A subjective report of the International Peace Conference for Ukraine in Vienna.

There was the elephant on the stage when several hundred committed peace fighters and human rights defenders – of which at least half were women [including] a notable presence from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom from Europe – met recently in Vienna.

The goal was to illuminate ways to end the war in Ukraine from a civil society perspective. Norwegian League women had brought the elephant to visually demonstrate to all the devastating consequences for people and the environment – dangers that are so readily ignored in the current debate: Destruction of infrastructure, laying of mines, contamination of whole (agricultural) regions, massive CO2 input into air, soil and water due to military actions. Massive military exercises of the alliances increase the damage and destroy all previous climate efforts with dramatic effects that are already crossing borders. In addition, the global supply situation, among other things, is extremely endangered by failing grain deliveries for areas where climate change is already destroying livelihoods and producing famines with the consequence of new conflict hotspots.

Nevertheless, the killing continues, and the military – as well as the sexualized – violence produces immeasurable suffering, fears, and all too justified anger at the brutal aggressor and war criminal. This massively affects the mutual understanding of those who work for peace, complicates the cooperation of civil society, and hovers over all encounters of anti-militarists moved by [a desire for] peace. The loss of home and the forced flight became a brutal reality for many women and children, and it can only be absorbed in a fragmentary way by “storytelling”.

However, the “Voices for Peace” still exist, albeit rather quietly and discredited. To hear these voices, to ask critical questions and to strengthen solidarity is a mission that the Vienna Conference had also set itself in order to hold against the brutalization of social dialogue: the loss of human lives is checked off as collateral damage – whether they drown in the Mediterranean, die on the Balkan route, starve to death or are victims of war. The militarization of minds and hardening of hearts are felt far beyond the borders of Ukraine and neighboring states and must be addressed.

In addition to the danger of climate collapse and human suffering, war causes enormous economic damage through the concentration on ever-higher destruction potentials and the accumulation of weapons. Money, on the other hand, is lacking everywhere for health, climate protection, education, and social measures to ensure the provision of basic necessities for a life in dignity. At the same time, arms giants make astronomical profits that are not skimmed off by any excess profits tax. The neoliberal reconstruction and post-conflict agenda are in full planning at donor conferences – virtually excluding civil society – as it has been after all wars in recent decades. New conflict potential and injustices are thus programmed.

Where are the solutions?

Where are actually recognizable diplomatic interventions, where are the processes that could initiate a stop to the killing, prepare for a cease-fire, plan for negotiations including negotiations on the withdrawal of the aggressor? The UN, the Pope, the OSCE, international think tanks, smart thinkers and experienced diplomats in all parts of the world have ideas – who is taking them up? For the civil society that met in Vienna, this is an absolute must! Unfortunately, the proposals and initiatives are largely lost.

Instead, we are dealing with a clearly perceptible paralysis in all political circles – national, European, transatlantic – orchestrated by a fatal haggling over spheres of influence, old and new enemy images, and a focus on purely military self-defense. “Helplessness,” as was already the official motto of the Munich Security Conference in 2022, combined with an explosive mixture of rejection of pacifism as a new realism, unilateral calls for a “victory peace” against Russian imperialism as the supposed only way out of the catastrophe. The media mainstream orchestrates this helplessness and thus discredits, slanders and endangers the existence of pacifists, activists of civil resistance especially from the post-Soviet space as well as conscientious objectors, human rights defenders, peace activists. It divides and increases militancy: Peace researchers develop and explain military strategies and speak of an “exceptional war”, which causes the change of times and makes armament necessary, cynically in the name of the redefinition of prevention. Germany is drawing up a “national security strategy” that purports to secure the fortress of prosperity. Military alliances are booming with the new NATO expansion in Northern Europe, right-wing political circles all over Europe act as apostles of peace and jump on the bandwagon.

Preliminary meeting of Women’s Voices for Peace in Vienna.

