Saving Lives, Saving Souls

We all like to think of ourselves in the best possible light. We like to occupy the moral high ground and rarely see others as being quite as high up there as us. On the contrary, “they” are always bad guys, never us; they are the ones motivated by greed or hatred or jealousy, but we ourselves are always doing things for the purest of motives. We can easily see the speck on our neighbor’s eye, but never the plank in our own eye. This basic human trait applies to groups of human beings as well as to individuals. Families, clans, tribes, nations, religions, and every conceivable sub-category of these are benign if we belong to them and suspect if we do not. We ascribe all sorts of malevolent intentions to those “other” groups while assuming our own group operates only with the best of intentions.

There are degrees to which individuals and groups cling to this basic orientation, and by no means do all people think this way. It is, however, one of the most noticeable and enduring features of human conflict that both sides become entrenched with enemy images of each other that are almost identical apart from the names and the groups being reversed. Indeed it is one of the basic principles of military training through the ages that before people can be trained to kill an enemy, they must first see them as the enemy—as evil, hateful, and sub-human beings who are incapable of good.

Finding solutions to intractable conflicts and building sustainable peace depends very much on breaking down those enemy images and getting people to see each other as human beings with similar hopes and fears and dreams and aspirations. When it comes to reducing violence and protecting civilians from the rampages of armed groups, however, it is the positive self-image rather than the negative enemy-image that we need to focus on.

The positive self-image that we all have of ourselves and of the groups to which we belong, to some extent or other, represents a glimmer of hope in situations that are often drowning in despair. Believing that they are essentially good and well-meaning and deserving to occupy the moral high ground provides an opportunity for all but the most depraved psychopaths to actually be good and well-meaning and to take up their rightful position on the moral high ground where they may have thought they already stood.

At its most basic, what this means is that parties to a conflict tend to be exceedingly careful not to get caught doing things that could put them—or their group or their cause—in a bad light. This could mean doing everything they can to prevent anyone from seeing or getting anywhere near what they are doing. It could also mean killing the people who do see things that could be damaging to their public image so that words or photos do not get out. But in most cases, it means being on their best behavior when others are looking, trying to do their more nefarious activities out of public view and then to deny that they had anything to do with it.

This pattern is repeated in conflict after conflict around the globe. When the Nicaraguan contra forces knew that American civilians were in Nicaraguan border villages, they would not attack those villages. When Israeli Defense Force soldiers see that European activists are at a Palestinian checkpoint, they harass Palestinians less and allow more of them to cross than when European activists are not there. When OSCE monitors rolled up to a village in Kosovo prior to the 1999 war there, Serb forces would pull back and Albanian refugees would return home. When ceasefire monitors from Nonviolent Peaceforce entered an area in Mindanao, Philippines, Filipino troops and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) guerrillas would both be on their best behavior.

This is, of course, also the case when the outside party looking in happens to be a military peacekeeping unit from the United Nations (UN). In most cases, the conflict parties do not want to be caught, whether it is UN troops or unarmed civilians who are watching. That can only be good for the civilians caught up in these conflicts and it can only be good for the long-term prospects for peace, for so long as this principle holds in most cases, having people around and visibly watching is in and of itself an effective deterrent to indiscriminate violence and all kinds of abuses against the civilian population.

It should be equally obvious that having people around, whether UN troops or unarmed civilians, is sadly not sufficient to stop all violence and abuse. It can help to lower the levels of violence and abuse. It can push the violence and abuse elsewhere, which protects some at the expense of others. It can also lead to attacks on the outsider observers themselves to get them out of view and to keep them away. When the violence and abuse continues, despite outside observers being present, the reaction by most UN and nongovernmental organization (NGO) agencies working to protect civilians in those situations has been to ratchet up the pressure on those responsible, usually through denunciations in the media and by the diplomatic community. The hope is that such denunciations could lead to international sanctions of various kinds, including possible indictments at the International Criminal Court. Such approaches have been effective in some cases, especially where it is a national government who is being pressured and that government is quite vulnerable at that moment in terms of trade arrangements, International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans, or other forms of pressure that Western countries can turn on and off at will.

These kinds of pressures, however, work less well on guerrilla movements and on countries that are not so susceptible to Western economic pressures. And they also work less well on the overall psychology of the conflict, because they undermine the perception of a particular party as still being a “good guy” and once that is lost, they have nothing to lose by continuing to be perceived as the “bad guy.” This can then ironically embolden them to do “whatever it takes” to beat their opponents. In the case of Sri Lanka, for instance, it could be argued that by forcing the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa into pariah status over its handling of the war from 2007 onward, the international community lost whatever leverage it might have had over that government and enabled them to get away with atrocities that might never have happened had Rajapaksa remained more overtly accountable to the international community for his actions.

