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.