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'The purpose of NATO was to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.’

100 years since the first peace conference in the Hague, 50 years since NATO was formed and the Council of Europe was founded. Now in the closing year of the century as the most sophisticated weapons thud impotently into European soil and hundred of thousands, maily women and children, flee for their lives. Florence Assie assesses what all these anniversaries mean.

ACROSS THE span of 100 years, three anniversaries – Hague Conference of May 1899, the establishment of NATO in April 1949, and of the Council of Europe in May 1949 – tell us much about the persistence of war and the role of peace activists in trying to turn the ‘culture of war’ into a ‘culture of peace’.
In 1898 Tsar Nicholas II of Russia issued an invitation to all governments to consider ways of limiting armaments. Governments had met before to discuss problems of codifying rules of war and of settling disputes by arbitration and throughout the nineteenth century private citizens were also actively working for peace. Peace societies were established in North America and London as early as 1815. By the middle of the century international peace congresses attracted European and American intellectual and political leaders. By 1889 British and French parliamentarians had created the Interparliamentary Union and in 1891 the International Peace Bureau established its headquarters in Berne (today helping to organise the Hague Appeal conference in May)
By the end of the century there were over 100 peace societies in Europe and North America convinced that citizens’ organisation and initiative could influence the conduct of governments. Women were prominent in peace activism throughout the nineteenth century. Margarethe Seleneka of Germany, for example, coordinated an international women’s campaign which held demonstrations and collected several million signatures on petitions around the world in support of the Hague Conference of 1899.
But one voice was raised against the Hague Conference and the way to peace it represented. ‘The aim of the Conference’, warned Leo Tolstoy, ‘will be, not to establish peace, but to hide.. the sole means of escape from the miseries of war, which lies in the refusal by... individuals of all participation in the murders of war.’
In calling the 1899 conference the Tsar was primarily motivated by the costly arms competition which Russia could not afford. Governments were sceptical, but were persuaded to attend the Conference when it received unexpectedly enthusiastic support from the public.
The Conference considered three issues: arbitration, the rules of warfare and disarmament. There was little progress on disarmament. Russia’s proposal that participants should agree to restrict their armaments to existing levels failed to gain support, although a vaguely worded resolution calling upon all states to consider limiting their war budgets for ‘the welfare of mankind’ was adopted unanimously. Disarmament has continued to be intractable ever since. On the rules of warfare, three declarations were agreed prohibiting the use of expanding bullets, of asphyxiating gases, and the dropping of projectiles from balloons. In practice, a century later, war has ceased to have any rules at all.
The Conference’s main achievement was a Convention signed by all 26 states, establishing a permanent Court of Arbitration, to be convened as necessary. Arbitration was already used by states on a bilateral, ad hoc basis but this was the first time governments had agreed that it should be an accepted instrument of international relations. The foundations were nevertheless laid for the International Court of Justice, though compulsory jurisdiction is still an optional extra. Its legacy is also seen in the current campaigns for international courts able to apply international law against weapons of mass destruction and crimes against humanity.
hague appeal for peace 99
The Hague will once again be the venue of conferences, this time for NGOs and citizens as well as governments. The first Conference achieved little more than the setting of precedents which guided the creation of the League of Nations and the Permanent Court of Justice after World War I, and started to set limits to the right of governments to go to war. But these shifts in the thinking of governments and people were significant. Perhaps the main achievement of the First Hague Conference is, however, to provide the occasion, on its 100th anniversary, for citizens of the world to demonstrate that peace and war are not issues for governments alone.
The second anniversary marks the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in April 1949. The parties to the Treaty, including the United States and Canada set out their determination: ‘to safeguard the freedom, common heritage, and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law. They are resolved to unite their efforts for collective defence for the preservation of peace and security.’ More simply, Lord Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary-General, said the purposes of NATO were, ‘To keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.’
The meaning and form of ‘collective defence’ was a matter for negotiation among the sovereign member states and has led to divisions within NATO, particularly concerning the dominant American role. The divisions intensified with the end of the cold war and uncertainties about NATO’s future. The collapse of NATO’s ‘enemy’ in the shape of the Soviet Union had undermined the very reason for NATO’s existence, and for the continued American presence in Europe. Moreover, new ideas about the concept of ‘security’ had arisen. These stemmed largely from the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe which, in its Final Act of 1975 saw security as a function of human rights, cooperation in economic, scientific, technological and environmental developments, and in people-to-people contacts in culture and education.
The threat of war with the Soviet Union had been the central security issue for Western Europe; the new security issues (now called risks rather than threats) arose out of political instability, economic hardship, concerns about large-scale immigration into Western Europe from Eastern Europe and North Africa, the strains of German unification and the break-up of former Yugoslavia.
From its inception, NATO had been seen by its member states as a political as well as a military alliance. Instead of following the example of the Soviet bloc’s Warsaw Pact, which disbanded itself in 1991, NATO set about reinventing itself by moving collective self-defence into the field of collective crisis management in Europe and beyond. Through its North Atlantic Cooperation Council and the Partners for Peace programme, NATO has promoted consultation and cooperation between the Nato Allies, former Warsaw Pact countries, former Soviet republic and ‘neutral’ states in a wide variety of new activities. These range from the traditional ‘defence’ exercises, through riot control, anti-terrorism strategies, ‘defence-related’ aspects of science, economics and the environment, peacekeeping, civil emergency planning and disaster preparedness to a ‘political strategy’ in line with ‘Europe’s new security situation and challenges.’
This ambitious programme has proved highly controversial concerning both the role of the military in the essentially civilian spheres of politics, economics and social policies and NATO’s eastwards expansion against deeply felt opposition from Russia. NATO will celebrate its 50th anniversary in an atmosphere of criticism now compounded by misgivings concerning its policy of war against Yugoslavia.

for greater unity
The third anniversary, of the signing of the Council of Europe statutes on 5th May 1949 in London, will be the least publicised but it should not be overlooked by peace activists.
The Council of Europe’s declared aim was to be ‘the achievement of greater unity between its Members for the purpose of safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles which are their common heritage and facilitating their economic and social progress.’
There is no mention of ‘security’, which in 1949 was understood in military terms, and defence was explicitly excluded from the Council’s concerns. Governments were not prepared to give the Council any real powers, with Britain in particular, fearing ‘federalist’ tendencies, determined that it should be no more than a ‘talking shop’ with the unanimity rule to ensure deadlock on action.
Until the end of the cold war, therefore, the Council concentrated on drawing up conventions on matters dealing with human rights, education and culture which were not generally thought of as security-related. It is to the Council of Europe that we owe the European Conventions on Human Rights and the Social Charter which establishes social and economic rights to complement the civil and political rights of the Human Rights Convention; the Council has encouraged local government, youth exchanges, the youth campaigns against racism, respect for cultural diversity and minority languages, and for common standards of law across Europe. It has also established the right of petition for individuals who can, through the Court of Human Rights, challenge actions of their governments.
So while not itself a democratic institution, it is, of all European institutions with the exception of the European Parliament, the most responsive to the needs of the people of Europe. In keeping with this, the Council of Europe has been responsible for the concept of ‘democratic security’ developing the Helsinki civil view of security.
So what do these three anniversaries mean to peace activists?
The Hague Conference anniversary makes clear that peace cannot be left to governments; it is now primarily the responsibility of people.
The NATO anniversary underlines the dangers of military thinking. Peace activists cannot cooperate with NATO. We can only protest and work for its abolition.
The Council of Europe’s anniversary suggests that even when sidelined and short of resources, men and women of vision can still build some of the framework in which ideals of the peace movement can be expressed.

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