The same argument could be made about Israel. The more Israel is isolated and pushed into a corner, the less hesitation its government has in defying the norms of the international community to achieve its objectives, since it has nothing to lose in terms of its image at this point. That is not to say that preserving the self-image of a pariah state is the most important item on the agenda and should override other considerations. If, however, our primary objective was the protection of civilians and the reduction of overall violence, it must be said that the international strategy of denouncing and isolating Israel and other pariah states is not working, although it could be argued that the strategy may have been more successful in the case of South Africa.

What else, then, might work to lessen violence and abuse of civilians when mere presence of outside observers is not enough? If we return to our original observation that most people want to be seen in a positive light, it must be obvious that there is more to this than simply observing someone’s behavior and hoping thereby to deter them from doing something terrible. Why not actually engage with these people and help them turn their positive self- image into reality? In a surprisingly large number of cases, from Colombia to Kenya to Sri Lanka to the Philippines, governments and guerrilla movements known for their ruthlessness and atrocities have nonetheless been willing to compromise and change their behavior to protect civilian populations.

In track one and track two mediation, the aim is to get government and guerrilla leaders to compromise and yield on some of the most fundamental values and beliefs that they hold in order to find a peaceful solution to a protracted and violent conflict. In the case of negotiating with these same actors to reduce violence and protect civilians, the only things on the table are their strategies and tactics for waging the conflict, not the ultimate aims and objectives of the conflict itself. What is on offer for them is an enhanced public image in return for a change in their strategies or tactics, and few would not jump at that opportunity. It is a far easier ask than trying to resolve the whole conflict through mediation.

There is more at stake here than an enhanced public image and a claim to the high moral ground, which almost all governments and guerrilla movements desperately want. What is at stake, also, are their own souls. We not only think of ourselves in the best possible light. Most of us want to be good as well as look good, and that goes for guerrilla fighters, revolutionaries, terrorists, and gang leaders as well as for soldiers, generals, politicians, and arms dealers. Those of us who come from a peace or a human rights background can fall into the trap just as well as everyone else of thinking that these are categories of “bad people,” “abusers,” men with evil or malevolent intent, men who kill innocent civilians for the hell of it, men with blood on their hands, and so on.

It is a surprising discovery for most people who go into this kind of work to find out that army generals and guerrilla leaders, not to mention their rank and file soldiers, are just human beings like the rest of us. Sure, some of them are psychopaths. There are probably a small proportion of psychopaths, sadists, and depraved people in any given group of people, whether in the army, the police, the clergy, or the peace movement! Fortunately they are normally outnumbered, even in the killing business.

Once we ourselves get beyond the idea that these people are evil and start treating them as human beings, we actually discover that they are human; they just happen to be living in terrifying circumstances with the lives of other human beings in their hands. Not all people in those circumstances want to do the right thing, but a very large number of them do, and we can help them do it. This is where the traditional model of UN peacekeeping falls down utterly and completely. UN peacekeeping troops come from national armed forces and are trained and equipped to fight battles. They are neither trained nor equipped to work with armed groups on how they can achieve their objectives with less violence and without their activities impacting on the civilian population. Sometimes UN peacekeepers are able to get that kind of message across to generals and guerrilla leaders, but in those cases it is more than likely in spite of, rather than because of, being military personnel assigned to the UN.

Unarmed civilians, properly trained and equipped, can much more effectively talk to generals and guerrilla leaders, engage with their troops and civilian counterparts, provide assistance and support in developing alternative strategies for achieving political objectives, and teach them about human rights, international laws of war, and their duties and responsibilities to the civilian population. By engaging with armed groups in this way, we are not just helping them to be seen in a better light, we are actually helping them to behave in a better way. Ironically, it is sometimes the most ruthless fighters who would actually prefer to achieve their objectives with less bloodshed if they knew how to do it.

The first step on this road to less violence is reducing the impact of war on civilians. Civilians are most often in the front lines of attack because they willingly or unwillingly hide and protect armed groups in their midst. Many models have been developed in different contexts to more clearly separate the combatants from the non-combatants, including the Peace Communities of Colombia and the Weapon-Free Zones of South Sudan. So long as both sides respect these areas equally, they can work quite effectively. Much more can be done to develop this idea further and in contexts where the separation of combatants is more problematic, but the key is getting a joint commitment from both sides to respect civilian areas and to stay away from them.

Another way to keep armed groups away from civilian populations is to consistently monitor and report to the leadership of those groups what is going on with their own troops. Often guerrilla leaders, and sometimes even commanders in national armed forces, are not aware of what their troops are doing on the ground. As with many of the efforts undertaken in the field of “security sector reform,” helping to strengthen the chain of command within poorly managed armed groups can actually be of great benefit to the civilian population, since much of the abuse that takes place outside of normal combat is through lack of discipline and misbehavior by rank and file soldiers who, once again, think they can get away with things if no one is paying attention to them.

