Pro Concordia Labor: A Celebration of Women, Peace and International Law

Speech delivered by Stephen J. Rapp

US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice at

"Pro Concordia Labor (For Peace I Work):

A Celebration of Women, Peace and International Law"

Oude Kerk (Old Church)

Delft, The Netherlands

27 August 2013

Thank you, Hope, for the introduction and for including me in this event. It is an honor to be sharing the platform with Leymah Gbowee, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize recognizing her great work for peace in Liberia. I know her country well having visited often when I was leading the prosecution of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, not for the crimes he may have committed in that country, but for crimes for which we alleged he was responsible in Sierra Leone.  In that regard, I am happy to report that the Special Court of Sierra Leone has announced that it will deliver the final judgment on appeal in the Taylor case on 26 September at the court building in Leidschendam.  It is also an honor to be here with Brigid Inder who has done such great work as director of the Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice and who is now also serving as a Special Advisor to my good friend, Fatou Bensouda, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. 

I am also very pleased to be participating in another event organized by a person of great energy and commitment, Professor Hope May.  As you may know this is my second time in Delft in the last 14 months.  The earlier event was held at the Nieuw Kerk on the 4th of July 2012, and it commemorated a similar event held on the 4th of July 1899.  Hope had discovered a tarnished silver wreath that had been laid at the tomb of Hugo Grotius at that 1899 event, and she had it cleaned and polished, and we re-laid the wreath on the same date in 2012.  Then before an audience of persons interested in international justice we recalled the ceremony 113 years earlier when a US Ambassador, Andrew White, had invited the delegates to the 1899 Hague Peace Conference to same church.   White, who had been President of Cornell University, and who was then our Ambassador to Germany, was the leader of the US delegation at the conference.  He spoke of US leadership in international law, the debt that the US owed to the Netherlands, and the debt that the US and the whole world owed to the man interred in Delft, Hugo Grotius.  In 2012 we spoke to the same themes.  

Hugo Grotius lived during the horrible wars of the early 17th Century, when those horrors spread beyond the battlefields causing death and destruction in many civilian communities.  He was a man of the law, but he was not content with rules based on practices that had been allowed in the past.  He called for more humane conduct during conflict, and found support for it in religious and ethical traditions.  His “Law of War and Peace” set a new standard, and though it was sometimes not honored, it did help contain the death and destruction on the battlefields during the centuries that followed.  But by 1899, as weapons had become more terrible and as wider wars threatened, it was time for the representatives of the world’s governments to come together at The Hague to codify Grotian principles in an international convention.  And beyond restrictions on armed conflict, they also established a Permanent Court of Arbitration that could resolve disputes between countries peacefully without recourse to armed conflict.

But that 1899 conference and its results would not have been achieved without the citizens’ movement that made it happen.  Grotius had been an advisor to princes, and famously for a time was mprisoned by one of them.  They ruled the world of the 17th Century.  But by 1899, citizens had the power to affect the decisions of governments, and a citizens’ movement led by Bertha von Suttner, demanded the convening of the Hague conference and motivated its decisions.  Tonight we honor the memory of Bertha von Suttner, and tomorrow we will see her statue, the first ever of a woman, unveiled in a ceremony at the Peace Palace on the 100th anniversary of its opening as the home for the judicial institution that resulted from her work, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and the eventual home of the International Court of Justice.   As Hope reminded us, the 28th of August is not only the 100th anniversary of the Peace Palace, it is also the 50th anniversary of another victory of citizen activism, the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech of Dr. Martin Luther King—a march and a speech that led to the US Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Clemenceau is reported to have said, though he may have been channeling Talleyrand, that “war is too important to be left to the generals.”  It could equally be said that the pursuit of peace, and the priority given to its pursuit over preparations for war, is too important to be left to the politicians and diplomats.  I might add that the achievement of justice is too important to be left exclusively to the lawyers and judges.

I was put in mind of the importance of citizen activism in von Suttner’s time and our own, as I traveled here overnight from a conference at the Chautauqua Institution, which is out in western New York state, so far out west it is almost in Ohio.  I participated there through yesterday, and arrived here after five segments of travel, with some delays.  It was not easy, and Ms. Stehouwer of the Dutch Foreign Ministry saw me rushing out of Den Haag Centraal station at 515pm rolling my bag toward my hotel, hoping to make it here on time. 

