Thursday, August 27, 2020

Anniversary. 'The Beijing Express Declaration' (UNSCR 1325). Aboard the trans-Siberian train to the 1995 Fourth UN Conference on Women


By Lesley Abdela



On this week 25 years ago I was aboard the UNDP ‘Beijing Express’ train travelling to the 1995 United Nations 4th Global Conference on Women. The demands in the Beijing Express Declaration drawn up in carriage 16 aboard the train have a strong resonance for a post Covid 19 better world.



The half a kilometre long line of coaches set off from Warsaw’s main railway station at 9am on August 21, 1995, destination Beijing.  The journey was to change the direction of my life.   My fellow passengers were a microcosm of the 35,000 women (and the few men) from 189 countries heading to Beijing for the now iconic 1995 United Nations 4th Global Conference on Women. They were former political prisoners, trade unionists, Members of Parliament, activists, business entrepreneurs, journalists, peace activists, authors, artists, and refugees.

Many had been directly on the receiving end of disastrous man-made policies. These women wanted the power to shape a better future.


Many of the passengers came from opposing sides in conflicts. At our eve of departure dinner in Warsaw, Greek and Turkish Cypriot women announced, ‘This is the first time we Greeks and Turks have been allowed to talk together in 25 years. We want to start a new peace initiative.’


It was on the train with these women from the Balkans, the Baltics, the Caucasus,  Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Mozambique, Lebanon and Cyprus that I realised my life growing up in the United Kingdom in peace-time democracy was not the norm. The normality for many others was to grow up in countries where there was conflict or full-scale war and very little, (if any) democracy. That was the first time this reality had been spelt out to me. Until then my main focus had centred on getting more women elected to the UK’s and world parliaments. In 1980 I had founded and led the all-Party 300 Group for Women in Politics campaign. After the Beijing Express experience my activities extended to women, peace and security.


The UNDP Beijing Express Train was dreamed up by UNDP Senior Executive Leueen Miller from the Republic of Ireland. It gave 250 women who would not have been able to financially afford to go to the historic conference the chance to participate. UNDP invited  government and non-governmental representatives from 36 countries to travel aboard.


The UNDP chartered President Yeltsin’s t train from the Russians. The carriages were more accustomed to housing the Russian political and military glitterati than the world’s feminists. Eight burly members of the Russian Black Berets’ special commandos rode shot-gun to protect us from mafia and terrorist attacks, even a rumoured possible ‘train-nap’ by Chechen rebels. Our musclemen bodyguards made Rambo look like a wimp. When we set off from Warsaw one of them hoisted aboard my large suitcase, laden with books, and papers as though it were light hand-baggage.


The majority of the women on the Beijing Express were from former Soviet Union and satellite nations.  This would be the first time they could represent their newly independent nations.  At the time of the previous UN conference on women in 1985 in Nairobi, these nations had still been subsumed in the Soviet empire. Ziva Vidmar from Ljubljana, Slovenia, said, ‘Ten years ago I heard on the radio news about the UN Third World conference on women in Nairobi. The speaker said there would be a similar conference in 1995. I thought lucky women who will be there! I envied them but as it turned out I was envying myself. Here I am.’ 


Life Aboard

In front of us stretched a journey of 8000 kilometers  (5,734) miles along the trans-Siberian railway, the longest continuous rail journey in the world. The train was crammed to the gunnels with Oligocen mineral water, snacks from Kraft Jacobs Suchard, supplies from Xerox and 3M, five pallets of Danone Yoghurt, computers from Rent-a-PC plus Accent computer software and an umbrella size satellite dish.


