Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan and Thomas Weber (eds), 'Nonviolent Intervention' ' Across Borders. A Recurrent Vision'

IssueDecember 2000 - February 2001
Review by Michael Randle

Is there a nonviolent alternative to military intervention in those situations which cry out for some kind of international response? In Bosnia, for example, or Kosova,or Rwanda? This is the main challenge which has led to recurrent attempts to undertake cross-border interventions and to establish a permanent peace brigade or “peace army”.

The attempts to date have met with varying degrees of success depending in part on the kind of situation being confronted and the methods adopted. In this excellent and readable book Yeshua MoserPuangsuwan and Thomas Weber have assembled a collection of essays which recall the history of such attempts, provide a typology of different forms of intervention, and a descriptive analysis of particular projects. In a concluding chapter the editors look to the future and the kind of measures that need to be taken if nonviolent intervention across borders is to be more effective in the future.

Robert Burrowes identifies nine types of cross-border intervention in his typology, ranging from local nonviolent actions and campaigns in support of a struggle in another country - such as the international grassroots boycott of South African goods during the apartheid period - to nonviolent witness and accompaniment, nonviolent interposition, and nonviolent invasion. The categories are helpful, though as he acknowledges, they tend in practice to overlap. I am somewhat dubious about the category of Nonviolent Humanitarian Assistance as he defines it. In projects like Operation Namibia, or the current Voices in the Wilderness project - which delivers medical and other essential supplies to Iraq - the scale of the aid is not sufficient to have a major impact on the situation. However welcome that assistance, the real purpose of such projects is political - to focus attention on the effects of current policies and mobilise forces to change them. I am not entirely satisfied either with the term Nonviolent Intercession to describe physical intervention aimed at deterring states or corporations from carrying out dangerous and irresponsible policies such as nuclear testing or the dumping of dangerous wastes. “Intercession” doesn't quite capture the spirit of such confrontational ventures as the voyage of the Golden Rule or the Sahara Protest Expedition.

The crunch issue is whether there is, or could be, an adequate international nonviolent response in extreme cases like that in Kosova. It is a question that nonviolent activists are likely to have to face with increasing frequency and urgency, because the end of the Cold War has opened up greater possibilities of international military intervention, and multiplied the situations in which ethnic and border disputes lead to extremes of violence. The evidence of the accounts in this book is that direct nonviolent interposition to contain or halt violence has the greatest chance of success where the scale of the project is relatively modest, where it is planned from the start to continue for some time, and where there is close co-operation with people in the locality working for broadly similar ends.

Other factors may affect the degree of moral and political leverage that a project can exercise. The Christian-based Witness for Peace project in Nicaragua, for example, had the advantage that its members were US citizens and that the contras were dependent on continued US support for their operations. They knew that the killing of unarmed US civilians might arouse public opinion in the US against the Administration's policies and perhaps lead in the longer run to a cut-off in their supplies. The accompaniment projects of Peace Brigades International and other groups in Central America, Sri Lanka and elsewhere also owed their effectiveness in part to the reluctance of government death squads and right wing groups to risk upsetting powerful Western governments. The downside of this where a peace team in a “Third World” country comprises mainly white westerners is that the exercise might appear to be suggesting that their lives are somehow more precious or important than those of the community with whom they are working. As the contributions show, this possibility has troubled many of those involved in such projects. One suggested way out of the problem is to have a broader ethnic and geographical mix in the membership of the teams and for them to be identified by some kind of badge or uniform rather than by the colour of their skin. Clearly that makes sense. However, nonviolent activists do also have to take account of the global power realities as they exist. So if the presence of US citizens affords greater protection from attack - such as in a situation like that which existed in Nicaragua - than citizens of another country, it is right to take that fact into account.

The editors are sceptical about large-scale nonviolent interposition such as Gandhi envisaged when he proposed in 1931 that a “living wall” of men women and children could confront German forces if they attempted to invade Switzerland, or Maude Royden's proposed peace army to separate Japanese and Chinese forces in Shanghai in the same year. However, despite the formidable obstacles involved, a new initiative to establish a Global Nonviolent Peace Force [see article on p22 & 23] was launched at last year's Hague Peace Conference and has gained the support of the Dalai Lama and other Nobel Peace Prize winners and peace activists. A research project has been set up to analyse the problems and possibilities, and offices established in San Francisco, St Paul, Ottawa and London in an effort to give substance to this part of the “recurrent vision”.

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