‘We are unarmed, we are here to protect civilians and we will not leave’ — a conversation with Mel Duncan of Nonviolent Peaceforce

Nonviolent Peaceforce Co-Founder Mel Duncan joins Nonviolence Radio to discuss the growing use and acceptance of unarmed civilian protection.

Subscribe to “Nonviolence Radio” on Apple Podcasts, Android or via RSS.

In this episode of Nonviolence Radio, Michael Nagler interviews Mel Duncan, the co-founder and Director of Advocacy and Outreach for Nonviolent Peaceforce, a world leader in unarmed civilian protection. Mel represents Nonviolent Peaceforce at the United Nations, where the group has been granted consultative status. Nonviolent Peaceforce provides direct protection to civilians caught in violent conflict and works with local groups on violence deterrence in a variety of conflict areas around the world.

Mel speaks of the powerful work the Nonviolent Peaceforce has accomplished in conflict areas around the globe by identifying 77 best practices to prevent violence, protect civilians, saving lives, and promoting peace through the unique tool of Unarmed Civilian Protection.

Michael: Greetings everyone and welcome to the next episode of Nonviolence Radio. I am your host, Michael Nagler. And we’re very pleased and proud to share with you an interview that I was recently able to conduct with a very dear old friend of mine and a very important actor in the world of nonviolence. This is Mel Duncan, who is the co-founder of Nonviolent Peaceforce.

Mel has been working tirelessly for something like 15 years now to get Nonviolent Peaceforce started, and to get it established within the U.N. and even the United States government appropriations. Mel came to this work from a background in community organizing, but at the Hague Conference for Peace that he will describe, he met with David Hartsough and this thing which we think so highly of here at Metta was actually launched. So, onto our interview.

So, Mel, if I could repeat what I hear you asking, you’re working on transitioning our whole security concept, really, from one based on force to one based on trust and community which is totally laudable, totally what we have to do. And then the secondary question within that is: Is this a form of constructive program? And I was saying, “Absolutely, it is.” And that will become clear when we actually build the alternative institutions. Like the restorative justice instead of the prison pipeline.

And when we provide psychological services that the police force can operate in tandem with, all of that will make it obvious that it’s constructive program. But the main thing that constructive program will allow us to do and I think it’s huge is to get out of the blame game. And not blame the police purely and simply for the killings. Of course, they shouldn’t be doing it, but we have to realize that we’ve put them in an impossible situation.

And I’m always reminded of a thing that Norman Cousins said. Cousins discovered that the Navy had sent a ship around San Francisco Bay spraying a bacterial agent into the fog to see if it would work as a bioweapon. And it did. And later on, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, they discovered that an elder gentleman had contracted the illness and died. And his grandchildren were suing the Navy.

And so, Cousins said, “This was absolutely reprehensible for the Navy to do that. However, you have to realize when you have made somebody else responsible for your security, you’ve given away some” – I don’t know, some ethical prerogative or something. It’s not fair for you then to turn on that person and say, “I don’t like the way you did that. You shouldn’t have done it that way.”

So, that there are excesses that lead to police brutality, there’s no question. And it does have to be stopped. But we have to, above all, avoid the psychological posture of pointing the finger at them and saying, “We are blameless and you did this whole thing and we’re going to punish you.” That will get us nowhere.

Mel: I understand what you’re saying. At the same time, there’s a line that I think you crossed, in terms of people have to be accountable for their own acts. And we have to hold people accountable. Policing is a profession where bad apples should not be allowed.

Michael: This is true.

Mel: Just like, you know, Delta Airlines doesn’t come out and say, “Well, you know, we’ve got really good pilots except there’s a couple of bad apples. And they like to crash into the mountains, you know.” That is a profession where no bad apples are allowed. And policing should be the same. There is no excuse for a bad apple. And there is no excuse for police federations that will protect those bad apples at all costs. And so, I think that there is some room for blame and that we didn’t do it all.

Michael: Yeah. No, I don’t disagree with that, Mel. And I’m not saying there isn’t behavior which really has to stop, but I’m just saying that we can approach it a little more compassionately if we look at the whole context. And after all, the ultimate goal in nonviolence, although it’s hard to achieve – this is where, you know, we have to make a compromise with the real world, but the ultimate goal that we have to achieve is not so much accountability as persons taking responsibility.

