Madeleine Rees, secretary general of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She is the former head of the Women’s Rights and Gender Unit for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
We are broadcasting from the World Forum in The Hague where 100 years ago this week over 1,000 female peace activists gathered from around the world to call for an end to war. The extraordinary meeting, known as the International Congress of Women, took place as World War I raged across the globe, and marked the formation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. It was organized by Dutch suffragist Dr. Aletta Jacobs. The event took place in The Netherlands because of its neutral position during World War I. Two future Nobel Peace Prize winners took part in the U.S. delegation: Jane Addams, the co-founder of Hull House, and the sociologist Emily Greene Balch. “They saw, quite rightly, that the absence of women in making decisions in government meant there was greater likelihood of war. And they were right,” says our guest, Madeleine Rees, WILPF’s secretary general. She has joined thousands of women from around the world who have gathered again in The Hague to call for peace and to mark the group’s 100th anniversary as wars rage on in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and other countries.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We are live at the World Forum in The Hague in The Netherlands. One hundred years ago this week, over a thousand women peace activists gathered from around the world to meet here in The Hague to call for an end to war. The extraordinary meeting, known as the International Congress of Women, took place as World War I raged across the globe. The gathering was organized by a Dutch suffragist named Dr. Aletta Jacobs. The event took place in The Netherlands because of its neutral position during World War I. Dr. Jacobs said the congress was assembled to, quote, “protest against war and to suggest steps which may lead to warfare becoming an impossibility.” Two future Nobel Peace Prize winners took part in the U.S. delegation: Jane Addams, the co-founder of Hull House in Chicago, and the sociologist Emily Greene Balch. The event marked the formation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, known as WILPF.
Well, today, as wars rage in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and other countries, women from around the world have gathered again here in The Hague, close to a thousand of them, to call for peace and to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Today we’re joined by three guests: WILPF’s secretary general, Madeleine Rees; newly elected WILPF president, Kozue Akibayashi, and she is from Japan; and Hakima Abbas, director of programs for the Association for Women’s Rights in Development in Africa. She prefers not to say exactly where, for security reasons.
We welcome you all to Democracy Now!
MADELEINE REES: Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Madeleine, let’s start with you. You’ve been with this organization for some time. A hundred years ago, 1,200 women, tell us the story of how they got here, in The Hague.
MADELEINE REES: It’s quite incredible, when you think that in those days there was no possibility of just SMSing each other or sending an email. It wouldn’t have happened, but for the suffrage movement, 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 was suffragettes.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m talking, I mean, everywhere from Britain to the United States?
MADELEINE REES: From Britain to the United States, every single one of them were demanding the right to vote, because they saw, quite rightly, that the absence of women in making decisions in government meant that there was more—greater likelihood of war. And they were right. So they organized. They were in touch with each other. As you said, it was Aletta Jacobs who was the one who was the main organizer here in The Hague. She had a thousand women helping her to try to bring women from all over the world to protest war. And the Americans came by boat. Again, that was Jane Addams, who was the organizer, organizer of that. They got as far as Dover and had to stop, because—
AMY GOODMAN: In England.
MADELEINE REES: In England. They go as far as Dover, had to stop. Because of the militarization of the channel, there were activities going on, they couldn’t not cross. They had to wait four days there. A hundred and eighty women wanted to come from the United Kingdom to protest. They were stopped by the United Kingdom authorities, who prevented them traveling, because, goodness knows, it’s not good to have women protesting war when you have got a propaganda machine rolling out the glories of the conflict. Eventually, several of them were able to make it to The Hague. And—
AMY GOODMAN: But basically 120 British women were stopped.
MADELEINE REES: Were stopped, yes, and prevented from attending. So, eventually, people made it to The Hague, 1,300 of them. They had to organize originally at the zoo, because it was the only space available for them.
AMY GOODMAN: The organized here—
MADELEINE REES: Here in what was the zoo. It is not a zoo anymore.
AMY GOODMAN: The zoo in The Hague.
MADELEINE REES: Yes, and then had the congress. And at that congress, they made the demands, which were as relevant then as they are now.
AMY GOODMAN: And those demands, among them, what they were calling for in the midst of World War I?
MADELEINE REES: So they wanted immediate cessation of hostilities. They wanted the neutral powers to engage with the belligerent powers to stop the conflict. They were actually bringing their demands at a time where over 100,000 men were, at the very days, being slaughtered at the Somme. So what they wanted was universal disarmament, a complete commitment to addressing root causes of conflict. They saw that the colonialism was one of those root conflicts, so they—root causes of conflict, so they demanded there be arbitration to understand the power dynamics in the decolonization process. And importantly—and I think, for us, particularly today—they wanted democratization of foreign policies. They wanted to make—they said that war was too profound an act to be left to those who had power and who would use it for wrong. So they wanted “we, the people” to be in charge of those foreign policies and making those decisions. And, of course, underpinning all of that was the demand for universal suffrage for women.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, one of the things you’ve spoken about in this huge gathering at the World Forum in The Hague is the foreign minister of Sweden. Talk about what—the recent controversy around Margot Wallström.
MADELEINE REES: It’s interesting, because with Margot Wallström, we had what I thought was one of those moments in history when things should have shifted. For those who don’t know, she was speaking about Saudi Arabia and the treatment of a blogger, who was, as you may well recall, was sentenced to a thousand lashes for criticizing the regime. She said that this treatment was medieval, and she went on to denounce the lack of human rights for women in Saudi Arabia. She was saying no more or no less than we all say and most heads of states will say behind closed doors. But, of course, one doesn’t say that about Saudi Arabia because of the huge trading implications that there are.
As a result of her having made that denunciation—or that clarity, I would suggest—she was refused entry into the Arab League, where she was going to make a speech on human rights. And as a result, instead of just giving way, she went home, and she said, “OK, we will now cancel our cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia on all things military.” So they did that, and the response from the Saudis was to withdraw their ambassador, to impose visa restrictions on Swedes to go into Saudi Arabia, and the Arab League was going to follow suit. So there was uproar in Sweden amongst those who sought to trade with the Arab League. They were saying that—companies like H&M, Volvo, which shows just how easily the military is seen as a way of military—the sales of military equipment and others is seen as a way in for trade agreements, which then follow from that. So, by closing that door, they were afraid they were going to have the door closed on their trading agreements. And they tried to get the trade unions and others, saying, “This is going to lead to loss of jobs. It’s going to lead to the loss of trading possibilities for Sweden, more generally.” And Carl Bildt and others were wheeled out to say that it prejudiced Sweden’s attempt to get a position on the Security Council, as if standing up for human rights and for furthering the real hard law of the Arms Trade Treaty was actually something which the Security Council should not be responsible for.
So the backlash in Sweden from those interests was profound. But the support from the people was excellent. And I think that that was, for me, one of the greatest sadnesses of this, was every other foreign minister stayed silent. Instead of every foreign minister standing up and saying, “Actually, what Margot Wallström has just done is to assert international law, international human rights principles, and the dominance and predominance that we must give to the control of arms to countries where they subordinate human rights to their own interests.” Instead of doing that, there was this resounding silence, save for those who criticized her, and in a highly gendered way, to say that she was just being emotional, that she was naïve.