Local bands, dancers, singers, political dignitaries and women with flowers greeted us with music and speeches along our route. We danced on railway station platforms from Moscow to Mongolia. In Minsk, capital of Belarus, as Greek and Turkish Cypriot women danced together to a local Belarus band they shouted, ‘We want the world to see us together - Greeks and Turks - we women will show you how to build a better future.’ Greek and Turkish Cypriots co-hosted an evening party aboard the train titled, ‘Enemies sing dance and read poetry together’. One of those singers was Katie Economidou. She is now a famous mezzo-soprano singer. The final entertainment in our honour was at 4 o’clock in the morning in a railway station car-park on the Mongolia/China border. We were greeted by Mongolian women MPs and a nine-year old boy Monglian boy singing karaoke.


Life aboard was exhilarating but tiring. We travelled from Warsaw via Belarus, Russia, Siberia, Mongolia and Northern China, to Beijing. We passed though seven time zones in eight days. The most oft-repeated questions each day was ‘what time is it?’

Moving our clocks back one hour or two hours each night, being awakened in the extreme early hours for customs at borders or to sing and dance on railway platforms with reception committees of women and dignatories along the way and getting up early to catch breakfast before my  first training shift meant I never got enough sleep. For eight days and seven nights I shared a two berth cabin with Katina. Mercifully for both of us Katina was the conflict prevention expert on the train.


The shower carriage was in the middle of the train. Our sleeping cabins were at one end of the train, and the bar and dining carriages were at the opposite end. My walks, several times a day, of the kilometre round trip between our cabin and my workshop sessions in the saloon-bar kept me physically fit. Government officials and NGO activists shared six-berth sleeping cabins. Along the train corridors posters and flags stuck on the cabin doors proclaimed the nationality of the room-mates. The corridor floor swayed like a ship’s deck. Striding along up and down the 19 carriages, with arms waving around like a tight rope walker to keep my balance acted as combined step exercises and aerobics. Wherever two carriages were linked I had to push a heavy door open and jump over two overlapping metal flaps slithering in opposite directions. The railway track below was clearly visible on either side. Not a comfortable sensation for someone like me who suffers from vertigo!

The Russian Railways staff were helpful and polite. Our carriage attendant Natalie kept us supplied with tea from a samovar. She also rescued me on a couple of occasions when I needed a quick wash and a mirror and didn’t have time to wait in the queue for the showers in the shower carriage.


My role aboard the train was to conduct workshops on activism, democratisation,  and advocacy. The UK Government Know-How Fund and The British Council funded my passage to represent the UK on the train as part of a  multi-national team. We all gave our time free of charge. My fellow Trainers and experts aboard the train came from the USA, Canada, Israel, Japan and Turkey and South African-born anti-apartheid campaigner Stephanie Urdang. They conducted workshops on negotiating skills, conflict mediation and conflict resolution, on how to change world trade agreements and create economic policies to suit the world's women - even courses in English language, computer skills and networking through e-mail.


The 25 women in my training group were courageous campaigners from 17 countries alphabetically from Armenia to Uzbekistan. Ala Mindicanu MP, author of children’s books, had been branded ‘The most dangerous person in the Republic of Moldova’ and arrested twice for organising pickets in support of Perestroika. ‘I was lucky,’ she said, ‘I was only imprisoned for a few days. By then the judges had changed too. They said pickets are a new development there is no law against them.’ She added, ‘I am campaigning for more women in politics because we are only 4% in our Parliament, but women make up over 60% of high school graduates.


The Beijing Express was a bizarre training environment. Workshop sessions and discussions were held in the train’s dining carriage, eight-seater railway cabins or the saloon bar. The barman who served us vodka or Coca-Cola at US$2 a drink was the same barman who served Russia’s President Yeltsin. During my workshop sessions I glimpsed  the scenes flashing past the train windows: the unending silver-birch forests of Russia, the sunlit Alpine scenery of Siberia, 25% of the world’s drinking water in the rapidly shrinking Lake Baikal, and herds of ponies and a few of the estimated two million double-humped Bactrian camels roaming the Mongolian steppes.


