The National Catholic Review
An Interview with Elizabeth Bernstein
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What led you to the Nobel Women’s Initiative?

Issues of peace and violence have long been a part of my life, even from my days as an activist student at the University of Wisconsin. During the 1980s and ’90s, I worked in refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border teaching English and French, and I co-founded with Bob Maat the Coalition for Peace and Reconciliation in Cambodia. In our work we also helped found the Cambodia Campaign to Ban Landmines, which led to my involvement in the international landmine campaign with Jody Williams. She won the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, in 1997, the year the Ottawa treaty banning their use was signed. Jody stepped down as coordinator in 1998, and I took over her position until I became executive director of the Nobel Women’s Initiative in 2006.

How was the initiative founded?

At a meeting in Nairobi in 2004, government representatives and members of the I.C.B.L. and other organizations met for the first five-year review of the Ottawa treaty. Shirin Ebadi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her work defending the rights of women and children in Iran, was there. We’d asked her to the conference after she started a new nongovernmental organization in Iran to address landmines; the ones laid during the Iran-Iraq war continue to pose a major problem in her part of the world. Around the same time, Wangari Maathai had just been announced as the 2004 recipient of the peace prize—the first African woman to receive the award.

During this Nairobi summit, we invited Wangari Maathai and Shirin Ebadi to participate in a public panel, “Linking Humanitarian, Development and Disarmament Responses to War.” Over tea beforehand, it was Shirin Ebadi’s idea to work together with the other women laureates to do something to support peace and women’s rights activists, now that there are women laureates on nearly every continent. Of the 12 women who have received the award since it was established in 1900, seven are still living. So the idea was born at that small tea in December 2004. The following year, Jody Williams took on the responsibility to speak with the other women laureates about joining together in what has become the Nobel Women’s Initiative. We began to raise seed money; and since then various foundations, individuals and governments have contributed funding, including the laureates themselves.

With Shirin Ebadi so closely connected with the initiative’s beginnings, is Iran a special focus of the work?

Yes, especially because of the way the Bush administration and Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were ratcheting up the rhetoric last year about a possible military conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. In June 2006 we brought six women from Iran and six from the United States for a gathering in Vienna. There we exchanged experiences and then met with some of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of directors to encourage a nonviolent solution to the crisis. Most of us are isolated from the day-to-day lives of Iranians, especially the women. The women who met with us in Vienna went back to Iran and took part in demonstrations for an end to laws that discriminate against women. Many, including those at our meeting at the I.A.E.A., were beaten and arrested.

Later that summer Shirin Ebadi’s organization, the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, was threatened with closure because of her work for peace and women’s rights. But she and other women went on to organize a peitition drive to collect a million signatures, calling for an end to discriminatory laws. (Iranian men have also taken part in the campaign.) These women are very determined and courageous. Since the campaign began, about 50 activists have been arrested, including people who only collected signatures. They insist that defending women’s rights is not a crime, nor is collecting signatures. At our first international laureates’ conference in Galway, Ireland, in May 2007, seven women came from Iran; we were able to learn from their experiences of repression.

Is the work of the initiative divided into geographic regions?

We don’t really divide our work in that way. Jody Williams is from the United States; Rigoberta Menchú Tum, the 1992 winner, is from Guatemala; Wangari Maathai is from Kenya; in Iran there is Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman to be awarded the prize; and there are Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire in Northern Ireland, the 1996 recipients. These women—representing North and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa—have decided to bring together their extraordinary experiences in a united effort for peace with justice and equality.

One of the initial ideas was that the women laureates might convene conferences and take turns choosing themes and issues to focus on for discussion and action. Shirin Ebadi suggested the laureates look at women redefining peace in the Middle East and the whole continuum of violence there, from domestic violence to armed conflict and the occupations, and how these various kinds of violence are affecting women in the region, as well as women’s creative responses in challenging them.

We decided to host the meeting in Ireland, a safe, neutral location where women could speak freely and where we could learn from the women’s involvement in the Northern Ireland peace process. About 100 women attended the event in Galway in May 2007, with half coming from the Middle East. Presentations focused on issues that included human security—people-centered rather than state-centered security—and disarmament, from abolishing nuclear weapons to banning cluster bombs.

The cluster bomb campaign has gained a lot of momentum since summer 2006, when Israel dropped four million of them on Lebanon. An estimated one million cluster bombs still lie there unexploded. Now there is a new international process to conclude a treaty that will ban these unacceptable weapons and assist communities affected by them. Similarly, there is a new international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons. We also heard from women fighting for equality in Iran and from women from Israel and Palestine, members of the Parents Circle–Families Forum, an organization of over 500 bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost close relatives to the violence in the Middle East. They devote their energy to promoting dialogue, tolerance and reconciliation.

