Last week I found myself in an exhilarating and dizzying frenzy that is the World Social Forum (WSF). The organizers chose Montreal as the Forum’s first host city in the Global North, hoping to expand the activist network. Unfortunately however, this had the opposite effect. During the opening march and ceremonies, we learned, by way of banners, chants and cardboard signs that 70% of the participants, speakers and facilitators from the Global South had been denied visas and thus entry into Canada. I would later learn that this would affect most of my sessions, which lacked important voices, perspectives and representation.
Despite rumours of the forum’s disorganization, I arrived with high hopes, determined to absorb all I could. Although we did witness technical difficulties, last minute room changes and cancellations, it wasn’t enough to deter me. We’d made it, and I was just happy to be in the midst of it all, to be breathing it in.
Since I will begin my master’s program in dispute resolution in the fall, I set out to attend sessions with the theme of peace and demilitarization in mind.
The first session I chose focused on the Columbia peace process taking place now in Havana. It is anticipated that this process will end one of the longest and most disruptive civil wars in recent history. I listened as union leaders, activists and lawyers explained their hopes and fears for their country. I learned that the peace process between Columbian President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC leader known as Timochenko did not start when the two parties decided to come to the table, but that the road to peace has been forged, trampled and smoothed by activists and civil society groups all along the way. Lawyer Yessica Hoyos spoke to the importance of women in this long process saying, “It’s the first time that gender has been pointed to as an important factor in getting to peace. It’s the first time women’s voices are being heard, and it’s thanks to the women themselves”.
The next day, Voice of Women for Peace hosted a session on militarism and its connection to climate change. The intersection between the two, which I hadn’t given much thought, I now realize, it is key to any discussion of either topic. Climate change has been disproportionally affecting communities who do not have the resources, infrastructure or ability to protect themselves against it. The military, perceived as heroes in the aftermath of natural disasters, are at the top of the list of polluters contributing to climate change and increasingly severe natural disasters. The $1.7 trillion that is spent on military globally, I learned, would be more than enough to meet all of the sustainable development goals.
At my final session on preparing for peace within the UN, Emma and I found ourselves in a room with an all white male panel telling us best practices in protecting civilians on the ground. Luckily, during the question period, a woman in the audience asked about reports of sexual violence by UN peacekeepers against the very civilians they are supposed to protect. To our dismay, the speaker blamed these instances on a few bad apples rather than the institution. I asked about the extent to which non-violent conflict transformation, my area of interest, is taught and integrated into trainings. I was happy to learn that in the last five years, it has really taken off and has the potential to save millions of lives and save billions of dollars. Talk of civilians as peacekeepers and agents of change within their own communities was a great way to end an otherwise problematic session.
Ultimately the forum’s aim was to allow like-minded people to explore, connect and learn. I felt as though this was the case for me, but I couldn’t help feeling frustrated and sad that so many were unable to attend. On a panel discussing youth involvement in grassroots climate action, author and activist Naomi Klein expressed her concern regarding the empty seats on her panels saying “the new government claims to have a more open-door policy. Why is it then that so many were unable to attend. It’s a shame that this has become the Global North forum”.
Daniela Gunn-Doerge is just finishing her summer internship with Nobel Women’s Initiative. She will be starting her graduate degree in Dispute Resolution at the University of Victoria this fall.
Canada visa problems cast cloud over World Social Forum, Al Jazeera, 9 August 2016.
Colombia’s half-century of conflict that led to historic peace deal , The Guardian, 23 June 2016.
Militarism and Climate Change- The Elephant in the Room, Student Energy, 18 August 2014.
Civilian Peacekeeping: A Barely Tapped Resource, Institute for Peace Work and Nonviolent Conflict Transformation & Nonviolent Peaceforce, 2010.