Report by Isabel Käser, Peace in Kurdistan Campaign, UK

From 19 – 21 September politicians, activists, academics, artists and philosophers gathered at the New World Summit in Brussels to rethink the concept of ‘state’. Founded by visual artist Jonas Staal, the New World Summit uses the space of art to develop parliaments for stateless politics. This fourth summit took place inside the Royal Flemish Theatre, giving voice to twenty stateless states within a specially built parliament arena.

Political representatives from Kurdistan, Oromo, the Basque Country, Azawad and Uyghur region (among many others) were represented the summit to talk about their version and vision of self-determination. Some of the representatives have either been denied representation by a state, wish to establish state borders within an existing state or create a new state all together.

‘Our goal is to open the space of art’, Jonas Staal explained. ‘Art cannot change existing structures but it can imagine the road ahead. This summit should be a space to present new models and develop news strategies that don’t necessarily operate within existing state structures’.

In five sections – Oppressive State, Progressive State, Global State, New State and Stateless State, the summit discussed the question to what extent the ‘state’ is still capable of representing and protecting people’s right to self-determination? Are there other ways in which stateless states and social movements can operate, outside the patriarchal, oppressive structures the state imposes on people?

Rebiya Kadeer, President of the World Uyghur Congress, opened the first section ‘Oppressive State’ with her speech ‘The Framing of the Uyghur Independence Movement; China’s War on Terror’. An acclaimed political activist, Rebiya has been involved in the struggle of the Uyghur people for many years. In her speech she outlined how much the Uyghur people suffered by the post-9/11 war on terror, when Uyghurs were labelled terrorists by the Republic of China. Under the umbrella of ‘anti-terror laws’ the state clamped down on alleged Uyghur terrorists, Uyghur organisations were blacklisted and their territory occupied.

The section ‘Progressive State’ highlighted how the state can play a crucial part for internationalist progressive movements. Under the assumption that the state can contribute to the process of basic democratization and self-determination Josu Juaristi from the EHB (Basque Country Unite) and Coni Ledesma from the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) and the Patriotic Movement of New Women (MAKIBAKA) outlined how their struggle uses state structures for progressive nationalism.

Rebecca Gomperts from Women on Waves took this concept to yet another level. Her speech highlighted ways in which extraterritorial activism can be used to fight for a global cause, in her case promoting women’s rights over their own body. By using a ship to take women into international waters, where Dutch laws instead of national laws apply, she helps women to their right of a safe abortion. The ship has sailed to Morocco, Spain, Portugal, Poland and Ireland, often being met with severe reactions by the respective states. Rebecca also talked about the sister organization – Women on Web – an online abortion service that sends non-surgical abortion pills to women otherwise in danger of an unsafe abortion.

During the section ‘Global State’ the summit explored the state in relation to globalisation and gave a platform to stateless groups striving for global political structures.

This model was exemplified by Adem Uzun’s talk about the new social contract developed by the PKK. ‘The PKK no longer wants to establish a Kurdish state – we have seen how oppressive states are and strongly oppose that kind of oppression’ Adem said. ‘We want to establish a social order that operates within the existing borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran but one that has a regional reach, encompassing all those wanting to live in a progressive democracy, with equal rights for women and men and all religions as well’, Adem explained. Adem emphasised how these new structures are strongly supported by Kurdish communities in Turkey and Syria, but are now under severe threat as the Syrian Kurdish cantons are under heavy attack by the Islamic State.

The overarching questions for the section ‘New States’ were – what defines a state? What elements are crucial for a state to function? And can a state function without being internationally recognised?

Fascinating examples of new states were presented, most notably Azawad and Scotland. Azawad declared independence from Mali in 2012 but has not been internationally recognized. Among other means to counter this, Moussa Ag Assarid (speaker and spokesperson of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad)and Jonas Staal jointly founded the New World Embassy in Netherlands – a space for discussion and meetings outside of the recognised sphere of international diplomacy.

Natalie McGarry (Women for Independence) outlined the importance of empowerment of women and grassroots campaigning in the run-up to the Scottish referendum. Through tireless campaigning Women for Independence worked towards narrowing the gender gap and helped mobilise 85% of the Scottish voters. She also gave a moving account of how neo-liberalism and big businesses crushed the Scottish dream in the last 2 weeks before the vote, leaving the YES campaign with a 45% defeat.

The summit closed with a section on ‘Stateless States’, giving voice to organisations that operate across state boundaries, with ideas that go beyond the traditional conception of state, asking is a stateless internationalism possible?

Birgitta Jónsdóttir from the Pirate Party Iceland talked about the need for grassroots activists, nerds, geeks and poets to get involved in politics and shape the system according to the people’s needs. ‘People need the write their own constitution because laws are written by the 1% to abuse the 99%’, Birgitta stressed. She talked about her own experience as a unemployed poet, entering state politics in a moment of crisis, using the shock of those in power to pass the Freedom of Information Act, which protects media and whistleblowers. ‘Please help me to keep the internet – one of the last places of freedom – safe’, she concluded.

The summit closed with a fascinating speech by Dilar Dirik who talked about the achievements and ideology of the Kurdish Women’s Movement, in both Turkey and Syria. Liberating themselves from the double oppression and vulnerability of being stateless and being women, Kurdish women have been advocating Democratic Confederalism as a form to coexist and govern. Democratic Confederalism is built on gender equality, grassroots democracy and ecology – in spite of the existing state structures. Dismissing nationalism as a backward and patristic principle, that is inherently oppressive, Kurdish Women are against establishing a new state. ‘Society cannot be free, if women are not free’, Dilar stressed. ‘Women have to be autonomous in order not to be compromised. But in order to achieve this, society’s mentality has to change as well’. Working towards that, the Kurdish Women’s Movement established a new social contract in Turkey and in Syria that enshrines a system of co-presidency in all political positions as well as a 40% women quota. This System envisions a peaceful co-existence among ethnic groups, far from Kurdish dominance. ‘The state is not the parameter that we should base our struggle on – mobilised conscious women and grassroots self-sustainability are the way towards self-determination’, stressed Dilar.

[vimeo 107639261 w=500 h=281]

New World Summit Brussels- Dilar Dirik from New World Summit on Vimeo.

While many groups represented at the 4th World Summit are fighting for a nation state, it became inherently clear that the ‘state’ in its traditional sense might not be the only concept to guarantee autonomy and self-determination. The summit gave a platform to compelling cases that have been rethinking the concept of state in the age of global capitalism and opened their conception of territory and the ‘self’ to a new internationalism, that encompasses both genders, grassroots and global activism.

‘All of us are fighting for self-determination – on different fronts and on different levels. But we all have one thing that binds us – and that is our human dignity’, concluded Abdirahman Mahdi, representative of the Ogaden National Liberation Front.

A film about the summit will be available here

For more information contact

Isabel Käser

Peace in Kurdistan Campaign UK