Dr Scilla Elworthy was nominated thrice for a Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the Oxford Research Group to develop effective dialogue between nuclear weapons policymakers worldwide and their critics. She founded Peace Direct (2002) to fund, promote and learn from local peace- builders in conflict areas and co-founded Rising Women Rising World (2013), and FemmeQ (2016). Scilla was awarded the Niwano Peace Prize in 2003 and was adviser to Peter Gabriel, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Sir Richard Branson in setting up ‘The Elders’. Her latest book The Business Plan for Peace: Building a World Without War (2017) and her book Pioneering the Possible: awakened leadership for a world that works (North Atlantic Books, 2014) received critical acclaim from experts in the field. Her TED talk on nonviolence has been viewed by over 1,200,000 people. Here is a brief interview with her.
What inspired you to get into peace work?
There were two defining moments. One was when I was 11 years old. I had four big brothers and they taught me to fire a shotgun when I was at that age. I thought I was very clever, and I went out into the woods and did something which was taboo, which was to point the gun up into the trees where there was a bird’s nest, and I pulled the trigger. Down on my head came pieces of sticks, eggshell, yolk, and baby chicks, and the sky-blue feathers of the mother bird. I was so shocked by what I had done and the violence of which I was capable at that young age. I took the gun back and never touched it again.
But I was intent on going. She asked me, “What for?” I told her that there was something so horrible that was going on there that I had to go. She told me not to be silly in a rather cross voice. I burst into tears. Bless her, she understood how terribly important this was for me. She told me she would arrange for me to get trained because I was much too young to be of any use. She said if I would unpack my suitcase she would see to it that I would get trained. She kept her word, and sent me off to work in a holiday home for concentration camp survivors, and that really began to teach me what war and violence was like. That was really what got me started.
Can you tell me about the Business for Peace Model? What inspired it?
I have been working in the fields of peacebuilding and violence prevention in one way or another for about fifty years. I realized, a couple of years ago, that we now know so much about what it costs to prevent armed conflict and to prevent violence, that if we were simply to put some resources behind that, I believe that it is possible, probably for the first time in recent human history, to start the work of preventing war altogether. I’m not talking about picking up the pieces after war has happened, I’m talking about actually preventing it.
I took 25 examples of what we know works and works well, and scaled them up over ten years and added up the numbers, and the whole thing comes to only $2 billion, whereas we spend, as a human race, $9 billion on ice cream every year, and we spend $1,739 billion on militarization worldwide. This is the most shocking number for the whole world to take note of – the obscene amount of money we spend on weapons all over the world today. Be it at an ethical or practical level, it is totally and utterly wrong that we have allowed this situation to develop, when we could wipe out starvation for $30 billion. We could bring clean water to every child in the world for $11 billion!
Can you tell us about the backlash you’ve received for your work and how you’ve addressed it?
In the early days, from 1982 to 2002, I was working on nuclear weapons dialogue, in other words getting nuclear weapons policymakers from all the nuclear nations including India and Pakistan to get together away from the media, with no coverage and no publication of their meetings, but begin to talk and to listen to one another about what their fears were, what they were doing, and to get to know one another so that at least they could develop a dialogue.
There was some amount of backlash against this, but not nearly as much as there would have been had it been public. The fact that we did it in a way that was discreet and allowed them to come without having to account for it helped. The meetings we held in New Delhi attended by military from Pakistan took place just before India tested her nuclear weapon. This was a very delicate time, but I am happy to say that these meetings did take place and people did arrive from Pakistan, and there were talks. I was very heartened that that could happen.
We brought with us policymakers on nuclear weapons from the US, Russia, UK, and France. It is possible to do this work in a respectful way which doesn’t mean that we agree with the people we are inviting– and certainly we don’t – but we don’t treat them as aggressors or enemies. We treat them respectfully to enable them to talk to each other. At that time, in the 1980s and 1990s, there were no other meetings except very, very, formal and distant level meetings between policymakers of nuclear nations.
In the early 80s, when I was doing this work, there were people trying to slash my tires. If they’d succeeded, I probably wouldn’t have been here as the tire would have exploded with speed. There were people throwing stones in my window with messages on them, but nothing worse than that. I faced nothing like the backlash that many people who have stood up for human rights and peace in the Global South have faced. They’ve received far, far harder backlash than I have ever had to experience.