You know, the ideal hundred years from now goal would be for the police to heartedly, willingly, and proudly take that all on themselves. However, you know, there I go again. I’m always holding up the ideal and the future paradise. In the real world, yeah. Delta Airlines and the police profession has to do their job correctly.

But I guess the only thing that I feel strongly about that I’m arguing against, is to feeling that once we’ve gotten to that we have solved the problem and we had no buy-in of our own.

Mel: Yeah. I would agree with that. Let me unpack what you just said about the absolute goal of nonviolence is not accountability, but people taking responsibility. And so, what I think what I heard in that, is that accountability is after the fact. And that responsibility is proactive.

Michael: Yeah, that is true. I hadn’t thought of that. But there’s another element to it, in that in accountability, we’re not giving them the agency. We’re not giving them the opportunity to step up, recognize what they did, and self-correct which is the ultimate goal.

But it’s always good to have a distant shining goal, even if you’re not able to live up to it in the present, in your lifetime.

Mel: Yes. Izzy Stone said, “If you expect to find the answers to your questions in your lifetime, you’re not asking big enough questions.”

Michael: That’s right. Yeah. Oh, he was so great. So, Mel, this actually takes us right into the question of Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping because it’s not surprising to me the way your splendid organization, Nonviolent Peaceforce, has adapted itself to domestic interventions. Having started with the traditional model, “Across Border,” which wasn’t actually what Gandhi had in mind, when you get right down to it. He was all community-based.

Mel: We use the term, “Shanti Sena,” liberally.

Michael: Yes. That’s right. Because, you know, in India, Sena didn’t mean a foreign occupying force, necessarily. You have Shiv Sena is going on right now. So, let me ask you these two questions, how did you get a passion for peace and how did it end up focusing on this aspect that we now call, “Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping?”

Mel: I have had that passion for as long as I remember and was acting on that passion by junior high school. And by high school, was actively organizing around civil rights and then anti-war. I was the only white kid in my high school who walked out the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated along with the black students. And that was always just a part of me. One of my closest friends who still is, she’s an Anam Cara. Do you know that? It’s a Celtic soul-friend. John O’Donohue wrote about it.

And she and I had been together since we were in cribs. We were in the same nursery as infants. And she has said to me many times, “You were just born with different filters and you cannot filter out the pain the way most people can.”

Michael: And thank God for that.

Mel: Well, it’s been excruciating too. I mean I understand it. I accept it. I’m not sure I’d wish it upon anyone. But I think that that was a motivation, plus this is not so – I mean maybe this is too revealing, but I was brought up with a mother who gave me responsibility for everything. And also, reinforced in me that I could do anything I put my mind to.

So, you know, here I am working on a Nonviolent Peaceforce when I’m 70.

Michael: What a mom. Wow.

Mel: Yeah. It was for good and ill. You know, that wasn’t all good. And so, I had worked my entire life primarily on domestically human rights issues, on disability rights, gay rights, on economic justice, organizing – helping to organize my dear friend’s, Paul Wellstone’s senate campaign. It was 18 years ago Sunday when they died.

Michael: Wow.

Mel: 18 years ago.

Michael: I remember them so fondly.

Mel: Yeah. And so, you’ve heard me tell this before. And if it’s passe, let me know. But I always, by that time, I was organizing just as a classical community organizer, us vs. them, right vs. wrong, good vs. evil. 50 percent plus one means we kick their ass. Now, I was a little more civil about it. But not much. And so, then I wind up at the University of Creation Spirituality in 1997.

And I’m sitting in a class on the mystics. And we had just started a section on Rumi which was being taught by a Sufi. And she started out the class by talking about the difference between Western-style debate and Eastern-style. Where in the West, you try to dominate the other person. In the East – and these are over-over-generalizations. In the East, you try to illuminate what the other person is saying. Now you and I know better than that. But for general purposes.

With that, I started daydreaming about when I used to be on a public television show back here in Minnesota on Friday nights and I was part of a panel where we were on for 8-10 minutes at the end of the show to argue about the events of the week. And we were encouraged to mix it up, to be controversial. I mean we were nothing. This was over 20 years ago. We’re nothing to what’s on now. But we were precursors.

And Georgia confronted me one night. She was waiting for me at the door when I came home and she had watched the show, something that I had expected all my family to dutifully do every Friday that I was on. And that never happened. But she had watched it. And said to me, “There was nothing good about you tonight but your shirt.” And it was the shirt she had bought for me.

