Useful in the Third Quarter: a Profile of Ann Gertler

By Shirley Farlinger | 1987-02-01 12:00:00

One of Canada's most effective peace activists is a Montréal woman, Ann Gertler. Recently appointed to the Board of Directors of the Canadian Institute of International Peace and Security, Gertler also serves as co-chairperson of the Group of 78, a brainy, diverse group that was begun in 1980 to propose international policies to the government. She is on the Board of Project Ploughshares and until recently of Voice of Women, and she serves on the Steering Committee of the Consultative Group, which is a select group of citizens invited by the Disarmament Ambassador to advise the Ministry of External Affairs. She is also an official U.N. Observer.

This list of duties would daunt an average activist, but not Gertler, a white-haired woman who sometimes knits during meetings, quietly analyzing strategies for long-term political success. At the Group of 78's annual think-in she closed her keynote address by urging the members to "find the judo points for change."

Ann is not a judo wrestler but deserves a black belt in the peace arts. Her political savvy was acquired through an upbringing in a New York City family that supported of Roosevelt's New Deal. "I inherited some of my starch from my Grandmother," she says. "The ethic was that money imposed obligation for public service. I still have that ethic -- the old-fashioned idea that you should be of some use in this world." She spent a good part of her youth in the studio of the photographer, Steiglitz, and her great aunt, painter Georgia O'Keeffe, from whom she learned perfectionism.

She studied sociology and economics at Vassar and Columbia, where she wound up as an "ABD" -- All But Dissertation because she wanted only to write about the "peaceful atom," but her professor advised against it. She worked as an economist for the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on War Mobilization and after the war as a lecturer, weaving a career into her marriage with Maynard Gertler, a Canadian publisher. They raised five sons (who all marched in the huge peace demonstration in New York in '82) and have long and lovingly cultivated a prize-winning seed farm. "I've never felt better used," she says, smiling. "That's the way the third quarter of a life should be."

There's much to keep up with. "I read in the tub," she says. "I read at breakfast. I stack things up. Just by handling them, I somehow learn about documents. You'll always see me leafing and shuffling papers. It drives people mad at meetings. I don't write much. I find out what I think by trying to say it, not write it. I never read a speech. I prepare it and then count on the adrenalin."

Ann Gertler wants to broaden the focus of the peace movement. "The war system will remain intact as long as there is nothing to replace it. The weapons are not the cause but the results of our fears and hatreds. We have to begin at a deeper level.

"Demonstrations have made the issue visible, but when elections have come along, electorates have given priority to other issues. Popular commitment has been sincere, but not deep enough to motivate people's actions. Besides, the peace movement is just beginning to show people how to translate their concerns into political actions. In the coming decade throughout western countries, peace concerns will show voting effects. Already peace has become an accepted issue for the churches and is spreading very successfully through constituency groups -- physicians, teachers, scientists, and trade unions. Peace advocacy is becoming part of the fabric of organizations.

"It is already too late when you are into an election. The work has to be done further back on the time scale. We must be making input now into party platforms."

For the past ten years, Ann Gertler has been an accredited observer at the United Nations for the Voice of Women and Project Ploughshares. For the past three years, moreover, she has been invited to serve as an official observer with the Canadian delegation during the General Assembly, an opportunity that has delighted her. "Diplomats work hard," she said. "For example, each one, including ambassadors, writes a report every night. They don't take notes in a meeting, but you'll see them hustling back from parties to record what they heard. Those reports are sent to the various desks for everyone to see. This requires skill. Countries outside the first world send their most competent, brightest people to the U.N."

"Why then," I asked, "does the U.S. claim that the U.N. is so inefficient, incompetent, and wasteful?"

"Oh," Ann acknowledged, "there are normal bureaucratic problems, compounded by the fact that there are 159 bosses. The pressure for the reform of the U.N. comes from the U.S. because it doesn't run the show now, since we added 100 decolonized nations to the U.N But even so, the U.S. forgets that often the votes go in its favor. The most conspicuous example, if not the happiest, is the Afghanistan vote. Day in and day out, both major powers score a lot. Despite that, neither major power paid its assessment. Canada is conscientious about that.

