[IN-DEPTH INTERVIEW]NGO works for peace on global scaleMary Ellen McNish is the general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, an international NGO advocating peace and social justice that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947. She was in Korea to participate in the Gwangju conference of Nobel Peace Prize laureates.
Q.Have you been to Korea before?
I’ve been to the North but not the South. We do exchanges between people, either students or musicians or academics in the U.S., but I was really touring their agricultural programs while I was there. We work on three different cooperative farms that employ about 16,000 people, and we work on trying to increase the yield on those farms, talking to them about different kinds of fertilizer, wells, farm equipment. We took some of their agricultural economists to the University of Washington where they learned about this new kind of green fertilizer. We’ve been there almost 25 years. Not too long ago, we had some musicians from the U.S. that we took there to perform.
The long-term aid programs tend to get the most accurate picture of the country, I would imagine.
Yes, I think so. Although these farms are an hour or an hour-and-a-half north of Pyongyang and it’s very different there than it is in the city, they have good relationships with the agricultural ministry and are trying to bring in modern ideas.
How should one approach the human rights issue in North Korea?
We believe that dialogue and diplomacy and engagement are the ways to solve the problem, and isolating North Korea is not going to help anybody. I think you have to work hand in hand with organizations who take on the issue of human rights as their primary work, such as Amnesty International.
I know the AFSC started out assisting civilian victims of war and conscientious objectors. Could you explain the genesis of the program?
It started in 1917 for conscientious objectors to World War I, to provide alternative service for them. And it remained that and also did the same thing during World War II. Since then, however, we’ve become a kind of a more generic peace and justice organization with humanitarian assistance when needed.
In the U.S. right now, we’re focused on trying to end the war in Iraq, and trying to prevent a war in Iran. We’re also trying to change the current administration’s policies on militarization. Internationally, our work in peace is looking at conflict resolution and transformation. We’re in a couple of different places in Africa; in Asia we’re in Vietnam, Cambodia. We just ended our program in Laos. We’re in Bandah Aceh, where we’re working on the peace side. We’re in South America, Central America, Haiti, and we have a gardens program in Sarajevo, where Muslims and Christians have community gardens together.
On the justice side, we work on a number of different kinds of issues. First and foremost is the immigration issue in the U.S., and migration in other parts of the world as well. We also are opposed to and are working against the death penalty.
We’re working in [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual] issues. We work in three different Native American communities. So we’re busy. At this point we have about 46 offices in the U.S. and 25 overseas.
There’s a universal draft in Korea. Does the ASFC plan to comment on that during your visit?
We would love to see conscientious objection be recognized as a right. We’re working on that in Israel right now. There was just a big conference in the U.S. on conscientious objectors where young people came mostly from South American and Central American countries where conscientious objection is [also] illegal. Young people have to be very courageous when they’re called by conscience to make a stand like that, especially when it’s not recognized. So we do everything we can to help, whether they’re Korean organizations working with kids or building the capacity to bring their stories to Geneva and the UN, to try to make changes that way.
The ASFC is known in the U.S. for the Eyes Wide Open exhibit, where you move from city to city a collection of boots, one pair for every American soldier killed in Iraq.
That’s our attempt to show American citizens the true cost of war. As I understand it the government prohibits any media from being present when they bring the bodies back, and I think that’s one of the things that turned the tide in the Vietnam War. That’s not being seen by the American public. So this is our attempt to open their eyes.
In addition, because it is so big now, we have broken it down into state components. So we’re reaching more middle America in small towns, and that’s actually where all the casualties are coming from.
The war has completely lost its hold on American public opinion, and I think we can partially take some credit for that.
In the U.S. the commonly accepted wisdom in the media is that there’s a culture war between the secular left and the religious right, and it seems there’s no place on that spectrum for religious progressives.
I don’t think there is a culture war. What I think happens is the neoconservative politicians use fear to drive their agenda. For example, Bush not two weeks ago introduced a plan for a consitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Why did he do that now? Because he wants to mobilize his base of right-wing supporters. It’s harder to be rabid about tolerance than it is to be against something. There needs to be a more savvy response to the religious right and we’re working on that.
What do you hope to accomplish at the conference in Gwangju?
I’m hoping that the Nobel laureates will come out with a statement that will move forward the peace process that’s stuck. I think the Nobel laureates have a moral voice and if they use it well I think it could help. But the issues are tricky, and I’m not quite sure how it’s all going to come out, but I think it’s an opportunity that we can’t not take.
The South Korean government prevented the Dalai Lama from attending the conference.
I’m very disappointed in that. I think ideas can’t hurt anybody, and he’s a peace-loving person and I’m very disappointed he was denied a visa to come. I think we need to hear his message. My message is always more political. His is personal, and I don’t know what the fear is about that.
by Ben Applegate