Michael: Of course.

Mel: She said, “How are you contributing to the public good by arguing with people? By interrupting people? By trying to best them? What are you even modeling for our children?” And, you know, I wanted to say, “But Georgia, this is a good gig. People recognize me in the grocery store.”

So, I’m dreaming about this and I come to in this class in downtown Oakland. And this Sufi is staring right in my face. I had never met her before. And she said, “And your job is to enter the heart of your enemy.” And I wrote in my notebook, “Enter the heart of my enemy. That’s a good place to rip it out.” And then further down the page, I wrote, “Don’t go back to sleep. This could change your life.”

Michael: Wow.

Mel: And at that point, truly when the student is ready, the teachers appear.

Michael: Oh yeah.

Mel: And so, I was led, mentored, goaded, challenged, depending on who it was, about the dualistic way that I saw the world, the dualistic way that I worked, and really was being pulled into understanding my work from a sense of unity. And that led me to take part in a sangha in the Bay Area for social activists up off of Fruitvale. It led me to study Thich Nhat Hanh. And a little over a year later, I was sitting in Plum Village.

And Thich Nhat Hanh, I was on this fellowship from this mainstream foundation back in Minnesota. And by that point, they were just throwing up their hands when they’d get my bi-monthly report. And so, I’m at this monastery. And there, Thich Nhat Hanh was very clear about we were no longer at the place where we could afford to take sides. The stakes were too high. And so, that was late 1998. And leaving Plum Village on a bus, I wrote in my ever-present notebook, a thought-piece on a Nonviolent Peaceforce.

Michael: Wow. That’s how it started?

Mel: Yeah. So, I came home. I actually went back up to Edinboro to finish out my fellowship and hung out with a buddy and wrote during the day and we’d go to the pubs at night. But I had email again, so I wrote Georgia this idea and she wrote back, “Good idea. Promise you’ll stay home for three months.” So, I came home at the end of ’98. We were broke. She had gone back to work, thankfully. And I was teaching at the university and doing consulting and other things.

And this vision wouldn’t leave me. And so, one night Georgia said, “Just go for it.” And the next day, there was a little – it was actually an advert in The Nation about this Hague Appeal for Peace that was coming up. And so, I looked into it and I thought, “Well, as an organizer, that’s a good place to test out the currency of this idea.”

So, I raised enough money to get a plane ticket, found a free place to stay in the Hague, and I was off with 50 sheets of single-spaced typing on this concept of a Nonviolent Peaceforce. And after a day, I panicked because – were you there at that?

Michael: I wasn’t, no. I knew about it, but I wasn’t there.

Mel: They had planned for 5,000 people and instead there were 9,000 people. So, every venue was jammed. And one showed up early or you just fit into the – you watched the event on video. So, I called Georgia up the first night and I said, “You know, these people who have given me money to check this idea out. I can’t get a foothold. I can’t talk to anybody. I could stand up on a chair and start yelling and I’d just fit into the din.” And she said, “Well then, be quiet and listen.”

So, the next day, I’m crammed against the back wall of a room. And I know now that the speaker was Helga Temple that was up there. I didn’t know him then, but David Grant was there. And I think Tim Wallace was there. This guy gets up and asks a question about a large scale professional nonviolent peaceforce. And I shook my head, like in the cartoons. I pushed through the wall – or through the crowd and I grabbed him by the arm. And I said, “If you’re serious about what you just said, we have to go out in the hall and start organizing. We only have a few days here.” So, can you imagine saying to David Hartsough, “If you’re serious about what you just said,” [laughs].

Michael: He must have given you quite a look.

Mel: So, we were out in the hallway organizing groups to test this idea. And coming away from there we wrote a concept note. And then spent the next couple of years maxing out our credit cards visiting people in violent conflicts and learning what they were doing that was working and what, if anything, they might need from well-trained unarmed civilians. So, that’s a long story.

Michael: I’ve never heard the story in quite that fullness, Mel, starting from those filters. And I’m getting a very strong impression listening to you and listening to it, of this perfect combination between internal and external factors. In other words, you’re getting the best mentors from the Sufi teacher to Georgia and everything else. And on the other hand, you’re not just saying, “Oh, the universe will take care of it.” You’re doing your due diligence. You’re going in there with the 50 pages. You’re grabbing David Hartsough by the arm. So, that is the winning combination I think we can all take a really inspiring lesson from all of that.

