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“Peace is only possible based on justice”

Peace and democracy are not a given, but a result of political action. This is a lesson from Ukraine to the world.

December 7, 2023 - Tamara Zlobina - Articles and Commentary

Russian drone hits Kharkiv in November 2023. Photo: Yakiv Liashenko / Shutterstock

Emmaus is an international solidarity movement founded in Paris in 1949 by Abbe Pierre to combat poverty and homelessness. Since 1971, regional and national initiatives have been unified into the main organisation, Emmaus International, representing 350 groups in 37 countries and providing a range of charitable services. In Ukraine, the community “Emmaus-Oselya” has been operating since 2003. The Emmaus movement advocates for the values of social justice, mutual aid, ecology and pacifism.

A just peace

A quote from Abbe Pierre, the founder of the Emmaus movement, states, “Any victory achieved in war is a defeat, and the only true value is peace. We must always stand against injustice and not accept peace established after the weakest has been devoured by their stronger neighbour (on the streets or between nations).”

This is a good starting point for this conversation.

It emphasises that peace is only possible based on justice. This idea also allows us to recognise that the absence of war does not necessarily equate to peace, and active measures are needed to protect the affected and establish justice.

Unfortunately, I did not see this understanding in the first months of the full-scale Russian invasion. On the contrary, I observed many abstract pacifist slogans like “we are against war, both sides should stop,” and “a bad peace is better than a good war.” From these slogans, demands emerged not to provide weapons to Ukraine because, supposedly, weapons would escalate the conflict. This position caused irreparable harm to the people in Ukraine. The fact that Ukrainians had to spend months convincing other countries of their right to self-defence, begging and waiting for the weapons needed for self-defence, led to deaths, the capture of significant territories, and terror against the occupied population. Delays in the supply of weapons allowed the Russian army to fortify its positions and deploy unprecedented minefields, which now require huge resources and, most importantly, human lives to storm.

Such abstract pacifism surprised and saddened everyone in Ukraine. A war initiated by an aggressive invader will not stop because of a beautiful slogan on a poster. Just like in the case of a criminal who attacks with the intent to rob in the street, a polite remark like “excuse me, sir, but I believe you are doing something wrong,” will not stop the robbery. There must be levers of influence on the perpetrator, and these levers of influence must be very serious – weapons for self-defence, a legal system, sanctions. In the case of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we see that on the international level, we have not yet learned how to protect peace, law and justice as effectively as we combat crime within our own countries.

Self-defence is feminist

The flaws of abstract pacifism and a lack of understanding of the imperialist nature of the Russian state have given rise to a feminist manifesto against the war, which has outraged Ukrainian feminists and demonstrated a number of issues. This manifesto was created by western feminists in cooperation with Russian feminists, but Ukrainian feminists – those who were attacked and who suffered – were not invited to contribute to this text. The authors did not even attempt to understand the position of Ukrainian feminists. The manifesto also called for not providing weapons to Ukraine.

In response, Ukrainian feminists created the “Right to Resist” manifesto, in which they described the flaws of a superficial and abstract pacifist approach. Firstly, Ukrainian feminists emphasised that this approach equates the aggressor with the victim. In the case of imperialistic aggression, the call for “both sides to cease the conflict” is similar to asking both the attacker and the victim in the case of rape to “stop the assault and restore peace”. This equivalence contradicts the principle of justice, as eloquently expressed by Abbe Pierre, and it is undeniable that victims have the right to resist violence committed against them. In the early days of the full-scale invasion, Ukrainian women were surprised that there were people in the world, including feminists with pacifist positions, who needed to be convinced that Ukraine had the right to defend itself.

The calls not to provide weapons, expressed from feminist pacifist positions, although probably not intended, amounted to a refusal to show solidarity. Ukrainian feminists, as a group, are particularly vulnerable to Russian attacks. At the beginning of the invasion, British intelligence published data indicating that the Russian occupiers had lists of activists who would be eliminated after the capture of Kyiv. Women’s rights activists reasonably suspected that they could be on these lists because the Russian regime perceives human rights as a threat. Subsequently, female activists of women’s organisations were persecuted in the occupied territories.