From the train window the Siberian countryside looked green and attractive in the Summer sunshine. The reality for many aboard was different.  Shortly before, during and immediately after World War II, the Soviet dictator Stalin conducted a series of cruel mass deportations which profoundly affected the ethnic map of the Soviet Union. It is estimated that between 1941 and 1949 nearly 3.3 million women, men and children were deported to Siberia and the Central Asian republics. Our travelling companions described the impact on their families exiled to the Soviet Gulags in Siberia.  Tiia-Ingrid Kriisa from Estonia said the first time she travelled by train through Eastern Siberia was during the 1949 deportations. ‘I was six years old. I remember not only the journey, riding in wagons meant for animals, but also the night we were given a few minutes to pack before being taken away from our house and homeland and loaded on an open truck.’ She added, ‘This time I am travelling of my own free will with other free people!’

‘I am following the footsteps of my father’ said Ziva Vidmar from Slovenia. ‘He spent three years living in camp barracks as a prisoner of war here in Siberia. He survived without a blanket or a coat.’


Travelling on the UNDP Beijing Express was like living in a late-20th century version of Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’. Each woman had a tale to tell.  Bosnian lawyer Jasna Basksic-Mufti risked her life escaping  Serb-encircled Sarajevo to join the Beijing Express. She escaped by dead of night  through the famous tunnel from the besieged capital city with her two small children. ‘The tunnel is half a mile long and you have to stoop much of the way,’ she said. A truck met them at the end and drove them within 300 metres of the Serb front line over Mount Igman in the dark with the vehicle’s lights switched off. Jasna Basksic-Mufti was  President of the Human Rights Commission in the International Peace Centre, Sarajevo. Her Commission was one of the first to document the concentration camp rapes and ethnic cleansing. En route to Warsaw Jasmin had temporarily left her children at her mother’s home in Croatia. She planned to collect them and return to Sarajevo after the Beijing conference: ‘I would rather face the shelling than have to live the life of a refugee,’ she said. Mozambique MP Lina Magala had been a farmer growing rice , maize and banana in Mozambique now she campaigned to ban the use of child soldiers. It was the first time I heard about child-soldiers. Bosnian and Croatian women showed a horrifying film about the Balkan war. They were seeking overseas donors to financially ‘adopt’ 10,000 children in refugee camps.



The Beijing Express Declaration (27 August 1995)

On the sixth day of our journey, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Director of the UNDP Human Development Report office, invited me to chair and facilitate the final session aboard. The historic session took place in the carriage more usually serving as President’s Yeltsin’s bar. The goal was to draw up a statement we titled The Beijing Express Declaration.


Key themes from the UNDP Beijing Express Declaration later formed the basis of the first ever UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women Peace and Security whose twentieth anniversary arrives in October 2020. On 31 October 2000 The United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325). UNSCR 1325 called for an ‘increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict’


The Beijing  Declaration was drawn up by a group of 25 women as we approached Beijing. It included women from Georgia, Kazakhstan, Slovenia, Poland, Moldova, Romania, the USA, the United Kingdom, Japan, Azerbaijan, Latvia, Bolivia, Uzbekistan, Tanzania, Kurdistan, Turkey , Bosnia, Cyprus and Russia. While mostly male diplomats and politicians continued along early 20th Century diplomacy, trying in vain to patch up over forty global conflicts, these women were looking for radical changes to prevent conflicts in the first place. Nani  Chanishvili from Georgia said, ‘What we need is prevention diplomacy. We in Georgia know how the population suffers. As a result of the war in Georgia 300,000 people fled as refugees. 30,000 died. We must put pressure on governments to allow the UN to go in earlier to stop conflicts and not have to wait to be allowed in. Under the present system the results of your peace building before, through, and after conflict are worse than zero.’  