So, let’s back up a second. You had this idea more or less come to you spontaneously, the idea of nonviolent intervention, but it had a bit of a history by then. You know what I mean?

Mel: Oh, yeah.

Michael: Shanti Sena before. Tell us a little bit about that.

Mel: Well, in 1984 I had gone to Nicaragua as part of the International Brigadistas. We stayed in a village in the cotton fields on the northern border, right on the Gulf of Fonseca. And those villages were being attacked and destroyed by the Contra during the cotton and coffee harvest. And we surmised that that was a CIA operation. We didn’t know. And furthermore, that if there were gringos or northern Europeans in those villages, the CIA wouldn’t allow the Contra to attack. Thank God we were right. You know, that came out two years later in the Iran-Contra hearings.

And no one was ever killed when they were doing that nonviolent presence in those villages. There was one young man that was killed, but he had taken up arms.

Michael: Oh, I see.

Mel: And so, I had seen the utility of this and how it might work, but Georgia and I hadn’t been married very long and we were starting a family. And as you know, it became a very large family. And so, I would have this idea needling in the back of my mind. And I had started studying Gandhi, I guess, in early college, as well as King and others. I remember Staughton Lynd’s “Anthology of Nonviolence in America.”

And so, had these thoughts rolling around. And I remember during the Balkan Wars, thinking is there something we can do here? But of course, never had the time or the intention, the drive to do anything.

Michael: The time wasn’t quite right.

Mel: Yeah. But driving away from Plum Village, you know, I was sitting on that bus and just wrote. It was just all right there.

Michael: Yeah. You know, I want to pick up on one particular point that you mentioned, Mel, about you being impressed that nobody was killed while they were doing this. There’s a right way and a wrong way to react to that. I remember when I started going around trying to raise money for this kind of work – I don’t think NP existed yet. I spoke to Sally Lilienthal who had quite a bit of funding here in San Francisco. And I pitched the idea to her with the support of some well-off funding friends just from the east.

And she said, “Well, you know, the first time anybody gets killed, it’ll all collapse.” And I knew that was dead wrong. So, I’ve thought about this a lot. And what I’ve come to is, on the one hand, we mustn’t get into this work in order to protect ourselves because that’s the wrong motivation. We do it because we want to protect others. We do it because we feel it’s the right thing to do. You cannot not be a risk-taker in nonviolence. You know.

On the other hand, it does show that there’s an incredible power in this thing which because of our worldview, our paradigm that we were referencing earlier, we don’t see that power. And so, it becomes a critically important part of the argument is to show people that, no, this has the power both to persuade the opponent and to, yeah, to protect you and your side. So, it has that power. But it would be wrong to say, “I’m going to do it nonviolently because I’m scared.” It’s maybe a kind of a subtle point, but I thought it would be worth making and seeing if you agree with it.

Mel: Well, first of all, we do have a much higher risk threshold than most people. And that’s taught to people in training. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a risk threshold, because we do. Martyrdom is not a sustainable activity.

Michael: Well put.

Mel: And so, we do protect ourselves when – and if we cannot protect ourselves, we can’t protect others.

Michael: Good point.

Mel: One of the things that’s been a good learning, is that often in the field, the blur of who is protecting who – it becomes blurred about who is protecting who. And at times in the villages are protecting us. And at other times, we are protecting them. And I think that that is the ideal mutuality of nonviolent protection.

Michael: That is really wonderful to hear. Yeah, that again is an aspect I hadn’t thought of. But it definitely protects us from what we used to fear so much and rightly, which is peace imperialism. You know, we’re coming in there to give you people peace because you can’t do it yourself. So, I know that NP has a policy and so does PBI and other organizations that do this kind of work, a policy of leaving when they’re no longer needed.

But what you’re saying here is more intimate and more powerful. That we’re in it together. You know, we’re really – they’re protecting us, we’re protecting them. Good point.

Mel: One point on the peace imperialism. We still need to be challenged on that and challenge ourselves because we do reinforce colonial and racist patterns. Sometimes by the work that we do. You know, we will choose the ethnicity, the race, the religion, the age, whatever the identity of that person is, if they can protect the person that we’re trying to protect, that’s the person who’s chosen.

