The Gulf Peace Team: Interview with Jean Drèze

Jean Drèze is the founder of the Gulf Peace Camp, a camp situated on the Saudi-Iraq border to provide a nonviolent presence before and udring the initial stages of the war. The camp was evacuated at the end of January.

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 1991-03-01 12:00:00

Metta Spencer: Let me ask you about your mission in Canada.

Jean Drèze: My commitment is to be in the Peace Camp, but after we had been there for a little while, some of us came out to speak first hand about the camp, to raise further interest, recruit volunteers, and help raise funds. The camp was set up on December 24 and I stayed until January 1, when I came to the United States. It was a big mistake on our part not to come to North America earlier, but we didn't think we were going to succeed with the Peace Camp. Now we have to catch up. Politically the United States is the most important country. For me it was important to come to Canada where we have a very dynamic and committed group. I'm encouraged by what is happening here after only a few days work.

Spencer: In the camp, do you try to talk with people on both sides?

Drèze: The idea mainly is to have a nonviolent presence between the opposing armed forces. We won't have much chance to talk to them because it's in the middle of the desert. It's an active symbol between the conflicting armies and there are several ways of seeing how that works and how that contributes to the cause of peace. For some people there's a spiritual belief in this nonviolent presence. For others it's more like a physical obstacle-a statement that if you want to attack the other party, you have to run over us. Had we started a little bit earlier, I'm sure we could have hundreds or thousands of people there by January 15 and then in a sheer strategic sense it would become an embarrassment. At the moment, with about 25 people there, I wouldn't see that as the main dimension. It is a powerful expression of the intensity of political opposition to the war.

What is the purpose of street demonstrations? They don't really add any information. If you want to know what people feel, we could have polls. But when people come down the streets, they provide people with a visible expression of their opposition. The Peace Camp strikes the imagination of people and provides motivation for people to want to work in the anti-war movement. Maybe a day will come when one will be able to avoid armed conflicts in this way by having lots of people coming and standing between and saying, "No! Don't fight." So at the moment we are only a few, we are hoping there will be many more in the next few weeks, but next time around there will be many, many more. And we're just providing a kind of inspiration. It's another aspect of what we're doing.

Spencer: Are you literally in the space between the two armies in the area where the battle will be fought?

Drèze: We are definitely between the two armies. We did not want to be in Kuwait because being on the border of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia might have given the impression that we are protecting the invasion of Kuwait, which is not so. We wanted to be between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and we are about 500 km away from Kuwait. So it is not really in the middle of the war zone, but it is still a very exposed part. The armies are about ten miles away on each side and the camp is bang on the border, just ahead of the Iraqi border post. The Saudi border post is about 2 km farther down the same road. The site is a rest stop for pilgrims on their way to Mecca. We have water, electricity, and a roof to pitch our tents under. We are hoping to have a camp, or at least a symbolic presence, on the Saudi side too. Our project is addressed to both sides, so we position ourselves between the armies and distance ourselves from both sides

Spencer: How will you interpret Saudi intentions if they do allow you to situate yourselves there?

Drèze: This would be interesting. I would like to believe that it meant they want peace. Also, if there's a camp on the other side, they may fear that if they refuse a camp on their own side they would be seen as opposing peace, so that may be another motivation.

Spencer: It would be strange to let you park yourself in their path, when they're going to run in that direction.

Drèze: That's why I've never expected that it would happen, but I hear that there is some hope.

Spencer: What was it like negotiating with the Iraqis to go in there?

Drèze: That was an important part of the whole process and it took about a month of negotiations in Baghdad before we actually moved to the border. We would not bring our volunteers until we had three things: One was to have the camp at the border between the two armies and not anywhere else. The first reaction of the authorities was to say, why don't you have a camp in Baghdad? Or, why don't you have a camp somewhere else in Iraq? We just didn't accept that. The second thing is that we wanted guarantees of autonomy, both in being allowed to run the camp exactly as we like and in having our own logistics, our own arrangements for transport, for food, for all the material aspects of the camp. And third, we wanted to be able to convey to the Iraqi people what this project was all about. We were anxious not to let the controlled press misrepresent what we were doing. We succeeded in that because our policy statement was published in the Iraqi press and a number of articles explained that we are not taking sides and that we are condemning the invasion of Kuwait.

Spencer: Has the U.S. government attempted to keep people from going there?