One of the most effective ways of ensuring that civilians are not being abused or mistreated by soldiers on the ground is to have built relationships of mutual trust all the way up the chain of command, up to and including political leaders who may carry some weight and influence with the military leaders. When a problem arises at a checkpoint or with a patrol in the jungle or wherever, the first port of call is with the local commander. If the local commander is unable or unwilling to resolve the problem, sometimes just suggesting that we will be going to his superior is enough. If not, going to his superior is the next step, and so on up the chain of command until someone, somewhere along the way, realizes that this is a breach that could have an impact on their public image and therefore is willing to step in and resolve the issue.

Sometimes the military structure itself is unwilling to intervene or sees it as a strategic necessity to continue on the path they are on. At that point, it may take someone outside the military or guerrilla structure to have an influence on them. Rarely is it the case that there is no one at all who can see that it is in their own best interest to change course. The aim is to find someone who does understand the import of what is happening and is able to influence others. Sometimes it may take a very convoluted chain of influence to reach the right person with the right message, but it is almost always possible.

It goes without saying that a strategy of influence based on being able to talk to anyone up and down the chain of command as well as to people on the periphery of a military or guerrilla structure requires an extraordinary amount of relationship building and trust. This, at the end of the day, is the crux of this approach. Without building trust and close relationships with people inside both or all sides of a conflict, there is little chance of influencing them when it comes to protecting civilians and developing less violent ways of carrying on their conflict.

Building relationships with people engaged in violent conflict requires not only that we give up the idea that these are “bad guys” with blood on their hands and therefore unworthy of our trust and respect; it actually requires us to want to actively help these people and want to work with them to do the right thing, whatever that may be. This is not something that can be undertaken lightly. Your own life, not to mention the lives of other civilians you are trying to protect, is at stake if you are not sincere as well as competent in handling these delicate relationships. But the prize for success is the saving of souls as well as lives, because we are helping people move away from killing and bloodshed and toward a better way of being that benefits everybody.

This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Peace Review on 1 January 2015, available online:
Copyright ⃝C Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN 1040-2659 print; 1469-9982 online
Tim Wallis has a Ph.D. in Peace Studies from Bradford University, UK. He was International Secretary of PBI (1991–1994), Editor of Peace News (1994–1997), Director of the National Peace Council (1997–2000), Director of Peaceworkers UK (2000–2006), Training Director of International Alert (2006–2008), Programme Director of Nonviolent Peaceforce (2008–2009), and Executive Director of Nonviolent Peaceforce (2010–2012).

Send in the Blue Shirts

Send in the Blue Shirts!


UN ‘blue helmets’ have been deployed since the 1950s to ‘keep the peace’ in places like Cyprus, Lebanon, Liberia, Guatemala… How successful they have been at keeping the peace is disputable. What is beyond dispute is that the use of military forces for ‘peacekeeping’, ‘peace’ operations and supposedly ‘humanitarian’ purposes in general has become the main or even sole justification in modern society for maintaining such forces and for deploying them to other countries, even in a war-fighting capacity. Of course wars are fought for all kinds of political and economic reasons and rarely for a truly ‘humanitarian’ purpose. Nevertheless governments must be able to justify the use of public money and the loss of human lives in terms that are acceptable to the general public. Tony Blair could not have sent UK troops to Kosovo or even to Sierra Leone without justifying these interventions as ‘humanitarian’ ones. Although the war in Afghanistan was generally accepted as a punitive response to 9/11, even this was justified at the time in terms of the need to ‘rescue’ the Afghani people from the evils of the Taliban – just as the Iraq War was needed to ‘rescue’ the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein, as well as to rescue us from those famous weapons of mass destruction.


If we were to give the British people the benefit of the doubt and assume they are not so stupid or gullible as to swallow wholesale every piece of propaganda they get from the government, then we would be obliged to accept that so long as there does not appear to be any better way of dealing with natural and man-made disasters than to send in the army from time to time, they will continue to support and pay for standing military forces in order to be able to do just that. That indeed is the fundamental paradox facing UK and European pacifists in the 21st century – armies are increasingly justified as an essential tool for building and maintaining peace in the world! And you are in favour of world peace, aren’t you??!


Few pacifists may be willing to admit that in some cases, UK and other military forces have been a force for peace. They do on occasion stop other people from shooting each other and therefore occasionally save lives rather than destroy them. But of course in places like Afghanistan and Iraq the pretence of ‘peacekeeping’ has been largely abandoned and the armed forces are just doing what they do best, which is to fight wars and kill people – and in the process create more enemies for the future and put all our lives in more danger than they were before. Even when military forces are deployed with a strict peacekeeping mandate, as in the case of Somalia in the early 90s, their presence can still exacerbate the violence rather than reduce it, since military forces by their very nature are protagonists in a war environment, with military assets that other protagonists would like to have or at least to neutralise. They are also, by their very nature, set apart from civilian populations and unable to fully integrate with them except by taking off their weapons and uniforms and becoming civilians themselves.