Michael: But at the same time, Mel – excuse me. At the same time, beyond other organizations in the field that I know of, NP has done a superb job of trying to put out mixed teams.

Mel: Oh yeah, always.

Michael: Yeah. So, you’re not just global north, parachuting in to defend the global south. So, you’ve gone far, I think, to strike that balance between, “Yes, we do have something we can offer you. And no, we are not here to tell you how to do it. And to imply that you are helpless.”

Mel: Right.

Michael: I think that’s one of the great successes of Nonviolent Peaceforce.

Mel: Yeah. Working with the agency of the people. That’s why I never talk about capacity building anymore. I always refer to it as capacity recognition.

Michael: Nice. Yeah, I know we interviewed recently for our film, a fellow from Kenya, Gregory Otieno. He spoke very feelingfully about the indigenous mechanisms of conflict reduction and community building, which were overwhelmed, unfortunately, in the colonial era. But that’s ideally what we want to be doing, capacity recognition. And maybe some capacity enhancement where we have the capacity to do that.

Mel: Yeah. And the metaphor that I think about sometimes, Michael —  is do you remember Andrew Weil?

Michael: Yeah.

Mel: He wrote several books. One was called, “Spontaneous Healing.” And he talked about how we really have within our bodies the ability to heal ourselves. And he said, “So, when you cut yourself, you can watch and see your body starting to knit itself back together immediately.” We have those properties within us. But sometimes the assault is so acute, either externally or internally, that we need additional help. But not to heal us. We need the additional help to get back to the place where we can heal ourselves.

Michael: That’s a superb metaphor. And you know, one of the things we experience here on our property in West Marin, when we came to this place, there were two rather serious erosion ditches. We noticed that they had a lot of thistles. And we thought, “Oh, thistle is such a pain. You try to walk through them, you get stung.” But the thistles were nature’s scar tissue. They kept the cows from making things worse in those erosion ditches. So, it’s like, you know, the planet also has an ability to heal.

Mel: You bet, yeah. Oh yeah.

Michael: But it does need some help when, of course, it’s been artificially interfered with.

Mel: Yeah.

Michael: So, Mel, it strikes me that you and I have been in this field for so long and we know the mechanics of it. But a lot of people reading or watching this interview may not. So, could you sketch for us what exactly you do in unarmed civilian peacekeeping?

Mel: Well, we have teams of well-trained unarmed civilian peacekeepers who come from both the host country where we’re invited. And from – now I think it’s 40 other countries. And we are invited by local civil society into areas of violent conflict to work with them, to protect civilians, and prevent violence. And so, we have ten methods that we use in different proportions to provide protection for individuals and communities.

And one of the things – we’ve been doing this good practice as process that I know you’re aware of. And one of my learnings so far is that unarmed civilian protection is highly dependent upon deep community engagement, where we, together, do ongoing context analysis. Based upon that, one or more of the methods are applied and we work with the community on whether that be accompaniment or early warning, early response, or interpositioning. And we have to be very nimble because conflict dynamics change quickly.

And so, we have to be able to change that. That occurred to me a few years ago – more than a few years ago, when I was visiting various sites in South Sudan. I would look and think, “This site is doing something completely different than the one I just visited.” And it was because of the context. And so, we really require that deep community engagement and ongoing interaction. And so, what I’ve come to understand is that Unarmed Civilian Protection is much more of a process than a prescription. It’s not a recipe book. It is a process that is dynamic and is systems-based.

Michael: At the same time, Mel, even when you have a recipe book, you have to have some recognizable ingredients. Someone says, you know, “Mix in half a dozen eggs,” you got to know what an egg is. And so, would you say a little bit more about what some of the methods are? You mentioned interpositioning and you mentioned rumor abatement. What are just a couple of the others to give people a sense?

Mel: Accompaniment is probably the best known of the methods that we use. And that is where, for example, in South Sudan, women who are staying in internal refugee camps, they’re called, “Protection civilian areas.” They can become very large. One place where we worked, there’s 100,000 people. And the women have to leave every day to collect firewood. And because they’ve been in those camps now for six years, there’s massive defoliation. So, they have to go further and further into the bush.

It’s gotten better since the peace agreement. But until – and it still happens, but not to the extent. The women would be routinely raped. They would be raped by the government soldiers. They would be raped by the rebel groups. Rape was weaponized. It was used to exert territory, control, revenge. And this was working conditions that women were discussing with each other. Sometimes they’d say, “Well, we’ll send the oldest women because they’re less likely to be raped.”