Drèze: To my knowledge no government has tried to stop it yet. When the United Nations resolution came up to authorize the use of force against Iraq after January 15, we visited the embassies of the five permanent members of the security council at the United Nations. They discouraged the project, but made no attempt to stop us and there was some understanding of what we were doing. And to my surprise I heard that a few days ago the Gulf Peace Team of London received an amicable call from the Military Attaché of the U.S. Embassy, who said they knew that we were there. They even asked if there was anything they could do to help us. It sounds almost unbelievable. I don't know how to interpret this.

Spencer: Have you encountered resistance from right wing military supporters?

Drèze: No. The commanding officer of the Iraqi army wasn't happy to see us just in front of his troops, but he appreciated what we were doing and he had to accept it anyway.

Spencer: What sort of people have joined the team?

Drèze: In terms of nationality, faith, age, occupational background, peace movement background, there's great diversity. We are united in believing that war is not a solution and that something has to be done to prevent that catastrophe. We believe in nonviolent action.

Spencer: How about your funds?

Drèze: We rely exclusively on individual donations with no strings attached. It's a constant struggle to find enough funds to operate the project and we need a lot more help in that respect. We have more volunteers than we can send because of the fund-raising strain. We do insist that people contribute to their own travel expense if they can; it's important for the credibility of what they are doing. Some completely fund themselves but many others have to leave jobs to come to the camp. Also, we have volunteers from countries such as India where of course it's very difficult to raise the funds on the scale required so we have to help that. And we have the cost of the offices and all the administration.

Spencer: I understand you've had a lot of experience in other activities for peace and justice.

Drèze: I've been active, off and on, in the peace movement in London but I tend to go in and out, staying only for a few months. That makes organizational work difficult.

Spencer: Where do you go?

Drèze: Mostly to India. I'm a kind of freelance economist. I have been teaching at the London School of Economics and then doing some research there. I'm an advisor to the World Institute for the Development of Economics Research in Helsinki, which is part of the United Nations. At the moment I'm not on anybody's payroll. I do research for the same reason I do peace actions: to improve this world. And I do it on my own terms. I insist on not having any bond, as would happen if I were full time teacher as I used to be, or a full time researcher in a particular organization

Spencer: Tell me a little about your research.

Drèze: In the last few years I've been working quite a lot on the issues of hunger and famine. I co-authored a book called Hunger and Public Action, which is about the role of public action in preventing famine and removing hunger. This year I've been studying the condition of widows in India-what kind of support they get from their families, and what kind of problems they face. I also did a study of environmental degradation in western India.

Spencer: Where do you publish most? In professional journals? In publications for activists? In newspapers for the general public?

Drèze: So far, in professional journals. But I'm drifting away from that approach as I realize the importance of talking to the public and writing in newspapers or magazines that are read by people involved in action. Economists tend to talk to each other all the time and believe that they're having a lot of influence when in fact nobody has a clue what's going on. It's important to address the public at large. That means speaking a different language, publishing in different places.

Spencer: Good. What do you see in the next six months coming up for you?

Drèze: Everyone hopes for a peaceful resolution of the Gulf crisis-even those who believe that war may be necessary under some circumstances. However, if war does break out, we are prepared to face that. Some of us will wish to leave the peace camp and we will try to make it possible for them to do so safely. Some of us will wish to stay on; that is what I would hope to do and I expect that we may be there for quite a while and I'm prepared for that, I don't look forward to it but I am prepared for that.

Spencer: You say some people would want to leave. Why would they go there now when it's so close to war?

Drèze: Some people consider that if war does break out, we have lost the battle. Then it's better to get out and continue working for peace elsewhere. To me it's also important as part of the anti-war movement that the peace camp should remain. But if hostilities do break out the safest thing may be to stay in place. The peace camp is in the middle of the desert. To get out you have to travel several hours on the road through the desert and that would be risky if there were bombardments. We are prepared to be cut off. We have large supplies of food and water and we can survive for quite a long time, if necessary, without communication.

Spencer: But what would be most worrisome would be the trajectory of various weapons. That must give you sleepless nights.

Drèze: I'm sure it will if it happens but I don't think about that now. I go there knowing the risks and that, in spite of them, this is what I want to do and therefore I go in peace.

Spencer: You seem to be a peaceable person.