For these and many other reasons (including above all, cost), even the most militaristic of governments is looking for alternatives to the deployment of military forces to each and every conflict zone in the word today. The sending of police forces rather than military forces is becoming more popular with the EU, for instance. These police forces still on the whole carry weapons, but there is a recognition that having police patrol the streets of Kosovo, for instance, is much more likely to lead to a return to normal life and to the establishment of democratic institutions than having troops still patrolling the streets a full nine years after the war has ended.


Getting blue (police) uniforms onto the streets of post-conflict countries like Kosovo is surely a step forward from sending in the tanks and blue helmets. But not only are these police still armed, they also have little or no training or background in how to handle real conflict situations. They are trained to deal with criminal behaviour and crowds. Police crowd control techniques may be useful in some cases for avoiding violence, but in other cases it can clearly fuel it, as was the case a few years ago when violence erupted in northern Kosovo largely through a mishandling of the situation by the international police. In fact, police forces have so far proved less effective than military forces in these situations, largely because their ability to prevent and deter violent behaviour depends ultimately on the use of force and unlike the military they don’t actually have any.


A true alternative to military peacekeeping must therefore rely on forms of pressure and influence other than the use of force. Foreign journalists and diplomats have known for years that it’s not just the stories they send back home that can have an impact. Just by being there, being visible and being foreign, they can have a very direct impact on the behaviour of soldiers and politicians in wartime situations and this impact can reduce violence and save lives. Col. Bob Stewart describes a time when he was commanding NATO troops in Bosnia and a column of Nato tanks was being held up at a Serbian checkpoint and not let through. He could have opened fire on the checkpoint, killed all the Serb soldiers and forced his way through the checkpoint, but the repercussions of that could have resulted in even more civilian casualties, with reprisals against the local population, round-ups, burning of houses, maybe even massacres. Instead he brought out the most powerful weapon he had at his disposal – the BBC! He sent them to the front of the tanks to start filming and interviewing the Serb soldiers. Within minutes, the tanks were through the checkpoint without a shot being fired.


In 1983, at the height of the US-sponsored Contra War in Nicaragua, small groups of Americans were going down to Nicaragua to see for themselves what was going on so they could go home and tell their fellow church-goers how their tax dollars were being spent. But time and again, they would go to a village that was being attacked by the Contras only to find that when they got there the attacks would stop. This led to the realisation that if a constant stream of Americans were pouring into these villages on a regular basis there would be no more Contra War! Over the next several years more than 20,000 people did just that and the ability of the Reagan administration to covertly overthrow the Sandinistas through the Contras was demonstrably curtailed.


No organisation has invested as much into this very simple concept as Peace Brigades International. Beginning also in the early 1980s, PBI volunteers discovered in Guatemala that by being present, being visible and being foreign they could actually stop death threats from being carried out against peace and human rights activists there. In El Salvador, where industrial disputes routinely resulted in the assassination or disappearance of trade union leaders, PBI volunteers were suddenly witnessing strikes, pickets and demonstrations that would end successfully without a single casualty. In over 25 years of providing this kind of protection in some of the most violent countries on the planet, not a single PBI volunteer has been killed – and even more strikingly, nor has a single person they have been accompanying.


There is, of course, much more to this than meets the eye. International presence and protective accompaniment does not always save lives or reduce violence. Other factors must also be in place and a lot of work must go on behind the scenes to back up the physical presence on the ground. Nevertheless, the fact that this presence can have any effect at all is remarkable and ground-breaking. Since the early days of PBI and Witness for Peace in Central America, the technique has been tried out by many other organisations in many other parts of the world, nowhere more so than in the Middle East, where dozens of organisations are deploying internationals to protect Palestinian civilians from Israeli settlers and the Israeli Defence Forces. These organisations range from the World Council of Churches, with its Ecumenical Accompaniment Project for Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), to the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), with its olive-picking brigades and other efforts to get internationals to physically obstruct Israeli activities on the West Bank. The Women’s International Peace Service for Palestine gets women from other parts of the world to live and work in Palestinian homes and communities as a means of providing protection. Grassroots Protection of the Palestinian People organises summer camps and other events to get as many internationals into the West Bank as possible on a regular and ongoing basis.