And what we found is that if we sent three to five of our unarmed civilian protectors with 20 to 30 women, they were never attacked.

Michael: Wonderful.

Mel: In a four-year period, there was one instance where one of our people was attacked by a drunk soldier. But none of the women were ever attacked. It’s more dramatic right after the civil war re-emerged in 2013 going into 2014. It became very quickly ethnicized. And this is not a war against, “Oh, these tribes can’t get along.” This is a war against kleptocrats who are very clever about ethnicizing things and ripping old wounds open very quickly. And so, it quickly became ethnicized. And one group was cut off from an airport where they had to escape by an opposing tribe.

And to get to the airstrip – airport – that kind of overstates it. It’s like a gravel strip. So, to get to the airstrip, they would have to go through, you know, this – where people would have to go through the Dinka area. And so, for three months Candy from Zimbabwe, [Jiba] from Sri Lanka, and [Olo] from Kenya made many trips a day ferrying people through that area.

And as long as they were with them, they would not get hassled. You know, there were a couple examples where, you know, they were pulled out of the car, but they were able to save over 1000 people.

Michael: Wow. And as I understand it, they have some recognizable uniform that they’re all identifying.

Mel: Visibility is critical. Visibility is critical. And we also create relationships with all the armed parties. So, they know who we are. So, you know, if we sneak up on someone in the field and surprise someone, we haven’t done our work. Surprises don’t – we don’t do well by.

Michael: I remember seeing in a film of some PBI people in Columbia, if I’m not mistaken, sitting down with the army to tell them who they were and who lived in that area. And you can see the army was – they were startled. They had never heard of this kind of thing before. But they sure were glad to know who these people were and what they were doing. So, yeah, that’s another important point.

Mel: That kind of communication is key.

Michael: Yeah. So, Mel, moving on from the actual field, though in fact, what I’m going to ask you to say in a little bit is to briefly tell us the story of Derek and Andres in South Sudan. We can’t end without telling that. Maybe we’ll end on that. But I know that in terms of the incredible due diligence that NP has been doing, the part of it that impresses me the most, I think, is the learning, the collection of best practices. I used to be so frustrated about this. I would say in the 80s, “You know, we go out there and we risk our lives and we do these incredible dramatic things and nobody ever hears about it. And the next time we do it, we got to start inventing the wheel.”

I used to say, “Bank robbers do more best practices and debriefing.” But that situation has certainly changed. And I’m absolutely thrilled in the way that some groups are explicitly using the experiences of other countries who have had an insurrection when there was an illegitimate election to advise us to some of the things that work and that don’t work. So, would you tell us a little bit about that very systematic – I think it was six continent collection of resources that you’ve done and where we can go to read about the results?

Mel: We embarked upon a good practices. We aren’t bold enough to call them, “Best,” yet. We started with very intense peace studies of four applications of unarmed civilian protection. One in Mindanao, one in South Sudan where Nonviolent Peaceforce is very active. One in Israel, Palestine, where we aren’t. And the fourth in Colombia, where we’ve not been. So, we really got to see probably the work of 25 different groups. Because Colombia – Colombia, Palestine, and Guatemala are the hot hubs, you know, where there’s more work that’s been done than anyplace else.

And so, based upon that, Ellen Furnari led this up, but we had different research teams. John Lindsay-Poland was on the team that went to Colombia.

Michael: Oh yeah, good.

Mel: We identified 77 best practices by doing cross-case analysis. And some of them were really obvious, like this might not be exactly right, but interview people before you hire them, you know? But not everybody was doing that. They took who they could get. That’s not a good practice. But there were other things that were much more substantial.

And so, then the second phase which we’re really finishing up, was where we have convened practitioners, partners, a few people who we partnered with who have received our services, and a few academics on a regional basis and gone through a three-day guided retreat to really bring out from people what they’re doing that works, in what context, you know, where are the dilemmas? Where are the conflicts? And so, we’ve done that in East Asia. We’ve done it in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, North America, and Latin America.

And then COVID hit. So, we have Europe – Europe left. We’re putting together a workshop for Europe. And then we will do an international gathering to come together and to really look at what works, what doesn’t work, what can be replicated, what can be scaled up. And most importantly, to cultivate a community of practice. Because there are more of us – I use the term that there’s at least 50 organizations in the world doing some form of unarmed civilian protection in 24 locations.