Furthermore, the Putin regime positions itself as hypermasculine and patriarchal, contrasting itself with the “decadent” liberal West, where feminists and LGBT+ individuals have “destroyed” family values.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has been ongoing since 2014, and during this time, the experiences of Ukrainian feminists did not receive much attention from international colleagues. In the first months of the full-scale invasion, it was noticeable that western researchers used stereotypes and templates when discussing Ukraine, and even repeated Russian propaganda about the prevalence of far-right groups in Ukraine. While in the Ukrainian parliament, there is not a single far-right party, and there are no right-wing parties, in contrast to many Western European countries, where far-right groups gain a significant percentage of votes in parliamentary and presidential elections.

Over the past ten years, Ukrainian feminists have been working in a country at war. Contrary to Russia, there has been no masculinisation and conservative turn in Ukraine. On the contrary, the women’s movement has achieved many successes – political quotas have been introduced, the status of women in the military has changed, a gendered approach is being applied in various spheres of state policy, and gender equality and non-discrimination are gaining more popularity in Ukrainian society. Until 2022, feminist marches and LGBT+ pride events were regularly held in various cities.

Feminists have also found the strength to criticise militarisation and pointed out that military relationships should not be transferred to civilian life, or that gender-based violence by military personnel should not be justified. They have created programmes for the rehabilitation of veterans and founded a movement of women veterans.

The position of mainstream feminism in Ukraine has not changed since 2014 and is clearly expressed in the “Right to Resist” manifesto. Regarding domestic policy, there are reservations about the masculinisation of the public space – for example, the reduced representation of female experts in the media. The military has the greatest symbolic capital, and although there are around 50,000 women in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, they are still a minority. This may influence the political representation of women in the future.

At present, feminists and civil society are effectively countering conservative gender rhetoric, and there are many initiatives to combat sexism and gender-based violence.

Furthermore, feminists are resisting conservatism with weapons in hand. One such example is Lesya Ganzha, who was the editor of the media outlet “Women Are 50 per cent of Ukraine’s Success.” At the start of the full-scale invasion, Lesya joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine as a volunteer and learned to operate drones.

All that has been mentioned above forms the basis for a peace appeal initiated by Ukrainian feminists. Firstly, it involves the principle of “nothing about us without us,” calling for respect and support of Ukraine’s right to armed self-defence and emphasising that peace without justice is a false reconciliation. The absence of war in such a case will lead to repression in the occupied territories. The Ukrainian initiators of this appeal also stress the need to search for new ways to fight for peace and create new international instruments, as the existing ones, as we have seen, are not working effectively.

How to support Ukrainian civil society in a way that promotes non-violence and peace?

First and foremost, it is important to acknowledge the difference in the positions of Ukrainian society compared to societies in countries where there is no ongoing armed conflict. The task of Ukrainian society is to survive while it is being brutally and literally attacked, whereas the task of societies in areas without direct warfare is to develop new tools, measures and political approaches that lead to non-violence and peace.

Therefore, I will outline several practical ways to help Ukrainians survive, so they can collectively work on new international instruments. Some of these methods might also provide ideas for effective policies of non-violence and peace.

Weapons and ammunition

Ukraine is facing a country much larger in terms of territory, resources and population. The most valuable and irreplaceable resource that Ukraine is losing in this war is its people. The foundation of the Ukrainian army currently consists of former civilians. These are people like the feminist Lesya Ganzha, who joined the army, and Professor Fedir Shandor from Uzhhorod University, who delivered lectures to students from the trenches. These are members of the Emmaus community in Lviv. These are Ukrainian writers, musicians, programmers, lawyers, people who are not military professionals but are forced to defend their land. These individuals are dying en masse due to a lack of weapons, tactical medicine and protective gear.

Often, I see that people abroad are willing to donate for humanitarian needs but avoid contributing to the needs of the Ukrainian army, even for essential protective gear such as body armour and tactical medical supplies because they believe it is money spent on war. Therefore, I would like to emphasise again that the Ukrainian army is made up of civilians. Ukrainian philosophers, researchers, political scientists, who should be seeking new policies for peace and non-violence, need to survive first to be able to do that.

Resist the temptation of appeasement

In today’s world, public sentiment, which influences the actions of politicians, is highly dependent on media images. War photos are horrifying, and there may be a temptation to say that anything is better than this.

Once, I overheard a conversation between strangers discussing that if Ukraine really wanted peace, it should give the occupied territories to Russia. However, the territories are not just empty land; they are inhabited by people. What is happening to these people under occupation is horrifying. Structural violence is much less visible than a bombed-out building. Incidents of rape, torture, abductions, forced erasure of identity, child abductions and lawlessness are rampant on the occupied territories.