In Palestine – and in Iraq – people have been killed doing this kind of work. And it clearly has not stopped the violence in these places. Yet these experiences are also demonstrating what is possible and we are all learning from them – from the successes as well as from the mistakes. The deployment of unarmed civilians from around the world into situations of violent conflict can protect people, save lives and reduce the incidence of violence. We are still at the very beginning of understanding what this discovery really means and how to use it. Perhaps it could transform the way people think about violent conflicts and how to handle them in the future. Perhaps instead of sending in the blue helmets or the blue uniforms next time violence erupts in Kosovo or Georgia or some other place, there will be a clamour for sending in the ‘blue shirts’ instead!


If pacifists really want to abolish the military and all that goes with it, we must first abolish the last remaining justification for it in the eyes of the general public. We must make unarmed civilian peacekeeping a viable option and one which can genuinely respond to humanitarian emergencies, war, genocide and ethnic cleansing. We still have a long way to go but the seeds of that possibility are there. The Nonviolent Peaceforce is the latest attempt to turn that possibility into a full-scale reality. It was launched in 2002 as an initiative of 75 peace organisations from over 30 countries to try to move the concept of unarmed civilian peacekeeping onto a new level, through advocacy at the UN level and a pooling of resources so as to deploy larger-scale international missions than any of the existing organisations have so far been able to deploy. Its first project in Sri Lanka currently has over 60 people deployed, both nationals as well as internationals from the UK, US, Germany, Egypt, Brazil, Japan, Ghana, Kenya, Pakistan, Nepal, Canada, Colombia, India, Philippines, Nigeria. Its impact is still quite small but the potential is there. It needs your support!


Civilian Peacekeepers: Creating a Safe Environment for Peacebuilding

Civilian Peacekeepers: Creating a Safe Environment for Peacebuilding

Tim Wallis and Claudia Samayoa

 [From Paul van Tongeren et al, eds, People Building Peace II: Successful Stories of Civil Society, Lynne Rienner, London 2005. pp 363 – 368]


Most people think of ‘peacekeeping’ as a military activity, involving troops sent into a conflict area by the UN or some other official body to stop the fighting and restore order. In its broader sense, however, peacekeeping can include any activity that seeks to reduce violence and create a safe environment for other peacebuilding activities to take place. Many peacekeeping activities can be carried out just as effectively by unarmed civilians. This chapter looks at some examples of civilian peacekeeping as well as some of the issues involved.


People cannot create or re-establish peaceful communities while they are being threatened, intimidated or attacked. A certain degree of personal security is needed in order to use any of the peacebuilding tools described in the other chapters of this book. The aim of civilian peacekeeping is to establish and maintain that minimum level of security that enables people to feel safe enough to move around, organize and take effective action to defend human rights and promote peace. Civilian peacekeeping cannot resolve a conflict or build peace, but it can enable other peacemaking and peacebuilding activities to take place.


Civilian peacekeeping involves a set of tools which have proven to be effective in deterring violent attacks and opening up the political space within which local people can engage in peacebuilding activities. The organizations which have developed and continue to use these tools do not necessarily see themselves as ‘peacekeepers’. Some describe themselves as ‘unarmed bodyguards’ or ‘human shields’. Others talk about ‘witnessing’, being ‘monitors’ or providing a ‘presence’. All the activities included in this chapter, however, involve attempts to stop or deter violence and therefore we feel justified in using the generic ‘peacekeeping’ term to describe them.


Deterring Violence, Changing Behaviour

All peacekeeping, whether civilian or military, has as its foundation the concept of a ‘presence which can deter violence and change behavior’. During the Contra war in Nicaragua, attacks on border villages would cease whenever a delegation from Witness for Peace was in the area. At Israeli checkpoints on the West Bank, treatment of Palestinians has been markedly more civilized when journalists or foreign peace activists have been present. Such responses cannot, of course, be guaranteed, but establishing a ‘presence’ has become an effective tool for averting violence in many parts of the world.


Monitoring of ceasefire agreements and of military or police activities is something that civilians have been doing alongside military peacekeepers for some time. In 1998-99, the entirely unarmed OSCE Kosovo Verification Mission was responsible for monitoring the withdrawal of Serbian troops and return of Kosovan refugees to their homes. Since 2000, civilian monitors with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have been monitoring the border between Georgia and Chechnya. Civil society organizations have tended to focus on more specialist monitoring activities such as monitoring of election violence and policing of peaceful demonstrations.


Protective accompaniment is a more specific peacekeeping tool developed by Peace Brigades International and now used by a number of other organizations working in Latin America and other parts of the world. This involves being with individuals (human rights activists, for example) or groups who are under threat of violent attack for up to 24 hours a day. It relies upon various forms of political pressure to dissuade the attackers from carrying out their threat. This has proved highly effective in certain situations, although it is dangerous to assume it will work in situations where the perpetrators of violence are not so susceptible to outside pressures.