"Lots of people don't understand that changing the U.N. might destroy it. It is a sick patient. Reforms are elective surgery. You don't want to do elective surgery on it right now unless you intend to kill it. Some people certainly do, I think. The U.N. is the best we have and we have to make it work."

During their stint as Observer/Advisors to the Canadian delegation, Ann and Joanna Miller proposed a resolution on verification and a formulation for a freeze resolution prohibiting testing and deployment but not production. The latter was considered seriously, but finally the Canadian delegation did not put it forward. Ann Gertler no longer expects Canada to support any freeze resolution, despite the worldwide popularity of the idea.

Ann points out, "There were only 12 "no" votes in the First Committee (the Disarmament Committee) on the freeze resolutions that went in this year. Canada voted "no" but Canada voted yes on the CTB [Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban] resolution, as usual."

"Isn't it inconsistent to vote for a CTB but not a freeze?" I asked.

"No," she replied. "A freeze doesn't require a treaty. That's the key difference. A CTB would be a negotiated treaty. But you must remember that in the CD [Conference on Disarmament in Geneva] they don't even have a working group working on that because they haven't had consensus. That's where treaties are made. They're not made at the U.N. Resolutions, declarations, conventions are made at the U.N. and signed, but not treaties."

What difference does it make anyway, if something can pass in the U.N. as overwhelmingly as the CTB resolution did, and yet have no visible influence on the U.S.?" I asked. "Isn't it demoralizing for people who work in the U.N. to realize that it doesn't count for anything?"

Ann smiled. "Well, the U.N. is built on the premise that words are important. Certainly they are better than fighting. Listen, there's a funny story. Because of the way the alphabet works, the Iranians sit by the Iraqis. In the General Assembly, while the Iraqi was speaking, his mike went dead and the engineers couldn't fix it. Apparently somebody had pulled the cord. The presiding officer had the Iraqi come speak at the podium, which pleased him. I heard gossip afterward about it. It's a darned sight better than blasting off weapons at each other. I think it's fine if they fight that way! What's the U.N. for? It's a battle of the microphones.

"You ask me why we bother passing resolutions if the U.S. isn't going to submit to them. Lots of people don't submit to the resolutions, but the U.N. sets the moral tone of the world, sets an example. I'm sure the peace movement in the U.S. wouldn't want us not to do it. A friend of mine, who was also a friend of Einstein said, "We don't dare not try."

"Are U.N. people demoralized?" I asked.

"There is anxiety -- concern for the institution. They're a marvelously dedicated bunch."

"Stephen Lewis is an inspired defender of the U.N." I said, "And yet he supported financial cuts. Isn't that giving ammunition to his foes?" "Well, that's what any politician would do," Ann replied equably. "He's protecting himself by taking a bit of the other side of the argument. I don't like it. He also says that, while the U.N. is a great place to deal with such things as the crisis in African development, it's an unsuccessful place for disarmament work. And he suggests that we should concentrate our efforts where they make a difference. I feel that this downgrades the institution and I have protested to Stephen. Fortunately, his recent statements have sounded more favorable.

But we have other things to be glad about. There is going to be a Disarmament and Development Conference after all. The French government cancelled the one that had been scheduled for Paris, partly because the U.S. would not participate. It won't participate in this one either, which makes it doubly important that we have a good level of nongovernment activity. The preparatory conference is in April and the conference itself is the 24th of August in New York City.

"Also, Canada voted with the majority in the General Assembly on a resolution criticizing the U.S.'s refusal to abide by the World Court decision on mining the harbors of Nicaragua. Canada voted for it because they believed in the supremacy of the world court and world law.

"Much of what I do at the U.N. is just be a silent presence. The silent witness is an effective means of influence. It shows that somebody cares. I care."

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1987

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1987, page 5. Some rights reserved.

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