The working group continued drafting the final Declaration throughout the night.  It has a strong resonance at this  time of discussions about a Post Pandemic world It included We affirmed the following:

White Scarves, Not Blue Helmets

(This heading is symbolic - in certain Islamic countries, when a woman throws down her white scarf no person must pass. This has been used on occasion to stop men fighting)

1.) We want women’s full participation in conflict prevention, resolution and peace-keeping. 2) The present system of peace-making and negotiations dominated by senior men at governmental levels has patently failed and is now discredited. We want women’s organisations and Non-Governmental Organisations from all sides in all future peace talks and working with governments on developing and expanding ‘Preventive Diplomacy’.

3) We want a ‘Hot Spot’ Commission set up to try to prevent conflict where trouble is brewing. This Commission, consisting of women and men, would be set up to intervene in conflict prevention, resolution and settlement.

4) We want the UN Mandate expanded to include Preventive Diplomacy.

5) We want economic and political sanctions imposed on parties violating human rights – but humanitarian aid should be allowed to continue to be delivered .

6) We want men who commit rape as a war crime to be brought to justice and prosecuted as war criminals. We believe this will only happen if women are included equally with men on committees responsible for bringing these men to trial.

7) We want property rights recognised as Human Rights, and improved mechanisms for getting back property snatched away in conflicts.

8) We want systems of national political and public life reformed to include women’s equal participation with men in political, economic and international decision-making at all levels, from local to national to global. This means also providing training and encouragement for women to participate in politics and public life.

9) We want government policies favourable to women. Many policies developed by governments either ignore women’s needs or actually harm women. We want governments in transition economies to show what impact their policies are having on women. This would be a way to get policymakers to develop policies that are women-friendly.


The New '-ism'

Neither Communism nor Capitalism has worked well for the majority of the world’s women. We believe the new ‘ism’ will come from a new approach to world economics.

Many economic policies have been disastrous for women. It is often women who bear the brunt of economic restructuring policies made by organisations who too often overlook the way their polices could impact on millions of women.


Under both Communism and Capitalism the quality of people’s lives is all too often sacrificed for the goal of wealth creation. Human development should not be sacrificed in the name of economic growth but rather economic growth should be used as a tool to help people achieve a healthy and creative life. We want governments to give financial support to women’s groups. These voices must be heard.


We want women’s unpaid work measured and recognised in economic arrangements such as pensions. Nearly 50% of the US$23 Trillion global output is provided by women’s unpaid work. We need fairer sharing of the work and equality in the home. Sakiko Fukuda-Parr of the UNDP says, “When we get world leaders to recognise that 70% of the world’s GDP is unpaid work, they won’t say women working at home can’t qualify for pensions on an equal basis with men.”


Since my life changing epic trip I have been feet on the ground in many conflict and post-conflict countries - as a journalist in Bosnia, as OSCE Deputy for Democratisation in Kosovo, as a Consultant assessing women’s needs in the immediate aftermath of the civil war in Sierra Leone, a Civil Society Consultant working with women’s associations and Human Rights associations with RTI in Iraq, compiling needs assessments with women in Afghanistan, Senior Gender Advisor to the UN Agencies Nepal. As a civil  society consultant in Iraq. In 2019 I was in post-civil war Sri Lanka advising the British Council on mainstreaming gender into an language and arts Peace-building programmes. I have spoken about Women, Peace and Security  at conferences across the world on the need to fully implement UNSCR 1325 and its ‘daughter’ resolutions, including in the Summer of 2019 at conferences organised by the NGO ‘Democracy Today’ in Yerevan, Armenia, and at The University of Macedonia, Thessaloniki.





Lynne Franks said...

Lesley you are absolutely incredible and I have such huge respect and admiration for you. I remember hearing much of your journey when we met up in Beijing after I took the fast route there on a plane. It was always an incredible story but now reading your account of 25 years ago, I am totally blown away.

Stephanie Urdang said...

Dear Lesley, What a wonderful memory. Mine has muted rather over time, but you brought it all back with your vivid writing! Thank you! I hope all is well.