Nonviolent intervention at the start of the 21st Century

IssueDecember 2000 - February 2001
Feature by Ken Simons

Why intervention? Let the Bosnians sort it out for themselves! How many times did we hear variations on that sentiment, usually but not always by people trying to justify the destruction being done by the Yugoslav and Bosnian Serb armies and the militias?

The easy pacifist answer to that challenge (I know, because I frequently made it myself) was that something had to be done, short of military intervention, or else the calculated hatred we were seeing in that small region of Europe would come to consume us all. But all too often it would lead to another rote response: All sides are equally to blame, so we should treat them equally. Depressingly, this line was aggressively pursued by some of UNPROFORs high command that very armed peacekeeping force which was expected to redress the power balance in favour of the besieged and harassed Bosnian Muslims. This was just one of many blighted military peacekeeping operations which led the UN to question some of its own myths around intervention.

The UN and humanitarian intervention

During the 1990s the United Nations launched more armed peacekeeping operations than in the previous four decades put together. It was an experiment of sorts, an attempt to expand the armed peacekeeping model to a wider range of conflicts, including situations which would formerly have been considered civil wars or counter-insurgencies. This new-ish model of humanitarian intervention which basically consisted of the Security Council, freed from at least some of its old Cold War constraints, approving the deployment of large numbers of soldiers without being altogether clear on what they were supposed to do. The Brahimi Report on UN peacekeeping reform, released in August 2000, slammed the failure of UN decision makers (and soldiers on the ground) to distinguish between victims and aggressors. It was this sort of disregard for the dynamics of political and ethno-religious conflicts which led to disasters like Somalia, the compounded errors of the UN intervention in Bosnia, and the horror of Rwanda. By 1999, a secretary-general determined to erase the stain of Rwanda Kofi Annan had been in charge of peacekeeping at the time of the genocide was locked in struggle with some of the permanent members (the P-5) of the Security Council over the UNs response to the Indonesian military's scorched-earth campaign which followed the UN-organised consultation in East Timor. Annan did prevail, but the lack of UN contingency plans meant that the situation escalated to the point where genocide, as opposed to mere destruction and killing, was a real possibility. Given the evident desire of the UN to challenge more openly the old notions of state sovereignty, we have to be more imaginative maybe even daring in the nonviolent alternatives we propose. The danger of leaving peacekeeping to the military aside from the obvious is that political priorities can often change rapidly and the present enthusiasm of armies for humanitarian intervention may be replaced tomorrow by another, probably more menacing, form of force projection.

Not just numbers

The articles in this dossier looks at the peace movements recent experience with intervention, and identifies the ways in which we can build on our strengths to intervene more effectively earlier, more sensitively, and less selectively in the future. As pacifists, we propose that, even in the midst of war, a nonviolent intervention could change the dynamics of a conflict, or at the very least could save lives. Digging through the PN archives, editor Ippy D has unearthed a 1956 call for 10,000 unarmed men to intervene in the Middle East during the Suez crisis (p17). We like to talk of numbers like this (consciously comparing ourselves to the military, assuming that we can overcome their firepower by assembling more live bodies than they have) but only rarely have been able to deliver. The largest single interventions of the early 1990s, the Lusitania Expresso peace boat to East Timor and the Mir Sada peace caravan in Bosnia, were considerably less successful than the many smaller interventions which went on during the same period. But large interventions, particularly where it is important to disperse people over a large area or in many communities, potentially have an important role. The project for a global nonviolent peace force, discussed by Donna Howard on pages 18- 19, envisages a pool of 2-4000 volunteers and a properly funded and maintained infrastructure. Even with a large effort of this sort, the best models for training and decision-making are those practised by the relatively small but well-supported PBI and Balkan Peace Team projects.

A small intervening team like Peace Brigades International can specialise in nonviolent accompaniment its central mission and its niche role within NGO circles and also carry out mediation, negotiation, and training activities as well, a combination possible only because of the constant and regular nature of its presence. Luis Enrique Ereguns article on pages 22-23 examines third-party intervention from the perspective of PBI's 20-year history in this field.

Questions of neutrality

We cannot be neutral in any conflict where there is a pre-existing power imbalance. What we seek to do in intervening nonviolently is to change the balance of power, however slightly, within a conflict. This can have unintended effects, particularly when the intervening group or organisation puts itself in the position or is manipulated into a position of supporting one tendency within a resistance strategy.

Oppressed or disempowered groups often display a dynamic tension between strategies: for example, radicals and traditionalists in First Nations communities in North America, or the nationalist/republican balance in Northern Ireland. This tension can be misunderstood or misused by outsiders, particularly during short- term interventions or in situations where intervention has become highly politicised. The Mexican government sought in 1997 to expel several foreign observers from Chiapas, arguing that their presence violated Mexican sovereignty. This action was remarkable for the assumption that nonviolent intervention, in the form of small NGO observer missions, was morally equivalent to the French military occupation of Mexico in 1864-67 or the US invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965. But it also raises some questions which are harder to answer: from where do we draw our legitimacy, and how do we remain an effective force without running the risk of expulsion or arrest?

Long-term interventions, such as the Balkan Peace Team and Peace Brigades International, have had to invest considerable energies into finding legal frameworks which allow them to stay within the countries in which they work. Short-term projects have different problems over legitimacy, in particular the risk of obtrusive police or military monitoring or political control (the Gulf Peace Team, for example, had much less freedom of movement within Iraq than they had envisaged, and never succeeded in setting up a second camp on the Saudi side of the border). Nonviolent intervention projects have also had to establish protocols for working with military or governmental intervenors, particularly in post-conflict situations (Bosnia or Kosovo) but also in circumstances where independent intervention would be impossible East Timor in the run-up to the August 1999 consultation is one example, as outlined by Maggie Helwig in her article on pages 24-25.