Chautauqua was founded in the 1870s as the center of a movement for informed citizen participation that flourished in my country in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  There are more than a hundred local “Chautauquas” that have come and gone, but the original one continues now for 140 years to gather hundreds of citizens together throughout the summer to listen and exchange views with leaders of the fields of the day.  For the last seven years, all of the international chief prosecutors, past and present, have gone there on the last weekend of August, together with experts in the field of international law, to make presentations and to be questioned by ordinary citizens.  These citizens leave the sessions better informed and perhaps more energized to be the opinion leaders who can affect decisions on these issues in our democracy.   This year all of the current international chief prosecutors participated including Fatou Bensouda of the International Criminal Court, Serge Brammertz of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Hassan Jallow of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Brenda Hollis of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and Andrew Cayley of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

On leaving the sessions this year, I discovered that Bertha von Suttner had come to Chautauqua in the summer of 1912 to speak in the same amphitheatre before a crowd of thousands.    That was the year that the United States government’s education office establish “Peace Day” for students to learn the lessons that von Suttner had taught.  As Hope told us that day was the 18th of May, the day on which the Hague Peace Conference had been convened in 1899.  It is reported that von Suttner spoke at Chautauqua about the need to resolve disputes between nations in court and not on the battlefield, and about how the Permanent Court of Arbitration would be a forum for such peaceful settlements.  Back here in The Hague, a palace to house that court was rising.  Now 100 years later we honor von Suttner, and the civic activism that can move nations.

Throughout recent history we have witnessed great change as a result of citizens organizing across the world.  It is often the women who are the most effective in inspiring effective, sustainable change.  Testament to this notion is the work of women like Bertha von Suttner to Leymah Gbowee.  During the darkest moments of human history, war and desperation, women’s activism has prevailed in resisting the scourge of war and saving mankind from the brink of darkness.  Our commitment to avoiding the repetition of the devastating plight and terror of war rests on a shared dedication to deliver peace and security to all members of a population and society. 

The modern international justice movement was inspired by civic activism, laying the foundation for the global movement today.  This began with fearless leaders dedicated to the principles of justice and protection long before such values evolved into core universal standards reinforced by today’s modern legal frameworks.  Civic activism has laid a foundation for questioning prevailing international norms, mitigating the impact of conflict, pursuing justice and accountability and ultimately, demanding change.                

This is true of the female Nobel Laureates we are honoring here, both Bertha von Suttner and Leymah Gbowee, but also countless others who in their nations, communities, homes have changed the way we perceive war and fight for peace.  While it is Bertha’s memory that we honor here tonight and tomorrow with her statue, it is the collective memory of civil activism and women’s leadership that will continue to unite and inspire us moving forward.   

Bertha von Suttner was a rare individual who transcended, and then fought to reform, the values and conventions of the society into which she was born.  Beginning with a literary career that catapulted her to the forefront of Europe’s peace crusade, she became one of the first women to lead a transnational civil society movement.  Von Suttner agitated to change the way a male-dominated world thinks about war.  Though her efforts to end war were perhaps ahead of her time, she has effectively informed the framework governing international peace and security epitomized by the Peace Palace – and which we today take for granted.  Inspired by the principle that international law and justice should reinforce peace, von Suttner’s gift to us is the lesson that other means and tactics can supplant the need for war, settle disputes among nations and regulate conflict when it does arise. 

It is easy to assume that World War I defeated the principles Suttner represented.  While her pre-war peace movement stopped short of persuading governments and elites to abandon war as an instrument of policy, Suttner and her comrades planted the seeds of a new international legal order that aspires to regulate the use of force and protect the victims of armed conflict.   

Indeed, as I noted earlier von Suttner and her civil society peers played a key role in motivating governments to hold the First Hague Peace Conference in 1899, which led to several conventions and declarations regulating the conduct of warfare.  The Second Hague Peace Conference, held in 1907, followed on this progress with further restrictions on the ways soldiers utilize and deploy lethal force.

At the time of the Hague Peace Conference, warfare was understood as a conventional battle between governments, often over resources or territory.  At that time, war was fought at front lines and in trenches, far from civilians.  Even before von Suttner’s time, the early development of the laws of war reflected the archetype of conventional war in which civilians were, at least in theory, removed and distant from active hostilities.  But this focus on conventional battle comprising parties to international armed conflict fell short; it failed to capture the blurred lines between combatants and non-combatants that have manifested in armed conflict since the beginning of human history.  Worse, it overlooked the impact of armed conflict on more than half of the population.

