Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping

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The Friends Peace Testimony challenges us to find alternatives to war and violence and create peaceful approaches to resolving conflict creatively and without harm.  For the past ten years, Friends from around the world have put these words into action by creating the Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP), an international organization that places teams of civilians from all over the world into conflict zones, where they work with local groups to protect civilians and support local initiatives for peace.  NP teams are strictly non-partisan, and they form connections with all recognized stakeholders in conflict situations.  By forming these broad alliances, NP teams can broker dialogues, protect civilians, and create space for all sides to develop constructive and amicable solutions to conflicts, without resorting to violence. 

As it has grown in size and effectiveness, Nonviolent Peaceforce has achieved increasingly impressive results.  Most recently, NP field teams were key to the October 2012 signing of the historic Framework Agreement for the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, ending four decades of civil war there between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).  After long-standing, low-intensity conflict erupted into intense violence in 2008, displacing 600,000 people, both sides agreed to officially respect the rights of civilians and be held accountable to international humanitarian and human rights laws.  As a testament to the effectiveness of NP’s proactive unarmed civilian peacekeeping methods,

both the government and the MILF specifically requested that NP be part of the official ceasefire mechanism on the island, the International Monitoring Team.  NP’s previous two years of work there had gained their confidence.  For three years starting in 2009, NP teams worked every day addressing concrete problems on the ground: de-escalating tensions, getting both sides to back off, and preventing disruption of village life.  Through these efforts, NP helped keep a ceasefire from falling apart, protected civilians, and contributed to an atmosphere that was conducive to higher-level talks aimed at finding a just and lasting peace.  Three years later, the historic Framework Agreement was signed, envisioning a new government for the Muslim island of Mindanao.

NP field team members are highly trained professionals who live in the conflict-affected communities in which they work.  Called Unarmed Civilian Peacekeepers, now more than one hundred of them are deployed to countries where local civil society groups have invited NP to work.  Through establishing and maintaining relationships with the local military and rebel commanders, local police, religious leaders, local civil society, UN representatives and local and international NGO’s, the Peacekeepers play a unique role.  They are able to defuse the rumors that often exacerbate a conflict.  Treating all with dignity and respect, NP teams build bridges between groups, and provide safety for those willing to explore alternatives to violence. 

In another recent success, NP Peacekeepers were summoned to the border between Western Equatoria and Lake State in February 2011, where tribal violence had killed dozens of people and resulted in 6,000 burned homes and 75,000 displaced villagers.  NP had been working in South Sudan since 2010.  In response to this specific border conflict, NP Peacekeepers set about developing relationships with several community chiefs.  Working step-by-step, they built enough trust to allow these men, who disliked and feared each other, to feel safe enough in NP’s presence (and neutral office space) to meet and talk together.   Several meetings were required before a ceasefire agreement was reached.  Within a month, the hospital, schools, and markets re-opened, and 40,000 of the displaced residents returned home.  A government official expressed amazement at this result, saying he never expected that the chiefs involved would be willing to talk to one-another, let alone reach an agreement.

Action for peace in our lives and our work is an important part of the Friends Peace Testimony. As illustrated above, NP works actively to support peaceful solutions to conflict, which both NP and Friends firmly believe are superior to violent solutions (both morally and practically).  NP’s nonviolent methods are the cornerstone of unarmed civilian peacekeeping, an idea first proposed by Mahatma Gandhi as the Shanti Sena, or “Peace Army.”  This approach is proving itself relevant and effective again and again.

Fortunately, key people in a number of prominent organizations are beginning to recognize the value and importance of unarmed civilian peacekeeping, including opinion leaders in the United Nations, many UN agencies, the European Union, and some European governments.  Some of these organizations are beginning to support this work. Our hope is that the UN and governments around the world will begin to see the importance and effectiveness of unarmed civilian peacekeeping, will recognize it as a morally and financially viable alternative to armed peacekeeping, and will help the world find alternatives to war and violence as a means of resolving conflict.  Thanks to all the Friends who have helped bring the Nonviolent Peaceforce into being. See www.nonviolentpeaceforce.org to learn more about the work of Nonviolent Peaceforce.  ♦

David Hartsough is a member of San Francisco Friends Meeting.  He co-founded Nonviolent Peaceforce with Mel Duncan in 2002.  Paul Fraleigh, NP Communications Director, contributed to this article.