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!