Let me share just one story of a civilian woman who was taken captive. After the occupation of Luhansk, Russian military personnel came to her and her elderly neighbour, demanding that they give up their apartments and move to communal housing. The women refused. Sometime later, the police came to “search” the property, planted drugs in their apartments, and sentenced both women to 12 years in prison, confiscating their apartments. The woman had to serve her sentence, endure torture and was finally able to inform the Ukrainian authorities about her situation. She was eventually exchanged and liberated in Ukraine.

This is just one known story, and there are thousands of unknown stories. I urge you to remember these stories.

Whose war is this? Language matters

When the full-scale invasion began, the headlines in the world’s media were talking about a “conflict in Ukraine”, “war in Ukraine” and the “Ukrainian war”. Earlier, media reports referred to the “conflict in Donbas” and “war in Georgia”. Before that, there was the “war in Ichkeria”, “war in Transnistria” and “war in Abkhazia”.

These headlines might make the world seem like a terrible place where wars and “internal conflicts” occasionally erupt. However, do these conflicts simply happen on their own?

In all these wars, there is one initiating country, and that is Russia. If it had been consistently named in the headlines over the past thirty years, there might be fewer people who believe that Russia is a good alternative to US imperialism.

Now the correct term “Russia’s wars” is gaining traction. It encompasses not only Russia’s invasions of neighbouring countries but also the actions of the Russian military in Asia, such as in Syria, as well as in Africa, like Mali and the Central African Republic. This highlights more clearly that modern Russia is an imperialist, militaristic and aggressive state that poses a threat to peace on a global scale.

“Business as usual” – one of the reasons for the war

One of the reasons for the full-scale Russian invasion in 2022 was the effective bribery of European economic and political elites by Russia. For example, after the war began in 2014, Germany actively pursued policies to increase its consumption of cheap Russian gas. Russia armed itself and prepared for war with the money it earned from energy sales. In February 2022, European capitalists and the politicians serving them expected Ukraine to fall in three days, so they could “accept reality”, as they put it, and continue to do profitable business with Russia.

However, this did not happen, and Ukraine has been resisting aggressive pressure for two years. Even with sanctions in place, many global companies have not left the Russian market and continue to work there, paying taxes that indirectly fund the war. For example, in 2022, the Austrian Raiffeisen Bank paid 559 million euros in taxes, which could buy 95 Kalibr missiles used to shell Ukrainian cities.

It is essential to check if the clothing you wear and the food you eat are not produced by companies that continue to pay taxes in Russia. The issue is not limited to Russia; businesses with links to other totalitarian countries, such as China, pose similar threats.

Democracy – the foundation of peace

Democracy and the rule of law are the foundations of lasting peace. Uncompromisingly advocating for democracy in your own and other countries is another way to fight for peace. For example, in 2020, mass protests against the dictator Lukashenka in Belarus were brutally suppressed. Neither European countries nor, unfortunately, Ukraine supported them sufficiently, as they feared angering Putin.

Was this the right political decision? We can now see that it was not, just as buying Russian gas after 2014 was a mistake. If Belarus had become a democracy in 2022, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine might not have happened at all.

Nothing about us without us

The best way to support Ukrainian civil society is to listen to how Ukrainians themselves define peace, support their vision, and spread it. The Ukrainian Manifesto for Sustainable Peace includes points like “Accountability for War”, based on holding aggressors accountable for their crimes and demanding compensation for damages, and “Ensuring Sustainable Peace”, which calls for changes in international organisations, decolonisation and the disarmament of Russia.

Finally, I want to emphasise that peace and democracy are not a culture or heritage to be preserved. They are the result of political action, daily reinvention and a constant struggle. Peace and democracy cannot be inherited. If one falls into this illusion, one may quickly find themself under the rule of a populist, corrupt regime, as we are witnessing in some Western European countries, with war knocking on the door.

This speech was delivered at the assembly of the international Emmaus movement in Iași, Romania in October 2023.

Tamara Zlobina is a Ukrainian public intellectual that has published a number of articles on gender equality. She holds a PhD in Philosophy from the National Institute for Strategic Studies in Kyiv. Since 2016 Tamara has been the leader of the Gender in Detail project, a unique expert resource with a primary focus on advocating for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, while promoting gender equality in Ukraine. She is also the author of the concepts “gender decay” and “gender eclecticism,” which describe the current gender regime in Ukraine.


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