In Vienna, WILPF Austria had organized a dedicated pre-discussion of women wanting peace at the “Frauenhetz”. The meeting brought together League women from Germany (from the Munich group), Norway, Denmark, Belarus/Lithuania, Italy, Spain, Afghanistan, including the international League president from Cameroon, along with friends from the OSCE/CSP group from Georgia, Kosovo, Serbia, Armenia and Ukraine, and partners from the 1000 Peace Women worldwide[4]. In addition to the undisputed condemnation of the Russian war of aggression and the emphasis on the Ukrainians’ right to self-defense under international law, the central demand was that everything possible be done to work towards an immediate ceasefire, which would have to make negotiations possible. The consensus was clear: peace from a feminist perspective is based on a root cause analysis of war and violence and is a way to work for demilitarization, a process worth fighting for. At the center is the concept of human security, which brings together committed people locally, nationally and in an international context, and brings women to the negotiating table on an equal footing.

Suggestions from the women’s meeting

The representative from Armenia made clear, using the current experiences in the Karabakh conflict, how difficult and controversial ceasefire negotiations and agreements are or can be. She also explained how important it is at the same time to have a say in the conditions for negotiations, as well as to correct them through objections. From Georgia, we learned how dangerous the proximity of the Ukraine war and retraumatization can be for neighboring regions and war-traumatized populations. Precisely in Georgia, for this reason, young people are sustainably committed to their future. Serbian and Albanian women from Kosovo described how long-lasting tensions between groups can be and how important and purposeful civil society bridge-building can be on the ground. At the same time, however, all shared very enriching experiences of rapprochement processes, talks with ombudspersons, letters to the international community, work based on the women’s peace-security agenda from a local to regional [approach], and internationally networked.

We discussed the right to self-defense from a legal, international law perspective that goes beyond the question of weapons and the military, and that focuses on empowerment, documentation of violent attacks and war crimes, on social support, solidarity measures, on care. New feminist-pacifist motivations to get fit for national defense were also addressed! Suggestions and initiatives from various circles are drowned out by the call for more and more weapons. “We need a counter-narrative to the culture of violence” emphasized participants; [a counter-narrative] for a renewed and conscious “humanization of society” against the brutalization of the environment.

A Belarusian friend got everyone thinking when she said she understood the pain and desperation from the context of war: “We are not perceived by everyone around us as people who consistently work for peace and against violence, who are considered helpless victims begging for mercy from the attacker who does not listen to us and continues to torment”. But she also stresses that those who advocate peace are all too easily ridiculed and laughed at by others. They have become the target of bullying and harassment because everyone believes they are powerless. She ends with the appeal: “I believe it is time to show the strength of our nonviolent movement and our ability to save lives and overcome this crazy world of violence.”

Pathways to Peace

After this pre-meeting we were strengthened and sisterly motivated to go the difficult way of the “Pathways to Peace” together with the other organizers, first of all “Abfang” (Intercept) and the International Peace Bureau/IPB: we formed teams of moderators for all the conference participants, who in working groups addressed questions about experiences with ceasefires, demilitarization, negotiations, peace initiatives, and in a second step discussed perspectives towards steps for peace work and human rights engagement and presented them in the plenary with a view to ending the war. The final declaration of the conference is a mosaic stone for a process, which we cannot and do not want to withdraw from, especially because of the more than 100 years of experience of the International Women’s League on the basis of our feminist analysis of the causes of war and violence worldwide and our priority of prevention and “caring” for people.

“Peace is a gift to see the future” emphasized a Ukrainian participant – a beautiful and at the same time sad sentence for coping with the present. It does not relieve anyone of the responsibility to be guided by the vision that peace is possible. We do not see ourselves as pacifists in a dead end, as an Austrian newspaper disparagingly wrote, but we stand on the shoulders of giants of the women’s peace movement. On our agenda remains the unifying commitment against militarism, patriarchy and capitalism. I was glad to have been there.

  1.  www.wilpf.org
  2.  https://www.wilpf.org/the-peace-that-is-not-bosnia-and-herzegovina-is-an-egregious-example-of-failures-of-neoliberal-peacebuilding/
  3. http://civicsolidarity.org/member/1451/working-group-women-and-gender-realities-osce-region
  4. https://1000peacewomen.org/de