How civilian peacekeeping can help stem violent conflict on an ever-hotter planet

    Thanks to climate change, conflict is likely to become more prevalent. The good news is that a major application of nonviolent action is waiting to be developed.
    Photo of "Come Hell or High Water," an installation by Michael Pinsky. (Flickr/Akuppa John Wigham)
    Photo of “Come Hell or High Water,” an installation by Michael Pinsky. (Flickr/Akuppa John Wigham)

    On August 1, the journal Science published a new study by a team that reviewed 60 previous climate change studies to get a big picture of what we can expect in the decades to come. The bottom line: more conflict.

    We’ll see it on many levels, the scientists conclude in the study, from road rage to resource fights to street confrontations to struggles over human rights.

    How violent will they get? I believe we can influence that by accelerating the already impressive growth in skills and knowledge of nonviolent action. We can get more strategic in using nonviolent action when there’s need for political change and for defense, probably the two most frequent uses of civil resistance. But the good news is that a third major application of nonviolent action still lies waiting to be developed.

    Some people call it unarmed civilian peacekeeping; others call it third-party nonviolent intervention. It can be used on a micro-level, like in a family or a neighborhood bar, but people can scale it up. In one major conflict, as many as a million people intervened to prevent further bloodshed.

    Peacekeeping tools are most essential when joining one side or the other of a conflict doesn’t help it go anywhere healthy. And when combatants are too much engrossed in the fighting to do any talking, it’s necessary to find ways to intervene actively right in the field of conflict.

    I’ve so far identified four types of interventions that have been used historically, although knowledge about them isn’t widespread.

    Getting in the way

    During Hindu-Muslim riots in the 1960s and 1970s, the Gandhian “peace army” set up teams and waded into the midst of active riots to defuse them. Team members wore distinctive clothing that stood out so they could keep track of each other in the middle of mob scenes. The Global Nonviolent Action Database includes several examples of successful interventions in rioting cities.

    It was Algerians, however, who took interposition to a truly mass level.

    By 1962, Algerians had finally won their long and bloody war for independence from France. But instead of unifying for the hard task of governance, the independence movement split into two warring camps and prepared to fight a civil war. Fed up with violence, masses of Algerians headed off the soldiers and repeatedly stood between the rival forces, preventing the war from developing.

    Nonviolent interposition also came to the aid of an army that was about to be overwhelmed by the numbers and firepower of another in the Philippines. In 1986, the U.S.-backed dictator Ferdinand Marcos faced a mass pro-democracy movement.

    Part of Marcos’ army broke away to ally with the nonviolent insurgency. The rebels, led by General Fidel Ramos, marched to a military camp not far from the capital city of Manila. Marcos sent the main part of the army to kill and capture the rebels.

    Roman Catholic Cardinal Sin used the Catholic-controlled radio stations to call on citizens of Manila to drop everything and rush to the scene of the imminent clash. A million people responded, heading off the army loyal to Marcos and nonviolently preventing it from laying siege to Ramos’ forces. The people stopped Marcos’ army with nuns kneeling with their rosaries in prayer and activists clambering over the tanks.

    No one knows what the limits are of nonviolent interposition. We know that the scale can range from micro to macro. A single student, two weeks after taking one of my workshops, stopped a fight in his dorm by stepping in-between the combatants; in the Phillippines it was a million people intervening.

    The whole world is watching

    Although individuals spontaneously can do this method, in the past few decades it has been adopted by mainstream institutions.

    I remember sleeping on the sidewalk on warm nights in Managua, Nicaragua, next to a U.S. Episcopal bishop. We were there in 1990, when the idea of civilian observers was moving toward mainstream adoption. Witness for Peace brought the bishop and many others to Nicaragua to observe the election in which the pro-democracy Sandinistas sought to remain in office. The election we observed was free and fair; in fact, an observer in our U.S. delegation remarked that he wished for the same high standard in his hometown of Chicago. Other national delegations probably wished for the same.

    Another step toward mainstream acceptance of observation was taken by former U.S. president and first lady Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter. Their Carter Center has sent teams of observers to over 80 elections in 33 countries since 1989.

    Monitoring is closely related to observing because its power rests largely in the costs in credibility to the violent group if it doesn’t stay on its best behavior. The difference between monitoring and observing is that a sub-agreement of some kind has been negotiated, even though the parties aren’t ready to resolve the whole conflict.

    A well-publicized recent failure of monitoring was the 2012 Arab League effort to monitor the conflict in Syria. The Syrian regime appeared to agree to let the monitors work, but at the last minute it was unwilling to halt military attacks on the people. In plenty of other cases, however, monitoring has been a useful tool for nonviolently enforcing agreements.

    Human shields

    Since the mid-1980s I’ve seen the method of protective accompaniment spread both formally and informally. Canadian faith-based groups in the 1990s did pioneering work in Central America to shield grassroots people from U.S.-backed military attacks, including accompanying refugees who had fled El Salvador so they could return from Honduras to their home villages.

    Christian Peacemaker Teams — sponsored by Mennonites, Church of the Brethren and Quakers — have worked in many places, including by helping make it possible for indigenous people in the United States to fight for their rights in ancestral homelands. Other groups doing accompaniment are proliferating.

    At the conference in Switzerland marking the 20th anniversary of Peace Brigades International, I heard Joseph Deiss, the Swiss foreign minister, make a case for accompaniment from a governmental perspective. He admitted that governments have many political constraints that prevent the nimbleness that is needed when human rights are threatened. Non-governmental groups are freer to move and deftly deliver protection where it is most needed.

    Listening to him, I thought of white blood cells in the body — mobile and able to come quickly to the site of infection. The way white blood cells work is not drastic like brain surgery or leg amputation, but they are critical to our immune system. Yes, Algerian-style interposition on a grand scale is needed, but there’s also a need for the day-in, day-out protection of labor unionists and co-op organizers and students who are threatened with assassination around the world.

    Up until recently, the growing field of peace teams has relied largely on volunteers. In 2002 I went to India to help found Nonviolent Peaceforce partly because I wanted an organization that would pay its team members a living wage and therefore be able to recruit working-class people, including from the Global South. Initiated by activist visionaries Mel Duncan and David Hartsough, Nonviolent Peaceforce attracted support from Nobel Peace Prize laureates like the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Mairead Maguire, and Oscar Arias Sanchez. Now based in Brussels, Nonviolent Peaceforce has been working in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, the Republic of South Sudan and elsewhere.


    Presence is the fourth method of third-party nonviolent intervention and the hardest to define. Individuals and teams go into situations of open conflict and assist people to choose other-than-violent behaviors. What the interveners do is conveyed through body language, acts of service and words. It’s subtle, and can be powerful in situations of fear and violence.

    This method doesn’t depend on interposition because the interveners don’t necessarily put themselves directly between the fighters. They use other behaviors like active listening to embody values of decency and respect — a kind of modeling.

    Members of the Russian human rights group Memorial told me they used this method during inter-ethnic war in the Caucuses. They entered the conflict field with its chaos and confusion and did acts of service that no one else dared do, like conduct an exchange of prisoners between battles. They actively refused to cooperate with the prevailing atmosphere of hostility and violence.

    As the planet grows hotter and conflicts become more prevalent, we should work to ensure that grassroots ingenuity will invent additional methods for deflecting and defusing violent attacks. The four methods I’ve identified empower ordinary people to intervene when mediation fails and the stakes are too high to turn away from the fight. I’m sure other kinds of interventions are out there, waiting to be discovered.

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