ISIS rest in the Taliban.” She was joined by her sister laureates Leymah Gbowee, who helped achieve a negotiated peace during the civil wars in Liberia; Mairead Maguire, who won the peace prize in 1976 at the age of 32 for advancing an end to the conflict in her native Northern Ireland; and Jody Williams, a Vermonter who led the global campaign to ban land mines, and who now is organizing to ban “killer robots,” weapons that kill automatically, without the active participation of a human controller.
These four world-renowned Nobel laureates were joined by nearly a thousand deeply committed peace activists from around the globe. Madeleine Rees, the secretary-general of WILPF, recalled the history of the first gathering in 1915, and how it was organized: “It wouldn’t have happened, but for the suffrage movement,” she told me, “because you don’t just start a mass movement. You actually have to have an organizational structure to make that happen. That had started with the suffragette movement. ... Every single one of those women who went to The Hague ... were demanding the right to vote. They saw, quite rightly, that the absence of women in making decisions in government meant a greater likelihood of war.”
Kozue Akibayashi is WILPF’s new president. After World War II, the U.S. required that Japan’s Constitution explicitly forbid it from pursuing war to settle disputes with foreign states. “The majority of people in Japan support the peace constitution,” Akibayashi explained. President Barack Obama, however, like George W. Bush before him, is pressuring Japan to eliminate the pacifistic Article Nine from the Japanese Constitution. He hosted Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, in Washington this week, celebrating Abe as he works to restore Japan’s military to its former offensive capacity. Akibayashi and thousands of others also are protesting the planned expansion of the U.S. military presence on Okinawa.
Africa activist Hakima Abbas was also in The Hague. I interviewed her hours after mass graves were reported in Nigeria, containing victims of the militant group Boko Haram. The story of Boko Haram, she told me, “is an intersection with violent Islamist fundamentalisms, with global capitalism and with militarization ... fundamentalisms, though, don’t start and end with Islamic fundamentalisms in Africa. We’ve seen Christian fundamentalisms in Uganda, and the persecution of LGBTQI people.” She then made a connection to the street protests in Baltimore this week: “In your own country,” she told me, “the white supremacist and Christian right fundamentalisms are exacerbated by the gun culture and the promotion of an armed police force, which is killing black women, men, trans people and children. ... So fundamentalisms is really something that we have to address globally.”
I asked Shirin Ebadi if she had advice for the people of the world. She replied with a simple yet powerful prescription for peace, laying out the work for WILPF as it enters its second century: “Treat the people of Afghanistan the same as you treat your own people. Look at Iraqi children the same as you look at your own children. Then you will see that the solution is there.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.