Will the Nobel Women’s Initiative address human rights abuses in China?

Yes. In addition to denying its own citizens the right to mobilize and speak freely, China supports governments currently engaged in crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing: the governments of Sudan and Burma. In Sudan, China continues to finance the activities of the Khartoum government, which is waging a war against the people of Darfur. Thousands of villages have been razed, with rape used as a weapon of war. China, through the state-owned company China National Petroleum Corporation, owns the largest share in Sudan’s two major oil groups. At least 70 percent of Sudan’s oil revenues have been used to purchase attack helicopters and weapons used to destroy the population of Darfur. China has the power to show real leadership on Darfur, but so far it has refused.

Another issue is China’s relationship with the military junta in Burma, similarly engaged in crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. Aung San Suu Kyi, the only imprisoned laureate, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 in recognition of her work in the nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma. For 11 of the past 16 years, Suu Kyi has been held under house arrest by the Burmese junta after her political party, the National League for Democracy, won the 1990 general election in a landslide victory. The junta refused to recognize the results and placed Suu Kyi, along with other pro-democracy activists, under house arrest.

As in Sudan, China’s relationship with Burma is based on its own economic interests; it continues to willfully ignore the health and security of the Burmese people and hinders international efforts toward peace and reconciliation. China is Burma’s largest source of weapons. What is the Burmese military junta doing with Chinese investment? Since 1996 its army has destroyed over 3,000 villages and recruited an estimated 70,000 children as soldiers. And the targeting of ethnic minorities by the military junta produces the largest number of refugees in the region. There are currently over 1.5 million Burmese refugees belonging to ethnic minority groups living in Burma and neighboring countries.

Have you been in touch with Suu Kyi?

Jody Williams and I were able to visit Suu Kyi in 2003, when she had a short period of freedom. She could receive visitors and travel around the country. But she was arrested in May of that year, imprisoned again and denied communication of any sort. We used to get letters to her through colleagues, but that is no longer possible. We advocate not only for her release, but for the release of other political prisoners too, and freedom for the Burmese people.

One action we carried out in support of Suu Kyi and the Burmese people in January 2007 was to have 13 laureates, both men and women, apply for visas to travel to Burma to visit her. But when Jody Williams and Shirin Ebadi went to the embassy in Washington, D.C., they were not even allowed to enter the building to submit an application for visas. The former president of South Korea, Kim Dae Jung, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000, was denied a visa on the spot. The others received no response at all.

Among our goals was keeping the plight of the Burmese people in the public eye and encouraging the U.N. Security Council to give unanimous support to a U.S. draft resolution condemning political repression in Burma. The first-ever resolution on Burma urged the military government there to release all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and to address government attacks against civilians. On Jan. 12, however, China joined Russia in using the veto in the U.N. Security Council to stop the resolution. China seems to prefer to remain complicit in grave abuses against the people of Burma and Darfur, rather than use its leadership to help move toward justice.

Do you work with other human rights groups?

Yes, particularly with regard to the situation in Iran. We work closely with Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others, because there has been a crackdown on Iranian dissidents. Tension between Iran and the United States has resulted in a number of arrests of scholars and dual-citizen Iranian-Americans who have gone back to visit their parents. One case involves an Iranian-American woman, Haleh Esfandiari, who is director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. In May 2007, she flew to Tehran to visit her 92-year-old mother. As she was leaving to fly back to Washington, a staged robbery took place. All her documents were taken, including her passport. When she tried to get the documents replaced, she was questioned and arrested, charged with espionage. We issued a letter of support for her in July. She was finally released and allowed to return to the United States in early September. Besides the large human rights groups, we work with women’s rights groups, like the Association for Women’s Rights in Development and smaller groups worldwide.

What are your hopes for the Nobel Women’s Initiative?

The laureates want to see how they can best use the prestige and responsibility of the Nobel Peace Prize to advance the cause of peace and women’s rights throughout the world. Some of our hopes involve showing that one person really can make a difference internationally.

Women’s activities in building a peaceful, just world are largely unacknowledged, but so many dedicated women are creating change in their lives and communities every day. Sharing their successes and lessons learned inspires others. We intend to back their efforts for change and support them in advocating greater roles for women in achieving peace and combating violence. We want to emphasize the many ways in which women prevent, combat and survive violence. We are extremely hopeful.

Elizabeth Bernstein is executive director of the Nobel Womens Initiative, based in Ottawa, Canada. Established in 2006 by a group of women recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, the organization supports efforts for peace and womens rights worldwide.