Building an alternative to military intervention

IssueDecember 2004 - February 2005
Feature by Christine Schweitzer

There are many possibilities forcivilian intervention in conflicts. Today the UN, the OSCE,and even NATO, speak of the importance of civilian personnel in complexpeace-keeping missions.

Most industrialised countries have cre-ated conflict resolution budget-lines, and even the World Bank is concerned with”conflict prevention”. However, at the same time they all insist that in case ofviolence, there needs to be a military presence to protect the civilians. That hasbeen the ideology and also the practice of the past decade. The military protectcivilians and open the space for civilians to do their decisive work for peace. This article argues that this is a matter of ideology, not a reality without alternatives.

Nonviolence of necessity

Since the Second World War there have been around 200 wars, mostly in Southern countries. In only a minority of these has any external military intervention taken place. Think about Chechnya, Colombia, Senegal, Sudan, the genocide in Rwanda,Burma, the Philippines, Nepal, Israel Palestine and Sri Lanka. In these and in many more places civilians often have been the main victims of war, and human rights activists have been arrested, tortured or assassinated. In these cases there was no military protection for non-combatants and those who struggle for peacea nd justice--for activists in those countries, it was not a choice but a necessity to find nonviolent means of action.

Generally in a violent conflict, there are three tasks needed:

  • to restrain or de-escalate violence(peace-keeping);
  • to negotiate and find a political solution (peace-making);
  • to work on the causes of conflict and to change the negative attitudes and hate that often accompanies conflict (peacebuilding).

These strategies need to be pursued at the same time if a conflict is to be successfully transformed. Without peacekeeping, for instance, peace-making and peace-building will be very difficult because force can easily threaten the whole process - groups who want to sabotage a peace initiative can easily provoke armed incidents. Or without peace-building addressing the roots of the conflict,peace-making can lose the support of a population leading to a re-escalation.

Peace-making and peace-building are generally accepted as civilian tasks. But peace-keeping? Normally it is seen as military, but there are well-known methods of civilian peace-keeping:

  • Protective accompaniment (of human rights activists, for example)

    This method which is mainly associated with Peace Brigades International (PBI), although many other groups practise it as well, has proven to be very effective in situations where potential offenders heed international opinion. To date, no activist under escort by PBI and no escort has been killed. The underlying strategy is one of civil dissuasion--the international presence inhibits attacks because very often the violent groups don't want their activity to attract international attention. In Palestine, the International Solidarity Movement and perhaps a dozen other groups are showing how to protect civilians against a powerful army. They accompany ambulances, observe demonstrations or the harvest of olives, and have gathered in Arafat's compound to prevent its bombing or his arrest.

  • International presence

    When many peaceworkers establish a presence in vulnerable villages in frontier areas or zones of conflict, this is like an accompaniment for a whole community. It is necessary when the violence is on one side, when the parties cannot be separated,and it aims to reduce the risk of violence more than protect an individual or particular group. A recent international example would be the activities of groups such as Witness for Peace in restraining Contra violence against frontier villages in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

  • Witnessing/monitoring

    By seeing to it that “the whole world is watching you”, nonviolent activists dis-courage acts of violence, rendering them politically unacceptable.

  • Interposition

    Peaceworkers can interpose themselves between opposing groups to try to avoid violence, so creating a time for reflection and a space where local groups can try to resolve conflicts peacefully. This is a method not for stopping wars (all project shaving tried to nonviolently “enforce” a cease-fire have failed so far) but which maybe effective in cases of communal violence.


Following in the footsteps

A complete history of nonviolent intervention in conflict has not yet been writ-ten. There was a wave of such actions in the late 1960s and 1970s, for instance in Cyprus, Vietnam-Cambodia, Bangladesh, the Middle East and Northern Ireland. The early 1990s saw the Gulf Peace Team going to Iraq at the time of second GulfWar and various actions concerning Bosnia. Numbers involved vary a lot. Per-haps the biggest was “Mir Sada”, a peace caravan to Bosnia, initiated by Beati iCostruttori de la Pace and the French humanitarian organisation Equilibre in1993, with around 2,000 people. Perhaps the smallest was just 20 people. But as impressive as any numbers might be has been the willingness of participants to risk their lives in such actions (although it should also not be forgotten that these were short-term projects).

Local groups have sometimes taken on similar work. The best known are the ShantiSena in India--the “peace army” proposed by Gandhi that became a reality in the1950s. They went to villages in zones of tension, working there, offering mediation when needed and trying to restrain the violence through their presence, without arms. Here, we can speak less of “dissuasion” and more of the positive force of nonviolence--Gandhi's satyagraha.

There are also examples of civil peace-keeping with large numbers of participants, including some organised by states rather than by civil society organisations. These include the World Council of Churches monitors for the South African elections of 1994, the OSCE Kosovo-Verification Mission in 1998-99, and the Truce/Peace Monitoring Group in Bougainville/Papua New Guinea from 1997 onward. The first and third are cases of success; the second had many achievements but in circumstances that frustrated its ultimate success.

The peace army

To return to the starting point--do civil missions need the protection of soldiers?The existence of examples where security was established by nonviolent means shows that the belief in military protection is more ideology than reality. There is a logic of violence--a logic that says that force is the ultimate means.

But there is another logic, that of nonviolence, and this is superior because it contains a vision of a common future for all those in conflict.

A new project trying to realise this alternative logic is the international NGO Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP). NP is aiming to create an international civilian “peace army”. Its goal is to prevent death and destruction and protect human rights, creating the space needed for local groups to struggle in a peaceful way, enter into dialogue and seek a peaceful resolution(since it is only those who are part of the conflict who can resolve it satisfactorily.)

The Nonviolent Peaceforce proposes to send large numbers of people to conflict zones. It aims to have 2,000 active and 4,000 reserve staff, trained and ready to serve. Naturally this goal will take time--NP was only launched in 2002. So the Nonviolent Peaceforce is the reconstruction of the idea of the “peace army”,but an army not at the bidding of the UN, but organised by civil groups at the global level.

Reducing violence on the ground

At the moment, NP has a pilot project in Sri Lanka and working groups on other conflicts (Israel-Palestine, Myanmar, Korea, Philippines). The pilot projectis only on a small scale, but otherwise has the elements envisaged for larger-scaled eployments later: training and preparation, paid staff on two-year contracts, professional supervision and evaluation.

After a general three-week training, and another four-week training in Sri Lanka (including language classes), the project began with an 11-member team in four sites, plus three project staff based in Colombo. They come from 10 countries and from every continent except Australia. NP hopes to enlarge the team to perhaps30 people who would work in six to eight places.

The major goal of this project is to reduce violence to increase the safety of civilians in Sri Lanka so they can contribute to a lasting peace with justice.

Among other things, the teams are working in mixed Tamil-Muslim areas,active providing protection and accompaniment for civilians under threat from harassment by different ethnic groups, the security forces and the LTTE, including the issue of prevention of and protection from under age recruitment. In a purely Sinhalese area they are confronted with the issue of inter-party tensions. In some areas, they are the only foreign presence in the area under threat.

Another century of nonviolence

Conflicts are not only inevitable, but they can be positive if they arise from attempts to end oppression and injustice. The problem in every case is violence. I am convinced that the force of nonviolence, that was so important in the 20th century--despite all the violence of that century --can be even more decisive for the century in which we now live. The development of nonviolent means of intervention can make a contribution to that task.