Nonviolent Peaceforce Tries Unarmed Intervention (12/03

Peace activist Donna Howard had plenty of time to reflect during the 14 months she spent behind bars after a 1996 Ploughshares action at a nuclear weapons site. Confined in five different jail and prison cells, what she thought about was space – political space.

"We have to build a system," she concluded, "a new tool that will help us keep from reverting to that tired old system of war." After her release, she returned home to Duluth, Minnesota, where she had founded a Catholic Worker community. Looking for others who shared her vision of a third party intervention force, she found a group of activists in the Twin Cities who had recently presented a proposal at The Hague Appeal for Peace in the Netherlands.

What emerged was a shared vision: Nonviolent Peaceforce, a trained, international, unarmed, civilian force that intervenes in conflicts around the world. The aim is "to prevent death and destruction and protect human rights, thus creating the space for local groups to struggle nonviolently, enter into dialogue, and seek peaceful resolution."

The idea of paid, professionally-trained civilians waging peace around the globe isn’t new. Mahatma Gandhi imagined a shantisena, or nonviolent army, shortly before an assassin cut him down in 1948. His Indian followers subsequently experimented with his idea and achieved some success. Peaceforce also hopes to build on the work of organizations such

as Witness for Peace, Peace Brigades International, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation in places like Colombia, Guatemala, Israel-Palestine, and the Balkans.

"The Nonviolent Peaceforce will not address the roots of violence, but it’s creating the space, the momentum, the energy to allow groups to work," explains Claudia Virginia Samayoa, a Guatemalan human rights activist who works with Rigoberta Menchu and co-chairs the Peaceforce’s governing council. Thanks to Howard and other Minnesota peacemakers, Samayoa received much-needed "political space" after a colleague was killed and her own life was threatened in 2002. Minnesota activists went to Guatemala and provided her with round-the-clock protection for several months.

Intervention Options

Peaceforce Executive Director Mel Duncan says the project has developed in stages since he first met David Hartsough, of the San Francisco-based Peaceworkers, at the Hague in 1999. The two teamed up to produce a proposal which has been refined by hundreds of individuals and organizations around the world. They hired a German researcher, Christine Schweitzer, to lead a team that developed what Duncan calls "the most comprehensive study on nonviolent intervention that’s ever been done."

"In addition to the research," Duncan says, "we started visiting some of the most violent places in the world – Zimbabwe, Uganda, Israel-Palestine, Colombia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka – and talking with the peace movements there." They learned several things. The first is that "no one can make someone else’s peace for them," says Duncan. "The most we can do is help protect human life and human rights and create the space for peace movements to do their work, and stay alive in the process."

Second, there are "strong, courageous peace movements" in all these trouble spots. And third, more often than not, these efforts are being carried out by women. "What these women told us," Duncan notes, "is that isolation kills them. If there’s not a political cost for their deaths, then they’re more likely to end up in a ditch."

To help shield peacemakers from harm, Nonviolent Peaceforce plans to test and expand on four techniques of third party nonviolent intervention:

Interposition. This method is used when two forces are moving toward confrontation. A third force intervenes, usually physically, to prevent or reduce the violence, or protect one side from the violence of the other.

Observing/Monitoring. The most popular or mainstream method of third party intervention, it is used to help a village maintain a peace zone, or monitor a cease fire or election. Rather than place themselves between opposing groups, observers carry cameras, notebooks, and other reporting tools to provide a reminder that "the whole world is watching."

Protective Accompaniment. Fieldworkers sometimes physically accompany a local activist whose life is threatened, serving as nonviolent bodyguards. This technique can be used to protect an individual or an entire village.

Presence. Fieldworkers can also attempt to influence the dynamics of an open conflict through public actions or highly visible, risky acts of service. Presence differs from accompaniment in that it focuses on the field of combat itself, rather than a relationship with a particular person or group.

Organizations like Peace Brigades International and the Guatemalan Accompaniment Project have experimented with these intervention strategies. But Peaceforce hopes to expand their scope, depth, diversity, and professionalism. Nearly 100 organizations, representing constituencies in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and North America, have agreed to support the effort and assist with recruiting, training, and fundraising. Activists from all these regions compose an International Governing Council (IGC), selected at a convening event near Delhi, India, last December. The event was attended by 130 delegates from 47 nations.

Although its international office is temporarily housed in St. Paul, Peaceforce has staff and offices scattered across the globe, including Brussels, New Delhi, London, and Guayaquil, Ecuador. Seven Nobel Peace Prize laureates have endorsed the organization.

Testing the Theory

The goal is to deploy 2000 unarmed peacekeepers by 2010, backed up by 4000 reserves and 5000 supporters around the world. Fieldworkers will be expected to serve a two-year hitch. But unlike many similar organizations, recruits will be paid a modest salary. Financial compensation is considered an essential inducement to attract peacemakers from poor nations in the southern hemisphere.

The first test is underway, as the organization begins to deploy a team in Sri Lanka. Its goal: to help sustain a fragile cease fire in this island nation just south of India, where 65,000 people have died and over 1.5 million have been displaced during a 20-year civil war.

So far, a project director and 14 field workers have been hired, trained and detached to the country, where they will be stationed at multiple sites. Eventually, 50 team members will be working in 16 villages.

This small, initial team also reflects the emphasis on global diversity. Representatives come from 12 countries, including India, Brazil, Kenya, Ghana, Canada, and the Philippines. Volunteers range in age from 24 to 60, and the majority are female. Recruits underwent screening, assessment, and three weeks of intensive training in Thailand. George Lakey and Daniel Hunter of Training for Change developed the curriculum, consulting with dozens of other peacekeeping specialists.

Painstaking research and training is critical to the ultimate success of this peacemaking experiment, says Duncan. "It’s not enough to parachute people into zones of conflict with rucksacks full of good intentions." The Sri Lanka project is intended to last three years. It will be evaluated after six months and at the end by the Tromsö Peace Center in Norway. Many hopes, dreams, and plans are riding on its success.

Donna Howard was part of the original research team that visited Sri Lanka. She also coordinated the project’s development during 2003. "There is a lot of anxiety in the country right now," she reports. "The peace process is entirely on hold." Besides enduring ongoing civil strife, the country is still reeling from the worst flood in over a decade. "We have to succeed," she concludes, "or we won’t get another chance."

Fundraising could be a major obstacle. The budget for the Sri Lanka start-up is $1.6 million. (A full contingent of 2000 fieldworkers, plus reserves and supporters, will ultimately cost about $80 million.) Organizers point out that the price tag for Sri Lanka equals what the US military spends in two minutes. They are looking to foundations, religious groups, individuals, and governments for funding. They recently received a grant of 50,000 euros for the pilot project from the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and a Spanish organization has awarded them a peace prize that comes with 3000 Euros.

Ramu Mannivanan, a political science professor at Dehli University, India, whose family fought in the nonviolent struggle against British colonialism, worked closely with Howard to prepare for the Sri Lanka intervention. He looks forward to a day when Nonviolent Peaceforce is equipped to maintain a presence in many countries simultaneously. "I think it’s very important to have the vision first," he says. "Now it’s necessary to build the resources to support the vision."

To learn more about the Nonviolent Peaceforce and offer support, visit their website at