We cannot end conflict, let alone prevent hostilities, if more than one half of the population is not actively engaged in prevention, early warning and conflict resolution activities.  Von Suttner laid a foundation for questioning how civil society, including women, participates in international civic activism by bravely challenging how we understand war.  She questioned the prevailing notion that a world at war with itself was the permanent condition of international politics.

Of course, the 1899 Peace Conference was also famous for establishing the Permanent Court of Arbitration to be housed in the Peace Palace, which reflected the ideals of protecting humanity through the peaceful settlement of disputes, and was a tangible demonstration of von Suttner’s vision.  The PCA and the bricks and mortar of the Peace Palace would not have risen from international consensus developed among statesmen, were it not for the values and pragmatism of von Suttner and her peers and the public pressure they brought to bear in the years before the first World War.

Although Suttner and her movement failed to convince the nations of the world to abandon war and to resolve disputes peacefully, their collective legacy offered a new way of perceiving conflict.  As a result, their work shaped the development of later institutions such as the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, and the modern tribunals that hold perpetrators of some of the gravest crimes known to humanity accountable.

Today, Bertha von Suttner is an inspiration to contemporary peace activists, and especially to women in war-torn countries ,who are often the principal victims of the savagery of modern civil war.   Today, the impact of civil society efforts can be seen in their efforts to seek assurances that institutions protect civilians in armed conflict and hold perpetrators accountable.  The role of these civil actors, and in particular women, cannot be overstated.  In today’s world of evolving international law, the intersection between civilian protection and legal progress hinges on the full participation of society.  Women’s voices are more important than ever. 

Organizations led by women have brought to public attention the horrors of war for non-combatants and necessitated a shift in the prevailing perceptions of peace building.  Understanding war as a clear transactional relationship among parties to armed conflict has failed to capture the loss, suffering and experience of non-combatants.  The rising number of non-international armed conflicts, particularly in the past 25 years, has greater risks to civilians, and created a situation where in some conflict zones it is more dangerous to be a civilian woman or child than it is to be combatant.

The contemporal experiences of the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Syria continue to demonstrate the heartbreaking brutality of war, for men, women and children.  These conflicts are a stark reminder of the need to continue fighting for peace, justice and accountability.  Despite impressive momentum in the development of international judicial institutions since von Suttner’s time, we must ask ourselves how to respond to ongoing international challenges of ending war, protecting civilians and establishing lasting peace, as von Suttner and her colleagues did so many years ago?

The lesson offered by Von Suttner’s experience is that we will never foster sustainable peace or prevent conflict without the full participation of civil society.  And that includes women.  For years, many of us have tried to show the world that women are not just victims of war; they are agents of peace.  That was the wisdom behind the historic UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which was adopted a decade ago but whose promise remains largely unfulfilled.  And yet, with Leymah Gbowee sitting before us today, it is deeply heartening to reflect on the influence of women leaders who command the global spotlight and who urge the international community to adopt an approach to making peace that includes women as full and equal partners.

As we continue to shape a trajectory of international law for the 21st Century, we must find a way to harness civil society voices.  This means ensuring activists are involved in peace and security processes.  But even before the beginning of hostilities, they need to be emboldened to lead preventive policy responses at national and local levels, including early warning and response mechanisms.  In efforts to cease hostilities, moreover, women must be part of political and civil society delegations during peace agreements.

But fighting for these objectives is not enough.  Our responsibility, as an international community, is ensuring not only that civic activists, including women, receive an invitation to peace negotiations.  We must enable the long-term development of civic activism that can effectively contribute to prevention.  We can work together to foster a safe, active space for civil society to flourish and give voice to peaceful constituencies at the national and community levels.  And when conflict does arise, civil society will be ready to take part – as equal actors – in peace negotiations and long term reform processes.

In so doing, women themselves will shift expectations and gender biases to inform a sustainable peace.   They will also develop and implement optimal solutions that most appropriate for unique communities, especially in building new institutions inspired by accountability, deterrence and civilian security.  As a result, their work will advance prevention and accountability so that one day when we say “never again,” we will have what we need to truly make it so.

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