Drèze: Well, I try. The days we've spent there have been beautiful. There's a wonderful sense of solidarity and a sense that we are there for a good cause. We had a wonderful celebration at Christmas and at the New Year. It's the best place in the world to be at the moment.

Spencer: Are there Iraqis or other Arabs?

Drèze: There are no Iraqis and certainly for the time being we are not inviting Iraqis to stay in camp. There are a few Arabs-one from Lebanon and one from Guyana and I hope there will be more. If they can relate to our political position we will welcome them.

Spencer: Do you have a sense what the world looks like to the Iraqis? Is anybody at the camp able to converse with Iraqis?

Drèze: Some of us speak Arabic and can talk with people with Iraq. I have not found it easy to have any kind of dialogue with them because of my language barrier and because there's little freedom to talk about political issues. Dialogue is not a primary aspect of our work. It has been an aspect of many peace delegations that went to Baghdad and attempted to link with grass root organizations or women's organizations or peace organizations. Some of them have been quite successful, but that hasn't been the emphasis of our work.

Spencer: Do most of the people in the camp see this as a spiritual commitment?

Drèze: It's a personal commitment. We have Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and atheists, but I don't think that for most of us the spiritual dimension is the most important one. We are all concerned with the political dimension. The strength that the peace camp gives to the peace movement is important for most of us.

Spencer: May I ask about your own personal background? You have a Ph.D. but your life is not very typical for an academic.

Drèze: Yes, I took my Ph.D. at the Indian Statistical Institute in Delhi. After that I started working at the London School of Economics. I enjoyed teaching, It's one of the most wonderful professions. But I had too little freedom for my other activities, so I resigned from that.

Spencer: Those other activities consist of living on the street with poor people?

Drèze: That's one thing. Peace action is another thing, field work is another thing, studying is another thing.

Spencer: How did you come to such a lifestyle?

Drèze: I lived in India for a long time. One of the dilemmas that one constantly faces there is the distance between us and poor people. We can ignore it and continue living the way we live. Or we can try to get near. Or we can go overboard. Some people leave everything and then lose any ability to do anything constructive; I'm not going to that extreme. I believe in taking steps to have solidarity with people who are deprived and I believe in sharing. That's the main division. I don't believe austerity has any virtue as such, but I do believe in sharing and I do what I can.

Spencer: How can people support what you're doing? I think some people who read the interview will want to contribute to your work.

Drèze: There are lots of things to do. A letter of support is helpful, particularly from people who have some kind of recognition and can give credibility to the project. Even otherwise a letter of support is always something that we welcome. People can join the peace camp, they can give us financial support-which is crucial. They can help in the office, they can volunteer secretarial skills or technical skills. In the next few weeks there's going to be a tremendous growth of the project here, and therefore an enormous burden on the office. That happened in London and it's happening now in the United States.

Spencer: It should be possible for people to take up collections at church or wherever they spend a lot of time. What about joining the camp?

Drèze: We don't have very strict procedures. People have to be over 18 and know what they are doing,. We have to have a sense that they are doing this responsibly and with some awareness of the dangers. We want them to have a serious look at our policy statement, which is this one-page declaration which summarizes our positions and to ascertain that they are sympathy with it. There are no serious health barriers to coming into the peace camp. The living conditions are simple but not sparse. We have people of age 80 staying there and people with certain disabilities. So, at least initially, I don't think anyone should feel deterred by fear that it's goin to be too tough for them.

Spencer: But after January 15, there is a real possibility of getting in the way of a bullet or a tank. Did anyone say what they will do if they launch a war? Are they going to come and pick you up and send you home? Are they going to run over you? Are they going to run around you?

Drèze: We don't know. Anything is possible. Many people feel so strongly about this awful crisis that they do not hesitate to put their lives at risk for this cause.

Spencer: Well, God bless you.

Muriel Sibley

The Canadian member of the Gulf Peace Camp.

A mother of five children, in her 40s, she is a Quaker, a potter, and a sculptor. She lives in Saanich, BC.

"When we realized the war had broken out, that night was quite dramatic, that first night. We all rushed out, sat on the sand, hugged each other and cried. And we felt this incredible resolve that this was not the end of it. This was just the beginning of our work.

"I felt that every day we were there was important. I was grateful for every day we were allowed to remain there. Because I knew the people at home were worried about it, and I thought, the more they're worried, the more pressure they're going to put on government." More on Muriel in May.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1991

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1991, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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