Many people assume that peacekeeping is essentially about getting between opposing armies and preventing them from fighting. Unless the aim of a military intervention is to fight and defeat one or other party militarily, however, the only way a peacekeeping force can effectively ‘keep the peace’ is if all sides consent to their presence and have already agreed to a ceasefire. Civilians are even less able to stand between opposing armies and make them stop fighting, although there have been valiant attempts to do just this. On a smaller scale, however, civilians have certainly ‘interposed’ themselves between attacker and victim and in many individual cases this has prevented an attack from taking place.


A Brief Survey of Civilian Peacekeeping

Civilian peacekeeping techniques have evolved in part from their military equivalents. But many techniques also have their own history which can be traced back to Gandhi and other visionaries who proposed purely nonviolent methods of preventing or stopping violence. In 1922, Gandhi proposed the establishment of a Shanti Sena or ‘peace army’ made up of trained volunteers who would intervene nonviolently to prevent communal bloodshed throughout India. This Shanti Sena was later set up after his death and spread from India to other parts of Asia, where they continue to this day, although focused more on rural development than on peacekeeping as such.


The civilian component of official UN peacekeeping missions has risen dramatically, now accounting for over one quarter of all UN peacekeeping staff. Purely civilian missions, such as those of the OSCE and the European Union, have also grown in recent years. The OSCE alone currently has over 1,000 international field staff and 2,000 local staff on 18 missions throughout Eastern Europe and central Asia. These are engaged in monitoring and promotion of human rights, elections, democratization and rule of law as well as basic monitoring of violence and military activity. Other civilian missions have been established on an ad hoc basis, for instance the Bougainville Peace Monitoring Group, the Temporary International Presence in Hebron and the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission – all official civilian missions although not directly under the auspices of the United Nations.


There has been a proliferation of civil society organizations engaged in peacekeeping activities since the launch of Peace Brigades International in 1981. Growing itself out of earlier projects, it was the pioneering work of PBI in Guatemala during the early 1980s that demonstrated how effective this work could be and set the scene for other organizations to follow. During the 1980s and 1990s, Witness for Peace, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Balkan Peace Team, Cry for Justice (in Haiti) and the International Service for Peace in Chiapas (SIPAZ) brought larger and larger numbers of Europeans and North Americans face to face with the realities of conflict and began to make a significant impact on the ability of local groups to function and organize in those regions.


In 1994, the Ecumenical Monitoring Project for South Africa (EMPSA) brought over 400 people to South Africa to help monitor and prevent violence before and during the first post-apartheid elections in that country.


Since the second Palestinian intifada began in 2001, many hundreds of people have gone to be part of the international presence there, through organizations such as the International Solidarity Movement, Grassroots Initiative for the Protection of the Palestinians (GIPP), United Civilians for Peace, the Women’s International Peace Service for Palestine and the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine/ Israel (EAPPI).

The challenges of civilian peacekeeping

The changing nature of civilian peacekeeping is illustrated by the Bantay Ceasefire case, where an intervention in the South is done by groups also from the South (see Chapter 15.4). With the emergence of the South as an actor in this field and not only as a passive recipient of interventions from the North, other issues about the nature of civilian peacekeeping have arisen.


For Northerners, civilian peacekeeping has been largely seen as an activity for external third parties, but there are conflict situations where local groups can play the role of peacekeeping more effectively than outsiders. In Colombia, Guatemala, Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines and elsewhere the tools and techniques are being used more and more by local actors to prevent violence in their own communities. In this context, the role of outsiders has become one of capacity building with local organizations as a way of recognizing and strengthening their own peacekeeping potential.


As new patterns of violence emerge in the South that involve not only state sponsored violence, but also organized crime and transnational corporations, new and more creative solutions to the problem of tackling violence and intimidation are required, but protection by respected outsiders in many cases is still the only resort there is to create space for local groups to operate.


There is a continuing tension between the voluntary nature of many organizations engaged in this work versus the need for professionalism and specialist skills. When PBI began working in Guatemala, for instance, young volunteers with no training or experience would join the teams for as little as two weeks. Other projects in the Balkans and elsewhere have relied on young conscientious objectors doing their alternative to military service. These experiences have led many organizations to set higher standards for the level of maturity and specific skills required for the very sensitive situations faced by civilian peacekeepers. For example, PBI now requires that volunteers are at least 25 years old, undertake an intensive period of training and long-distance learning, and commit to volunteering in the field for at least one year.


Another challenge facing civilian peacekeepers is their relation to governments and official (military) peacekeeping missions. Unarmed civilians may be able to influence the behavior of armed actors precisely because of their independence from governments. But they may also need political and financial support from governments in order to be there at all. Finding the right balance between these two positions can be very difficult, particularly on the ground where complete separation from official missions operating in the same area may be impossible.


