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.
ISSN 1040-2659 print; 1469-9982 online