International solidarity: what's the point?

The Broken Rifle No 101, December 2014


Javier Gárate

Solidarity is a big word, which tries to bring out the best in us. It means that we should not only care about ourselves, but also for others, and be willing to take a stand for them. For War Resisters' International, solidarity and specifically international solidarity are at the core of our values and activities. As an international, we put emphasis on the need to support each other in our struggles against war and injustice. That is why we say that we are a network of mutual support: support that helps to amplify the voices of dissent. But what impact can solidarity and mutual support have in times of crises? What are the limitations of solidarity? In this issue of The Broken Rifle we look at some current violent conflicts, and the role of international solidarity - or the lack of it - such as in the case of Ukraine and Gaza.

When we think of solidarity in WRI we think of it as a coming together: together we are stronger. Solidarity can take many different forms. It can include supporting local groups affected by conflict or trying to make a conflict more visible. It can demonstrate that the groups struggling are not alone and that there are others, often far away geographically, who are concerned about their situation. This can include people who have faced similar challenges, who care, and who are ready to stand in solidarity. Solidarity can also show the power-holders that the dissenters are not alone – on the contrary, there are people across different countries monitoring what is happening, and ready to act to call out abuses, and press for change at an international level. It also contributes to informing and educating the wider international community about a situation. Often, they may not have had access to information through the mainstream media. It can take time for people to move from learning about a situation to taking action in solidarity, thus maintaining the flow of information is crucial. That is why it is important that solidarity is sustainable, timely, and not just a one off action.

There's nothing positive about undertaking an act of solidarity just to make ourselves feel good, without really thinking what the consequences could be and what is happening to those we are acting in solidarity with.

The work in support of conscientious objectors is one of the strongest examples of WRI's solidarity. Through our CO-alert system, which shares information about COs being sent to prison or otherwise punished, we asks people to apply pressure, sending a demand for their release. As well as these alerts, WRI has attended trials, supports groups in accessing international legal frameworks to protect COs at risk, coordinates letters to be sent to COs in prison, and strategy training. Through these activities, we ensure they feel part of a larger movement. On many occasions, WRI's work has had an impact: resulting in the release of individual COs in prison, helping to change legislation that punishes COs, and undermining militarism more generally. It is common to hear COs that have been in prison say that they have written to COs in prison now, and commenting on the impact that letters had for them in keeping a strong spirit, and a sense that there are people outside who care. One important lesson we have learned in our years of solidarity work with COs is that it is crucial that that solidarity and support is welcomed - if not directly requested. Beyond that, it is important to discuss with the local group what the best form of solidarity is at this time and in this place. There have been many bad experiences of the wrong kind of solidarity, because there was a lack of listening to what is actually needed. Sometimes people don't want to make their case public because of wider implications, and it is very important to respect this. On occasions international groups can also come up with many big plans that local groups actually don't have the capacity to implement. This can in the end hinder - instead of support - the struggle.

In the past year we have seen many inspiring examples of international solidarity, such as the many international actions against the attacks on Gaza, with people blocking Israeli ships or occupying Israeli arms companies, quickly followed by people in Gaza advising protesters in Ferguson on how to deal with tear gas, since the same was used on them. Also though, our article from Gaza is about the world standing silent. There was the successful campaign to stop the shipment of tear gas from South Korea to Bahrain, jointly coordinated between anti arms trade campaigners in the UK and South Korea and the Bahraini community. Recently we have seen actions across the world in support of the 43 Mexican students killed, bringing attention to the violence in Mexico like never before, and there are so many more.

This issue of The Broken Rifle shows us the many challenges we face in taking action in solidarity with others, and how this can have a very limited impact in many cases. How can we put a stop to foreign military interventions as the default western approach to dealing with conflict? How do we deal with gender-based violence? How should we deal with the threat of ISIS, or police militarisation and violence? How can we stop the devastation wreaked by multinational corporations? The list is endless, but acting together is an important step to bringing about change. International solidarity is a tradition we have to hold on to, but solidarity is not enough. Groups need to be able to take their own actions and make their own decisions to be part of an empowered global movement for social justice.

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