Dr. Scilla Elworthy

At the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, we seek to highlight those around the world who are working to promote gender equality and challenge the status quo. The people we interview occupy many different roles within NGOs, foreign policy, and charities, among many. Aside from their impressive careers, our interviewees are feminist actors with a wealth of advice (and book recommendations!).

Kristina Lunz (KL): Thank you for joining us Scilla! Could you tell me about what you are doing currently and the career path that has led you there.

Scilla Elworthy (SE): Thank you for this interview Kristina. I am such an admirer of your work and the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy and I am very glad to talk with you. In September last year, I published The Business Plan For Peace. I did this because I have been working in the prevention of conflict worldwide for forty-five years. Both at the top end, if you like, in terms of bringing nuclear weapons policy makers into the same room unofficially to talk with each other and their critics, and then at the other end of the spectrum, setting up an organization called Peace Direct to support locally led peace initiatives in conflict areas of the world.

I suddenly realised that we know so much now about precisely what it costs to prevent armed conflict, that it is really unnecessary to continue on the extraordinary path that we are on at the moment where we are spending (US)$1686 billion annually on militarization, when $38 billion would bring clean water and sanitation to every child on the planet. My final sums emerged from costing 25 strategies for preventing conflict and scaling them up over ten years, the total of which came to only $2 billion. So we could have prevention for $2 billion dollars while we are spending $1686 billion on militarization. It just doesn’t make sense. So that was the reason for writing the book and, totally unexpectedly, people are coming forward from all over the world asking how they can help. The result of this is that we are taking forward a number of initiatives that range from divestment by major capital investment organizations and pension funds (divesting out of arms corporations), right through to methodologies to enable more women to put forward their biographies to be included in peace negotiations in countries like Colombia. Another one of the initiatives mentioned is to enable the defence departments of all NATO countries to develop a conflict prevention budget – because currently if they have one at all, like the UK, it is fractional compared to the defence budget – and we know from our studies that the cost effectiveness of the prevention of conflict, rather than trying to pick up the pieces after armed conflict has broken out, is an absolutely unanswerable case.

Before that, my trajectory began when I was working in civil wars after graduating college. First of all in the Congo, then I worked in the post-conflict situation in Algeria and with Vietnamese refugees from the Vietnam war. I then spent 10 years in South Africa mainly working in starvation alleviation because the South African government, at that time, was denying the existence of starvation in the country. It was perfectly obvious to our organization that starvation was rife so we took action, much against the wishes of the government. From there I went to Paris to work for UNESCO and did the first report they commissioned for case studies on women’s involvement in peacebuilding. As far back as 1980, alongside six colleagues from different countries, we put together seven case studies on how women had been structurally and formidably involved in bringing an end to conflicts in different parts of the world – ranging from the Philippines right through to Northern Ireland. That was a great education for me. From then I went on to set up the Oxford Research Group, where we were able to find ways to persuade very senior policymakers to come together. This ranged from those who design nuclear warheads, right through to those who strategize with nuclear weapons, those who sign the checks, to those writing  foreign policy on nuclear weapons and the arms production companies that develop missiles and submarines that act as launch platforms for nuclear weapons. We were able to ultimately bring these people from different countries together to roll up their sleeves and really talk to each other. Informally and without any press anywhere near, we began to lay the basis for two different treaties.  

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KL: The Oxford Research Group was one of several organizations that you founded. Where did this passion for denuclearisation come from?

SE: I think two things, I was the youngest of five children and I had four big brothers who were all stronger than me and faster than me, and they taught me how to fire a shotgun when I was 11. I did something that is taboo; I took the gun out into the woods by myself, pointed it up at a nest high in the trees and pulled the trigger. Down on my head came pieces of shell, pieces of baby chick, pieces of egg yolk and the sky blue feathers of the mother bird. I was so shocked by the violence that I was capable of with a gun that I took it home, put it away and never touched it again. I think it was that experience at 11 that made me aware of violence and I really had no choice but to do something about war. Sometimes people just know they have to be a concert pianist or whatever and I just knew somehow that I had to try to stop violence before it starts. There was really nothing else to do as far as I was concerned.

KL: We recently published a policy brief on the links between nuclear arms and gender, and I remember you and I speaking some time ago on the language that is used in nuclear weapon context and how gendered it is. In what sense are nuclear weapons, the whole context and the discussions around it, gendered?

SE: There was a wonderful paper written that I came across again recently, “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals” by the incredible Carol Cohn. She had spent two years witnessing discussions at nuclear weapons conferences and took note of all the language used. And it was extraordinary, the way that all sorts of words connected with ejaculation, with erections, associating killing with sex and just drawing conclusions of how closely those who work on weapons have, shall we say, very high testosterone and are (unconsciously in many cases, but very blatantly) associating warfare and weaponry with sex and death.

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KL: What is your take on the current global politics on nuclear weapons regarding Iran, regarding North Korea; how do you make sense of current affairs right now?