Many of the organizations involved in this work have grown out of a strong religious or ideological commitment to nonviolence. This has affected both the ways in which this work has been described as well as the constituencies to whom it appeals. As the field becomes more professionalized, there is a growing tendency to describe it more pragmatically in language understood by more mainstream audiences. The tension between the ideological and pragmatic approaches to this work continues to manifest itself over issues such as nonpartisanship versus solidarity with local partner organizations.


Another tricky area facing civilian peacekeepers is their relationship to international media. Peacekeepers want to encourage media interest in the conflict and on the peace work that is being done locally. When these are not in themselves of mainstream interest, however, the media tend to focus on the personal stories of outside peacekeepers. This is sometimes helpful but can also be extremely counterproductive and therefore requires careful consideration by the organizations engages in this work.


Building global capacity for civilian peacekeeping

Some of the lessons learned over the last half century of civilian peacekeeping are that neither military nor civilian peacekeepers can ‘stop wars’ just by standing in the middle of the battlefield. There is a need for long-term commitment and for many different types of complementary activities to effectively stop wars or build a sustainable peace. The local conditions must be right for civilian peacekeeping to have any chance of success. And it has proved to be crucially important that outsiders work with and through local partners on the ground and that they are backed up with political and other pressures from outside. Civilian peacekeepers, like their military counterparts, need proper training and preparation. They need adequate backup support and an effective infrastructure to maintain the work over time.


The most comprehensive attempt to evaluate best practice and lessons learned in civilian peacekeeping to date was commissioned by Peaceworkers (USA) in 1999. This two-year research project looked at mandates, strategies, infrastructure, field relationships, personnel issues, training, recruitment, funding and political support behind the civilian peacekeeping efforts of 57 civil society initiatives between 1914 and 2001. It also looked at a number of larger-scale civilian or predominantly civilian missions of the UN, OSCE and other official bodies.

Out of this research effort has come a global initiative of over 90 organizations from 47 countries to build the capacity for larger-scale civilian peacekeeping interventions by civil society. The Nonviolent Peaceforce was officially launched in India in 2002 and is currently running its first pilot project in Sri Lanka.

Although the Sri Lanka project is still on a comparatively small scale, the Nonviolent Peaceforce is building a pool of people with appropriate skills and experience for much larger missions if and when these are needed. It is also collaborating with other civil society organizations engaged in this work to ensure that best practices and lessons learned are shared and used to strengthen and improve future efforts in civilian peacekeeping.

As the Nonviolent Peaceforce experiments with the possibilities of civilian peacekeeping on a larger scale, other organizations in this field are continuing to develop and refine the techniques required to meet the challenges of violence in the 21st century. Still a largely untapped resource, civilian peacekeeping is rapidly becoming an essential element of the peacebuilder’s toolbox.


List of organizations/websites

  1. Nonviolent Peaceforce:
  2. Peace Brigades International:
  3. Witness for Peace:
  4. Christian Peacemaker Teams:
  5. Ecumenical Action for Peace in Palestine/Israel:
  6. International Service for Peace (SIPAZ):


Selected Bibliography

  1. Christine Schweitzer et al, Nonviolent Peaceforce Feasibility Study, Nonviolent Peaceforce, St Paul, Minnesota, 2001.
  2. Liam Mahoney and Luis Enrique Eguren, Unarmed Bodyguards: International Accompaniment for the Protection of Human Rights, Kumarian Press, W. Hartford, Connecticut, 1997.
  3. Thomas Weber and Jeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, Nonviolent Intervention Across Borders: A Recurring Vision, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, 2000.
  4. Lisa Schirch, Keeping the Peace: Exploring Civilian Alternatives to Violence Prevention, Life & Peace Institute, Uppsala, Sweden, 1995.


Tim Wallis and Claudia Samayoa are co-chairs of the Nonviolent Peaceforce. Tim is a former International Secretary of PBI and currently Director of Peaceworkers UK in London. Claudia is a Guatemalan human rights defender and Acting Secretary to the Coalition of Human Rights Organizations that Struggle Against Clandestine Groups.



Bearing Witness to Nonviolence

“PBI-Bearing Witness to Nonviolence”

for Quaker Monthly, Feb 1993
I remember, not very many years ago, feeling it my duty to remind people who sat in comfortable armchairs that the world out there was not at “peace”, that in fact wars were raging on almost every continent, that more people had already been killed by wars since the second world war than were killed during it, etc. etc. With the end of the Cold War has come the end of that particular “peace” myth. There is no longer any need to remind people of the constant reality of war. Sadly it is all too obvious, with more wars entering our sitting rooms through television than ever before.

Now I am beginning to feel it my duty to remind people that war is not the inevitable state of human affairs it appears to be, that in fact peace also continues to rage… Indeed I find myself trying to convince life-long pacifists that military intervention is not the only way to stop “ethnic cleansing” and other horrors of modern war. It saddens me that some people can so easily abandon their faith in nonviolence, but it does not entirely surprise me. For those of us who sit in comfortable armchairs watching it all on television, the choice between violence and nonviolence can be a rather academic one.

