Shepard Fairey’s Peace Goddess. Credit: Flickr/Brian Donovan. Some rights reserved.
Justifications for war are so rampant in our current paradigm that it can be hard to notice and prevent them from penetrating the subconscious. Mainstream culture would have us believe that war is our most effective means of security, but a new paradigm is emerging, with scientific studies that make it clear that a more humane way is indeed possible.
Not only is there another way, but it is also safer and would cost a fraction of the US military budget. Here’s a look at war through the lens of the new story: True security is created by refusing to dehumanize any party in a conflict, and instead raising the human image to its fullest potential. This intention is at the heart of Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping.
What is Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping?
In recent years, Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping has gained recognition as a viable alternative to armed peacekeeping. UCP works by training groups of civilians, sometimes referred to as “peace teams,” in nonviolent de-escalation skills and philosophy, and then placing those people in conflict areas to help protect vulnerable populations and decrease violence.
Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping goes back as far as the Buddha, who once stopped a war between two rival kings from breaking out. As they fought over water rights, the Buddha held up a handful of water between the kings and asked, “What is more precious, blood or water?” The kings replied, “Blood is much more precious, blessed one.” The Buddha then said, “Let us not spill what is more precious for what is less.”
While it can be argued that UCP has been used throughout all of human history, Mahatma Gandhi was the first to attempt to implement it at a societal level. He envisioned a nonviolent army called the Shanti Sena, Sanskrit for “peace army.” Tragically, Gandhi was assassinated the evening before he was to attend a meeting to launch the Shanti Sena and so it never took full effect.
However, in 1981, a meeting convened in Canada resulted in the inception of Peace Brigades International (PBI), one of the first modern UCP organizations. From 1990 to 2014, the number of UCP organizations increased fivefold, growing from 7 to 35 (while a total of 50 organizations were active throughout this period, only 35 of them were still operating in 2014). Since 1990, UCP missions have operated in 35 countries, by a total of 50 organizations such as PBI.
How does UCP differ from armed peacekeeping?
While armed peacekeeping relies on the threat of violent force to keep vulnerable populations safe, UCP operates on a different level. As explained by Christine Schweitzer, who served as program director for Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP): “In our analysis, there is a double mechanism of protection at work here as in regard to the work of international civilian peacekeepers: they are providing the ‘eye and ear of the world,’ and, being outsiders, are able to talk to all sides of the conflict without being seen as partisan.”
The presence of internationals achieves two things: it allows news of a distant conflict to have greater reach in global media, and it allows the internationals to choose to be a neutral third party, thus giving them an opportunity to de-escalate any side of the conflict. Armed peacekeepers generally do not have an explicit intention of being nonpartisan or being a channel of news and information to the outside world, though this sometimes happens.
UCP re-humanizes all sides of the conflict. For violence to be possible, the perpetrator must see the people they target as less than human (and thus lose part of their own humanity). Dehumanization is woven throughout all military training. And though armed peacekeeping has an aim of preventing violence, it largely uses the same threat of force that the violent faction of a conflict inflicts, but changes the direction of that threat of force so that the violent group also fears it. UCP adheres to an approach free from inciting fear or threat.
UCP proves effective by sending the message that the would-be victims of violence are not less than human; that their lives are so precious that people who have never met them before would give up the distanced comfort of their home countries to live among them in an effort to protect them. Every human life is this sacred. In sending this message, UCP actors have the opportunity to not only protect the vulnerable, but also invite the oppressor off the path of violence and back to a state of congruence, where they can reclaim their own humanity.
Many people believe that going into a conflict without weapons is more dangerous than armed intervention. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Since UCP has only begun to receive the recognition it warrants as a viable alternative to armed interventions, the data collected during the early decades is sparse. However, 13 of the 35 organizations were able to provide accurate numbers of the practitioners on staff since 1990, totaling 3065.
Of these 3065 people in the field, only six deaths have occurred, one of which was a car crash and thus not related to the UCP activities. Comparing these numbers to the fatality rates of armed peacekeeping missions conducted by the United Nations shows that armed peacekeepers are 12 times more likely to die on duty than unarmed civilian peacekeepers.
This fascinating research can be illustrated by a recent story coming from the work of Nonviolent Peaceforce in South Sudan. On April 17, 2014, a United Nations base in Bor was attacked. Two of NP’s peacekeepers, Andres Alejandro Gutierrez Garcia and Derek Oakley, were at a Protection of Civilians area when the attack started. They took shelter in a mud hut with five women and nine children.
Shortly after they entered the hut, gunmen stormed in. Upon seeing two international men among the group of Sundanese women and children, the gunmen demanded that Garcia and Oakley leave immediately. Garcia and Oakley knew that if they left, the women and children would be shot. The peacekeepers exchanged eye contact, visually confirming their agreement to stay, then calmly told the gunmen that, as unarmed international protection officers, they were there to protect civilians.
Twice more the gunmen ordered them to leave, and twice more they respectfully refused. Finally, the gunmen left the hut, harming no one. This story shows with remarkable clarity what may be confusing from the statistics alone: It was the fact that they were unarmed — and trained in nonviolent de-escalation skills — that allowed them to save themselves and 14 others that day. This truth bears repeating: the fact that they did not have weapons was what saved their lives. Being willing to be vulnerable was their greatest protection.
Perhaps the gunmen were not influenced by the peacekeepers’ courageous vulnerability, but rather by other concerns. Killing internationals might have led to graver consequences for the gunmen and their cause than not killing them. Negative press and possible intervention from foreign powers might have thwarted their efforts. However the gunmen made their decision, and the peace team still accomplished its goal of protecting civilians, even if the NP did not persuade violent actors to change their ways.
The success of UCP has major implications for the rest of society. As explained by Michael Nagler: “People support war when they feel there is no viable alternative. If we are able to build peace teams up to scale, it would make it much easier for people to renounce war.” Further than simply renouncing war, we could replace the entire system for a fraction of the cost. According to estimates from peace researcher John Paul Lederach, it would take only 3% of the world’s military budget to build this into a worldwide institution.
Where do we go from here?
For those who may be skeptical that UCP cannot be applied in high conflict areas, it is exciting to note that Nonviolent Peaceforce has received a grant from the European Union to bring its peacekeeping work to Syria. For this initiative, the organization is partnering with Cure Violence, a domestic peace team based in Chicago that has had remarkable success in reducing violence in one of the most dangerous cities in the United States. Together, Nonviolent Peaceforce and Cure Violence will train Syrian civilians in UCP and help establish peace teams on the ground.
With continued innovation in the UCP field, we can find more hope than ever in our power to build a humane alternative to the war system. But for this alternative to truly be strong enough to replace the old paradigm, we will need much greater participation in it. Healthy and healed relationships are the key to sustainable peace, and how we engage in conflict has a large influence on either straining or strengthening our relationships.
As Mel Duncan, the co-founder of Nonviolent Peaceforce, once suggested in an interview on Peace Paradigm Radio, one of the most important things anyone can do to promote the new paradigm in peacekeeping is to share the idea with others.
The next time you find yourself in a conversation with someone who is despondently insisting that we must use violent force to respond to a security threat, tell them about Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping. Tell them there is another way, one that is statistically more effective in saving lives, as well as costs. Tell them about the brave peacekeepers carving a path back to human dignity, and that all of us can be a part of this new story.
When you hear someone beating the drums of war, invite them into the chorus of peace.
This article was first published in Nonviolence.