SE: There is a great deal of posturing in the case of Pyongyang and Washington. It is two very immature leaders who are vying with one another. Firstly to promise threats and then trying to gain public recognition through constructing what seems to be a false agreement. My conclusion is that these incredibly, unbelievably dangerous weapons are being used as posturing instruments, which is alarming in the most extreme sense. It was alarming enough in the Cold War. The reason I started working on nuclear weapons in 1982 is that I had a young child and was fearful about the likelihood of nuclear war. I was right because in 1983 in November, as you know, we were 20 minutes away from nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States when a radar signal was interpreted as an incoming flight of US missiles. Finally, it was rectified by a very alert programmer who recognised it was a flock of geese. So we were literally 20 minutes away from nuclear war through a mistake. I was both angry and fearful that we were being put in such enormous danger by thoughtless people who didn’t appreciate, and don’t appreciate now, what even a ‘small’ exchange of small nuclear warheads between, say, India and Pakistan could bring about. Many people predict that if this happened it wouldn’t be just the explosion of the fireball, but the soot in the atmosphere that would provoke a nuclear winter, which would ultimately destroy the possibility across most of the world for grain or any food stocks to grow.

KL: Scilla, not only are you a renowned peace builder and a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, but you are also an outspoken feminist and have talked for decades about the linkages between patriarchy and foreign policy and how one informs the other. Why do you think that a feminist approach towards foreign policy can contribute to sustainable peace?

SE: It is simply my observation of what happens when numbers of men get together to try and sort these things out. When we analysed nuclear weapons policy making, we drew up a ‘Who’s Who’, a book that contains 650 biographies of nuclear weapons policymakers in all the then five nuclear nations. We published it in 1988 - it was banned by the British Ministry of Defence - and of the 650 biographies, 645 were male. That to me spoke volumes about why we had these policies. A feminist policy in my experience would have an immediate concern for the planet, for our interconnectedness and offer an immediate awareness of the consequences of even the leakage of fissile materials that has happened since Fukushima, not to mention Chernobyl. I don’t think that women would ever dream of risking life on earth in order to have a bigger missile than somebody else.

KL: In your book, The Business Plan For Peace, you are also outlining how each of us can contribute to preventing violence and promoting peace. Can you give me some advice for our readers? What can we all do to promote peace?

SE: I firmly believe, and I know this from experience, that anybody can build peace actively in their workplace, in their community, in their child’s school, even in the family where some of the worst wars go on. It is there where we can start and hone our skills. The main skill that I found for defusing anger and fear and conflict is the ability to listen. We all think we are good listeners, but most of us really are not, especially when we are at war with somebody. So in my book, I explain in the toolbox how to develop your listening skills so that within 15 minutes or half an hour, you can dispel a fierce argument that might have been raging in your workplace or family for months. It’s not rocket science, it is very simple psychology, but to do it takes courage. It takes courage and the willingness to be vulnerable, which most of us don’t like to be. When we scale up those skills and teach them, as I do, to business leaders, policymakers, politicians, then we begin to get a different culture of politics. A willingness to understand with some compassion what the situation of your enemy is. That is how to find a way through, resulting in a win-win situation. My bible is a book written long ago by William Ury and Roger Fisher called Getting to Yes and it still stands as one of the best mediation manuals you can find. It is short and simple and straightforward.

KL: Scilla, why does war continue?

SE: (Laughs) I have been asking myself this question and devote part of a book chapter to ask why we fight. Partly we have been given to understand down the centuries, or within the most recent thousand, two thousand years that going to war is glamorous, patriotic and noble. As soon as people get into a war, most of them change their minds, unless they are the generals who are not at the front line. Almost everybody who has experienced war comes back damaged, desperate and, if they have lost comrades, heartbroken. The anticipation of war is the opposite to the experience of war. If it were women in charge, or women in a balance in decision making, there would be a completely different set of decisions made on the allocation of budgets to weaponry, for example, to the allocation of budgets to education, sanitation and so forth. I do believe that when it comes down to it, one of the big problems is testosterone. I don’t mean that only as a biologically male and female issue because women have high testosterone too. If we could find more efficient ways of enabling young men to channel their testosterone into sport, for example, or into facing some of the challenges in our world which cannot be dealt with by weapons. Our biggest threats, if you like to call them that, are migration, climate change, terrorism, the rich/poor gap and cyber warfare. None of these issues can be dealt with by weapons and never will be.

Unfortunately presidents, especially competitive presidents and prime ministers, find that their election ratings and success ratings go up when they declare war. Nobody really asks the hard questions when the war doesn’t work, as it clearly didn’t in Iraq, or Afghanistan or Syria.

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KL: And my final question, what qualities do you think we need in leaders?

SE: The first one I would list is compassion. Compassion means that you understand the situation of another person or group of people and you take some action because you feel it. Compassion is always followed by action. The same as when you see someone homeless on the street, you can either get into a state of anxiety about their terrible position, or you can go to the nearest shop and buy a sandwich and give it to them. That is compassion in action. The second one is listening, as I mentioned before. I do believe that well-facilitated listening between people who are at each other’s throats is the most effective way. The third one is inclusivity. I do believe it is perfectly obvious that, for example, we need at least equal numbers of women in decision-making positions in these crucial areas of defence and foreign policy that normally exclude them. So I would like to see that balanced or altered completely. I think the last one I would mention is a sense of interconnectedness with nature and the planet. We need to understand how the whole system works and how dependent we are as humans on the earth itself. It is that understanding that changes the entire perspective we have on decision making. I believe feminism is a leader in that. I think feminism is generally inclusive in that sense, it insists on not leaving people out who have a voice or should have a voice.


Interview by Kristina Lunz, Co-Founder of CFFP and Germany Director. Twitter: @Kristina_Lunz


Marissa Conway