For the people who must live in former-Yugoslavia, or in South Africa, or in Guatemala, or in Sri Lanka, the choice between violence and nonviolence is by no means academic. It is a living and daily reality. And though admittedly only a very few in that situation choose nonviolence, it is these people who keep alive my own faith in nonviolence. It is with these people that I believe the whole future of humanity rests.

Such people exist, I feel quite sure, in every situation of war or violent conflict. But they may not out-live that conflict. Indeed they are highly vulnerable targets of that conflict, for once the killing begins, there is enormous pressure from all sides to close ranks and support the war effort. Truth is indeed an early casualty of war, and the bearers of truth are the first to be silenced.

But what would happen if the forces for peaceful change were nurtured and given the sort of attention normally paid to those who wage war? Might not the voice of reason begin to prevail, the violence peter out, and peaceful resolution become possible? Perhaps this sounds so far-fetched and hypothetical only because it is so rarely taken seriously, even by pacifists. Instead we nurture and reinforce the violent option by suggesting that only the greater violence of NATO or the UN can succeed in stopping it.

Peace Brigades International was founded in 1981 by a small group of people from around the world who knew about the alternatives to violence from their own experience – people who personally worked with Gandhi in India, and alongside Martin Luther King in the US; people who witnessed Kenneth Kaunda’s nonviolent revolution in Zambia; people who had conducted brave experiments in nonviolence during bloody wars in Cyprus, Zaire, Palestine, and Northern Ireland.

These practitioners of nonviolence came together to create an organisation that would actively support nonviolent alternatives in the midst of war. They were not claiming to have all the answers to other people’s conflicts. I myself do not think we need to know what are the specific nonviolent alternatives to a specific violent situation to know for sure that there must be some. In fact I do not think it is our job as “outsiders” even to look for such alternatives. The best we can do is to support the “insiders” who are looking for alternatives to violence. Only the people engaged in a particular conflict know the full context within which their conflict is being waged. We are but mere on-lookers whose best expertise is as likely to exacerbate as to heal the wounds of war.

PBI seeks to identify those individuals and groups who are working in their various ways to promote a true and lasting peace despite the killing going on around them. Just finding these people and seeing the work they are doing is itself an inspiring task. It puts us in touch with the real saints and heroes of our generation – people of great courage and inner strength, often risking torture or assassination to continue doing what they are doing – people like Rigoberto Menchu, who was escorted by PBI for many years before winning the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of the Mayans of Guatemala.

The more we look, the more of these people we find. They are there in the Centre for Peace, Nonviolence and Human Rights in the front-line town between Croatia and Serbia. They are there struggling between the drug barons, war-lords, and death-squads in Barrancabermeja, Colombia. They are there trying to promote brotherhood and harmony between Tamils and Muslims in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka. Amidst the most brutal and bloody conflicts in the world we find such people. Even at the point it would seem every possible proponent of peace has been systematically identified and silenced through policies of terror such as continue to be employed in Guatemala, still we find them. They are carrying the torch for nonviolence long after our own armchair pacifists have given it up as hopelessly idealistic. If we could do nothing else to help these people, we would at least be preserving for posterity a record of their existence – a reminder to others that such people as these have lived in our own lifetime.

Fortunately we can do more to help these people than merely record their existence. We can quite literally protect them in their most vulnerable circumstances, by using the spotlight of world public opinion in much the same way as Amnesty does. We can enable them to carry on their work, by opening up the political “space” within which they must operate. We can even embolden them to do more and to build from small and precarious beginnings into movements that might have some chance of shifting the whole conflict away from violence. This is not just idle theory. We have seen it happening – in El Salvador, in Colombia, in Palestine, in Northern Ireland – one by one people beginning to lay down their arms and to choose nonviolent ways of fighting for their cause.

We cannot prove there is a direct link between a PBI presence and the success of nonviolence. The work of PBI is not yet on such a grand scale as this. Nevertheless we do know that the continued and persistent presence of international volunteers in Guatemala, El Salvador and Sri Lanka has thwarted the work of death squads unwilling to operate in the limelight, thus saving the lives of many individuals who most assuredly would otherwise have been “disappeared”. We also know that our presence has helped to spread information about what is going on to a much wider audience, through the ripple effects of over 200 volunteers from 15 countries taking their first-hand experiences back home with them. PBI as an organisation is barely 12 years old. We are in our infancy and we are still learning. But already we have begun to make a difference. And we are daily discovering the true and wondrous power of nonviolence as we witness it in the lives of those who risk death to fight nonviolently for what they believe in.

-Timmon Wallis