“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.