But you know, we’ve been doing training in Minneapolis for peacekeepers at the poll for the election. And here’s this group, the Powderhorn Security Collective. And they have been providing security in the neighborhoods adjacent to where George Floyd was murdered since last June. They are doing UCP. They just didn’t know it.

And so, I think what’s happening is rather a zeitgeist, that this is coming up because it’s required and people are understanding and sensing at a very different level that we have to reshape the way we do security. And so, what this goal, Michael, the Powderhorn Security Collective, one of the things that they tried to do is to intervene before 911 is called. Because good things don’t happen often to people in those neighborhoods when 911 is called.

So, it’s a very constructive approach. And you know, I would venture that there’s hundreds of those operations around the world.

Michael: Yeah. I think we all could name off a few. You know, one in the Bronx, one in Chicago are the famous ones. Now, that leads me to ask you this really, I think, kind of critical question. You mention zeitgeist. And we know that at a certain point, to be conscious of what you’re doing, to have a name for it, it helps significantly to pull it together and create a coherent identifiable thrust. Do you see some of that happening internationally and domestically? Or is it just these scattered groups spontaneously coming up with an idea?

Mel: Some of that is happening. We have the Shanti Sena Network that you know, in North America. In Latin America, they are – they come together once a year – this network. But all the work seems to be between Mexico and Colombia. We haven’t come upon a common name. And we have to be very careful because people are skeptical about what we’re doing is NP trying to take over everything.

We’re trying to do much the opposite. We’re trying to stimulate a lot of groups doing this. We came upon the term, “Unarmed Civilian Protection,” primarily so that we could work at the U.N. and advance this as policy.

Michael: Well, I didn’t mean a single organization. But I think what you’re talking about is exactly what I did mean, which is a single concept. Did you realize you were speaking prose kind of thing? So, Mel, you’ve mentioned a magic word there. Could you very briefly tell us what you’ve done at the U.N.? You, in particular?

Mel: I’m going to misquote Gandhi in front of you. Because I think he didn’t say this. But he’s been credited with, “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. And then you win.”

Michael: Right.

Mel: I’ve been told he really didn’t say that. Do you know?

Michael: Well, we really don’t know who said it. It’s been attributed to a number of people. But it’s so good.

Mel: Yeah. And so, we followed that line at the U.N. David Hartsough and I went to the U.N. in the fall of 1999 with this idea, with these fliers. And there were only five people who would see us. Anwarul Chowdhury, Cora Weiss, Chris Coleman, Gay Rosenblum-Kumar. But you know, I literally was handing out fliers to the volunteers in the UNICEF shop because at least they had time to talk.

And so, we were ignored. And then we got to a stage, you know, we just were persistent. 2005, 2006, we would get the response, “Oh, we’re sure that this works to protect a few human rights defenders. And that’s important, but there’s really no policy implication here.” And so, we went through that stage. And then in 2015, when the high-level independent panel on peace operations, you know, did this global review and came back and said strongly and in bold type, “U.N. Unarmed approaches must be in the forefront of the U.N.’s work on protecting civilians.” That caught a lot of people by surprise.

Not only the U.N. agencies who were barely tolerating us but also some of the NGOs who opposed us. And then so that started to be the time of fighting us. And fighting in a diplomatic sense, where you’re never sure. But then you find out something happened. And so, at the end of 2016, we, for the first time, got Unarmed Civilian Protection into a security council resolution, which is a lot of work. A lot of work. That means China didn’t veto it. Russia didn’t veto it. The U.S. didn’t veto it.

A person from a very large NGO came up to me the day that it was decided. And as an aside, Michael, it was Angola and Venezuela who were our proponents. And they were the main proponent behind the scenes was the U.K. And the U.K. always acted that they’re our ally. But it was Angola and Venezuela. And I know because the Venezuelan guy was texting me in real-time saying, “What I should do now?” So, this representative of a large NGO, OXFAM, stalked me out of a room. And I was with a colleague from NP who was shadowing me that week. So, she heard this too.

And this woman came up and shook her finger in my face. And was angry. I don’t know when the last time I’ve had a finger shaken in my face. And she said, “I want you to know the outcome of your advocacy. There are now ambassadors on the security council who are saying, ‘Why don’t we send unarmed peacekeepers instead of armed peacekeepers?’ And that’s because of you.”

