When is violence necessary?

Can peaceworkers rule out the possibility of using violence ? Or is it time to recognise that the threat or use of armed force can contribute to conflict transformation?

Michael Randle
7 July 2010

"My aim is to initiate a big discussion between the peace movement and peace professionals". With these words Diana Francis began her presentation at the launch at Housmans Bookshop in London of her latest book, From Pacification to Peacebuilding: A Call to Global Transformation. Diana used the term ‘peace professionals’ to refer to those professionally involved in conflict transformation/conflict resolution work, as opposed to those involved in grassroots peace and radical campaigning, though obviously the latter do include some full-time paid workers. The meeting brought together people from both constituencies as well as some, like Diana, with a foot in both camps.

The thrust of Diana’s argument was that while conflict transformation practitioners could point to undoubted successes in different places and at various levels, in the case of ‘conflicts writ large’ one step forward was often followed by two steps back.  This would continue to be the case until the global system of militarization was confronted and dismantled. Years of patient work could be overturned in an instant when some government or armed group decided to resort to military force to deal with an ongoing dispute. 

In 1997 Conciliation Resources and its local partners in the Caucasus began to resolve differences, and forge links at a people to people level between Georgia and the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but the work was vitiated by the Georgian attack on South Ossetia in March 2008 and the subsequent Russian military intervention in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

If the global military system was to be tackled, Diana continued, the conflict transformation constituency needed to take on board the importance of nonviolent action, work more closely with campaigning movements and confront issues of power and official policy. Conflict resolution has the reputation of being impartial, but in dealing with situations where there is repression, or major power imbalances, nonviolent confrontation and mass mobilization are also required. For their part, peace and radical movements could benefit from the skills and experience of conflict resolution/transformation practitioners.

Scilla Elworthy, chairing the meeting, drew attention to a diagram in Diana's book that sets out in schematic form two contrasting world views and their consequences.  One, which encapsulates Diana’s perspective, takes interdependence as its point of departure and orients people and institutions towards peacebuilding, based on just relationships, mutual care and shared economic and political power.  The other sees life in terms of eating or being eaten and leads to pacification – stability based on hegemony and top-down control, backed by a strong military.

Invitations to the event included a set of questions, including crucially, "how can peace professionals and peace movements work more together to promote nonviolent power and, in Howard Clark’s elegant phrase, “the demilitarization of minds and societies?"

In fact cooperation between ‘peace professionals’ and the peace movement scarcely figured in the subsequent discussion.  Instead attention was directed more to the question of securing cooperation between the various strands of the peace movement itself and between the peace movement and development agencies. Bruce Kent, Vice-president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, spoke of his frustration at being unable to persuade any of the development agencies to mention the billions of pounds being spent on Trident.  However Scilla Elworthy said there were encouraging examples of co-operation among different movements and agencies, one of them being the joint campaign by Oxfam International, Amnesty International and the International Action Network on Small Arms for an Arms Trade Treaty.  

Some of the differences in assumptions about what global demilitarization implies was evident in the comment by Albert Beale of Housmans that for many in the peace movement the idea of an Arms Trade Treaty was anathema.  My own question at the meeting raised the same issue from a different perspective. Are there not occasions on which the threat or use of armed force might contribute to conflict transformation, or any rate be necessary to protect civilian lives? The suppression of the slave trade, which one contributor had cited as a positive example of conflict transformation on a major strategic issue, was enforced by the British navy, prepared if necessary to sink slave ships.  Neither in Northern Ireland nor South Africa, where major structural injustice had at least partially been removed and large-scale violence ended, was there a complete standing down of military forces.  At a more domestic level, in the recent spate of shootings in Cumbria by an armed gunman, was there any alternative to the deployment of armed police units try to deal with the situation?  (This is not, of course, an argument for the police to be routinely armed.)

Diana responded that while it is true that the causes people fight for may be better or worse, she had to believe it is possible to get away from the idea that violence is the right method to use - even for the best of reasons.  South Africa was an example of where people thought nonviolence was going nowhere and set up the military organization, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation.) But in fact it was the unarmed resistance in the townships, coupled with international solidarity and boycotts, that brought about the demise of the apartheid regime.  In the case of the gunman on the loose in Cumbria, it wasn’t the armed police that ended the incident  - the man shot himself.  She really wanted us to be working for a no-arms system; the trouble was that it is very difficult to get from one system to another. However if we kept buying into the old system, it would not end.  Peacekeeping operations, yes by all means, but they don’t work unless there is some kind of ceasefire already in place, and at that point an unarmed force could be deployed. Although peacekeeping operations are mainly carried out by military forces acting under the auspices of UN or regional organizations such as the EU or African Union, unarmed teams with official or NGO backing have also played, and continue to play, peacekeeping roles at various levels.

I am sympathetic, and indeed close to, Diana’s position, but I no longer think one can altogether rule out the possibility of using force, even lethal force, in some circumstances.  Geoffrey Ostergaard, in his paper Gandhian Nonviolence and Passive Resistance uses a quote from Gandhi which touches on the issue:  "He who refrains from killing a murderer who is about to kill his ward (when he cannot prevent him otherwise) earns no merit but commits a sin; he practises not ahimsa but himsa out of a fatuous sense of ahimsa".  Of course the fact that Gandhi said it, does not make it right.  But if one does accept it, it has implications at the collective (community, state and international) level.

I agree that the decisive factor in the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa was the unarmed resistance in the townships, coupled with international boycotts, dis-investment and other forms of pressure.  Nevertheless, the ‘armed struggle’ probably did make a contribution if only at the level of boosting collective morale, and indeed there is frequently that kind of ambiguity in the relationship between violent and nonviolent forms of liberation struggle.

Regarding peacekeeping operations, I think Diana overstates their limitations when she says that they can only be effective where there is already some kind of ceasefire in place and that at that point a unarmed  force could be equally effective.  In Bosnia in the 1990s, UN military peacekeepers were deployed in a still violent situation, despite various ceasefire deals.  Then in Screbrenica in July 1995 the 400 Dutch army peacekeepers under UN auspices withdrew rather than using their weapons against the Serb militia forces under General Mladic, and 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were massacred and between 25,000 and 30,000 ‘ethnically cleansed’. 

Could a dedicated nonviolent force prepared to stand its ground have been more effective?  That seems a tall order in face of the Mladic’s ruthlessness, though it is perhaps just possible he would have held back from killing members of an unarmed peacekeeping force acting on the authority of the UN, the EU or the African Union. Indeed if the Dutch military had stood their ground, that too might have been effective.  Such trained and dedicated unarmed forces were not available then, and are still not available in sufficient numbers to replace military peacekeepers operating in many parts of the world.  However, the efforts of bodies like Peace Brigade International and Nonviolent Peaceforce to train volunteers, and the similar efforts by the EU, UN, and OSCE are important and could open up new possibilities for unarmed peacekeeping in the future. 





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