Reviving transnational activism

Photo: Victoria Pickering/Flickr

Mary Kaldor on how transnational campaigning helped end the Cold War and hasten the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and why we need a new initiative today

In the aftermath of the Cold War, there was a brief period when many hoped that an era of international co-operation would supplant geopolitical competition between states and, indeed, an emergent machinery for peace and human rights was developed within existing institutions such as the UN, the EU or the Council of Europe, as well as new institutions like the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) or the African Union. These hopes were the outcome of transnational organising in the 1980s and 1990s. They were dashed by the events of 9/11, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the expansion of NATO. But is it possible, in the current context of the war in Ukraine, to revive these hopes through new forms of organising? To answer this question, I draw on two examples from my own experience.

The first example is European Nuclear Disarmament. In 1979, the US took the decision to deploy a new generation of intermediate nuclear weapons in Western Europe – the cruise and Pershing missile. A mass movement sprang up all over Western Europe out of fear that this could provoke a nuclear war and renewed polarisation between East and West. European Nuclear Disarmament (END), inspired and led by E.P. Thompson, took the view that to get rid of nuclear weapons, we needed to end the Cold War and, to do that, we needed to make links with human rights groups in Eastern Europe. It is often said that no one predicted the end of the Cold War. However, in his ‘Not the Dimbleby’ lecture of 1982 (the BBC had withdrawn an invitation to Thompson to give the annual Dimbleby Lecture), Thompson made the argument that by opposing the Cold War itself (the ideological and security structures that kept the Cold War going on both sides) instead of opposing the ‘other’, the Cold War could be brought to an end. Indeed, he claimed that the “Cold War roadshow” is now “lurching towards its terminus”.

Over time, numerous links were established between the Western peace movement and the East European human rights groups. The dialogue was not easy; there were vociferous discussions about which came first – peace or human rights – both within the movements and across the East-West divide. But it can be argued that the dialogue influenced what happened in three main ways:

  • First, it created political space on both sides. In the 1950s and 1960s, it had been possible to marginalise the peace movement as ‘fellow travellers’ – people who were sympathetic to the Soviet Union. Peace movement support for human rights meant that the anti-nuclear argument was taken much more seriously. On the Eastern side, Western peace movements were able to put pressure on official peace committees, to publicise crackdowns, and to provide material support to opposition groups. By the end of the 1980s, a new generation of groups emerged out of the dialogue; for example, the Young Democrats in Hungary, Freedom and Peace in Poland, and the John Lennon Society in Czechoslovakia. And it was these groups that provided an infrastructure for the demonstrations that brought down Communist regimes in central Europe.
  • Second, the dialogue contributed to the strengthening of international legal norms. Both the peace movement and the human rights movement could be viewed as products of the Helsinki agreement of 1975 that established a détente process. The commitments to human rights in that agreement provided a tool for opposition groups in Eastern Europe and, by the same token, increased the significance of the agreement. Likewise, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 would never have come about had it not been for the anti-nuclear movement and would never have had the same public significance.
  • Thirdly, the dialogue produced a new discourse that was to become very important in the 1990s. It was a language about the coming together of peace and human rights, and the idea of transnational civil society, that came to be echoed in international institutions, in progressive foreign policies adopted by Robin Cook in the UK, Gareth Evans in Australia and Lloyd Axworthy in Canada, and among NGOs campaigning on new transnational issues.

The second example was the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly (hCa) that was founded on the basis of the END dialogue of the 1980s. The idea conceived when many of us were arrested in Prague in 1987 was to establish a permanent organisation to help civil society in difficult places. It was founded in Prague at a meeting hosted by the then President Havel. Almost immediately, wars broke out in the Balkans and post-Soviet space, and local peace and human rights groups also sprang up in those places. The hCa enabled sometimes difficult dialogues to take place across all the new divides. It also pioneered a new way of working: instead of focussing on reporting and alerting states and international organisations to human rights violations, it was about civic action, what people can do, especially in conflict contexts, to change their situation and how civic activists in other places could contribute. The organisation still exists in some places (Turkey, the South Caucasus and Bosnia, for example), but it failed to manage the transition from movement to professional organisation and so no longer has a central office. Nevertheless, it did have an important influence in two respects:

  • First the very existence of an international network was a form of protection, a way of creating political space. To be chairperson of the Azeri branch of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly is very different from being chairperson of the Azeri ‘human rights something or other’. Just being part of an international platform provides a certain protection and space. In Bosnia, for example, hCa became a implementing partner of UNHCR, enabling hCa activists to acquire blue cards and travel around Bosnia under UN protection.
  • Secondly, through the network, local groups were able to transmit proposals to governments and organisations like the EU, OSCE or UN. Proposals for local protectorates, safe havens, humanitarian corridors or war crimes tribunals came out of the local hCa groups. hCa ran a mass postcard campaign, for example, for safe havens and for local protectorates in Mostar and Sarajevo. And this further contributed to growth of multilateral missions during this period.

Is now the time to revive this type of transnational activism? Currently, the West European peace movement is divided along lines similar to the divisions of the 1980s. Many on the left oppose the supply of arms to Ukraine and argue that NATO expansion explains Russian behaviour so that what is needed is a diplomatic solution from above. There are parallels here with the position of peace activists in the 1980s who argued that making peace with the Soviet Union took precedence over human rights. Even though I think that NATO expansion was a mistake and that we should do everything we can to prevent escalation and promote ceasefires, I am sceptical that a peace deal can be reached with a criminalised, misogynistic, extreme nationalistic and repressive regime like that in Russia – a regime that has been involved in war after war (Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and now Ukraine) against civilians. What is needed is dialogue with the Russian anti-war movement to find out what is happening and what might be done to help; dialogue with Russian and Ukrainian civil society to prevent the ethnicisation of this conflict, which is about democracy versus autocracy, not Russians versus Ukrainians. Additionally, dialogue is needed among a wider network of activists to put forward proposals for renewing the peace and human rights machinery of the 1990s and developing it in a way that might, in the future, contribute to peace-making in different conflicts around the world and prevent wars of aggression, whether we are talking about Russia or Western adventures in Iraq.

Peace-making has to be global and not just European. A new peace and human rights machinery would need to emerge out of the global resistance to authoritarianism, whether we are talking about India, Brazil or China. The role of China is particularly dangerous, given its (albeit ambiguous) support for Russia, its crackdown in Hong Kong and its threatening behaviour over Taiwan, as well as on the Indian border and in the South China Sea. This has led to talk of a new Cold War with Russia and China. We need a similar dialogue with Chinese human rights defenders, starting, perhaps, with activists in Hong Kong. How could we move towards a global framework for peace and human rights that can eventually include both China and Russia?


  1. Mary Kaldor is right to stress the important of E P Thompson’s NOT THE DIMBLEBY LECTURE of 1982 and subsequent developments – it would be sensible to have the lecture republished and the events which led to it being withdrawn by the BBC made public. It is ominous that the threats to start a nuclear war made by the Kremlin are not being discussed by the progressive movement – when Biden commented the current politics resemble the 1962 cuban missile crisis, I suggested five times to the most widely read labour website they should recognise the dangers Biden was talking about. No response came back.

    Whether there is a strong peace movement in Russia is an open question, but there is no doubt that the attempts to open dialogue should be made

    trevor fisher

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