Michael: [Laughs] Tsk, tsk. Mea culpa.

Mel: Can you put that in writing?

Michael: That is funny.

Mel: And so, then people had to take us more and more seriously. And now, just a couple months ago, the security council resolution for the transition in Darfur, as the armed troops leave into a political mission, mentioned unarmed civilian protection twice. And so, what happened in the fourth stage was not exactly we won. But it’s illustrated by we were able to get a two-hour hearing before the security council in December of 2017.

And at the end, the Director of Research for the Department of Peacekeeping spoke. And this is the guy that I’ve tussled with for years. But he usually just dismissed me. He got up after hearing Tiffany, after hearing [Kutzi], one of our field people who had been a U.N. police officer and then came to us. So, she could give the contrast very quickly. And so, after hearing all of that, the International Peace Institute presented it basically in favor of unarmed approaches.

David Haeri, the Director of Research, got up and said, “I don’t disagree with anything that’s been said.” I looked over at her like, “What?” And then he said, “And we’re already doing that.” So, that’s their tact now. “What’s new about this? We’ve been doing this.”

Michael: Yeah. Well, it seems to me, Mel, if there ever was an idea whose time has come, it came. And if there ever was a person who could step up and make that idea happen, it was you.

So, I have occupied your time for a long while. So, by way of just wrapping up, if you could just tell us briefly so folks have a feeling for what unarmed protection can do, tell us what did happen in that camp, that U.N. IDP camp in Bor with Derek and Andres.

Mel: In Bor. You remembered it was Bor. Well, that happened a few months after the civil war reignited. So, it was like April of 2014. And they were in this – they were really makeshift camps that sprung up around U.N. conclaves. And a number of rebels came over the berm and came into the camp and started shooting people point-blank.

Derek and Andres were with 14 women and children. And so, they went to a hut-like structure and stood in the doorway as the women and children were inside. And on three occasions, young rebels came up to them and screamed profanities and, “You have no business being here. We want those people.” And on and on, pointing AK-47s at their heads. And on three occasions, Derek and Andreas held up their Nonviolent Peaceforce identity card and said, “We are unarmed, we are here to protect civilians and we will not leave.”

After the third time, these young rebels left. And Derek and Andres could hear them as they went back to join the group say, “Stay away from up there. Leave those people alone.” In the debrief, Andres says very clearly, “If we would have a gun, we probably would have been shot.”

Michael: Oh yeah. Yeah. We captured that part in our film.

Mel: Yeah. That’s in the film. Yeah. Yeah. We loved using that. Yeah.

Michael: I can’t imagine a more dramatic and clear illustration, demonstration of the power of nonviolence by people who are dedicated and well-trained and well organized, and even not too badly funded. Though there’s that could always use some help. So, that is a wonderful, wonderful note. I want to thank you, Mel, not only for this interview, but for the 20 years of work that led up to it. And I still have the feeling – I used to get a little pushback from you about 20 years ago when I used to say this, but I still have a feeling that this is going to replace the war system someday.

Mel: Yeah. And I remember 20 years ago riding in David Hartsough’s car to come over to see you for the first time and literally shaking. What in the world do I have to say to this guy? I mean what value-added could I be?

Michael: This is rich. This is really rich. Here’s somebody who faces down AK-47s in Mindanao being afraid to visit a professor.

Mel: I was.

Michael: I’m flattered, Mel. I’m flattered. [Laughs] We just owe you guys the world. So glad you’re there, at Shanti Sena Network, and all the rest.

Mel: I love you Michael.

Michael: I love you Mel.

Mel: Put that in the interview.

Michael: We’ll see what the editors say about that.

Mel: All right. Good talking with you.

Michael: Good talking with you, friend. Take care.

Mel: Bye-bye.

Michael: You’ve been listening to Nonviolence Radio. I am your host, Michael Nagler. And just conducted an interview with our friend and organizer, Mel Duncan, the co-founder of Nonviolent Peaceforce. You can find out more about Nonviolent Peaceforce at — one word — NonviolentPeaceforce.org. And of course, more about the Metta Center at MettaCenter.org. And that is Metta with two T’s. I would like to thank our mother station, KWMR coming to you out of Point Reyes Station in California. And let’s meet again in two weeks.

Related Episodes