Non-Violent Peace Brigades: How Fast Can We Move?

I envision an international ideal of service awakening in an emerging class of people who are best called evolutionaries. I see them as soldiers, as youth, and as those who have soldier spirit within them. I see them come together in the name of people and planet to create a new environment of support for the positive growth of humankind and the living earth mother. Their mission is to protect the possible and to nurture the potential. They are the evolutionary guardians who focus their loving protection and affirm their allegiance to people and planet for their own good and for the good of those they serve. They are pioneers, not palace guards. – Jim Chanon, First Earth Battalion

The United Nations General Assembly has designated October 2 as the International Day of Nonviolence. October 2 is the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. For Gandhi, non-violence was at the center of his philosophy and actions. Thus it is appropriate to mark the day with an analysis of one aspect of non-violent action: the role of peace teams as observers in conflict situations.

The armed conflict between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia starting on August 8 as most people were watching the start of the Olympic games is a test case in real time of how fast governments can negotiate a ceasefire, a freeze on military activity and the deployment of external observers on the frontiers of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The full team of European Union (EU) observers, some 300 persons, is to be in place by October 1. As France has the presidency of the EU until the end of 2008, the French government had its team of 30 observers on the ground by 25 September, waiting for the full contingent of EU observers. The observers, while unarmed, are from military and internal security units.

During the first weeks of the conflict, there were only Russian peacekeepers. The Russian peacekeepers have been there since 1994 when an agreement was signed in Geneva among Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia, and the UN. The UN was to mediate in the Georgia-Abkhazia conflict and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) the Georgia-South Ossetia conflict. The Commonwealth of Independent States was to provide peacekeepers – basically observers. The CIS states were quickly reduced to only Russia. There are no reports that the Russian peacekeepers tried to prevent the fighting between Georgian and Russian troops or between the Georgian and South Ossetia militias. The degree of government control over these militias cannot be known.

The violence has led to a refugee flow from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, mostly of ethnic Georgians. The current refugees join some 200,000 Georgian refugees, mostly from Abkhazia, due to the 18 months of fighting during 1992-1994. Most of the ethnic Georgian refugees have not been permanently resettled in Georgia and continue to live in unstable conditions. It is unlikely that, after the current flair up of violence, there will be any massive return of refugees.

The EU observers are from the military. I do not have access to the resumes of the observers to know how many have served in other countries, in UN missions or received special training in unarmed observation. As we mark the International Day of Nonviolence, it is appropriate to ask could non-violent peace teams have reached the Georgia-Abkhazia and Georgia – South Ossetia frontiers faster had they been called upon by the EU or the UN to do so? We can also try to look at why governments still turn to their armed forces to provide observers in conflict areas.

There have been a good number of efforts to create non-violent teams which could work internationally somewhat on the model that Mahatma Gandhi and his followers developed in India, the Shanti Sena, to work primarily in local communal tensions.(1) One of the first and most ambitious was the proposed "Peace Army" to be a ‘living wall’ between the advancing Japanese Army and the Chinese defenders of Shanghai in 1932. The effort, based in the UK, was offered to the League of Nations, but since the League was not planning to get involved, nothing came of the effort. Japan continued its conquest.

A second opportunity to show the effectiveness of non-violent inter-positioning came in August 1981 with the newly created US-Canada-based Peace Brigades International (PBI). In August 1981, there was a fear that US troop maneuvers in Honduras on the frontier with Nicaragua would be a prelude for a US or a US-aided attack on the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. PBI was able to draw upon an already existing team of people in southern California, some of whom were trained in radio transmission. The team had already trained together and built up a ‘team spirit’. The team was able top move out quickly. Negotiations with diplomats from Nicaragua and Honduras were carried out at the UN in New York as part of the PBI secretariat was in Philadelphia, in easy reach of New York. After the US-Hondourous maneuvers finished, the fear of a real invasion ended, and the PBI team was withdrawn. (2)

One never knows if there were serious US plans for an attack or if support for the Contras was all that was envisaged. This experience showed the need for having an existing trained team and for good contacts with ambassadors at the UN. Given the crucial importance of close contacts with the UN, I was asked to represent PBI at the UN in Geneva, which I did from 1982 until about 1996 when there were changes in the functioning of the PBI secretariat. For reasons I do not know, after the one experience on the Nicaragua-Honduras frontier, there was no further use made of the team from southern California. PBI recruitment was done on an individual basis. Teams were constituted when individuals arrived in the country of action. The PBI activity became centered on individual protective accompaniment of local human rights activists living under threat of abduction or assassination in Guatemala. (3)

During the 1980s, the Ambassador of Nicaragua to the UN in Geneva was one of my former students who kept me well informed about Central American politics. We had discussions on the possibility of non-violent defense against the Contras. While there was interest on the part of the Nicaraguan government, nothing was really put into place.

There were two situations with which I was deeply involved in discussions with UN officials: the large-scale refugee flow of Muslim Burmese to Bangladesh with the danger of a Burmese Army attack on the refugees, and the transport of relief supplies during the wars in ex-Yugoslavia. In both cases, several hundred people would have been necessary with only two weeks notice. PBI was not equipped to raise that number of people in that length of time.

Since the 1981 creation of PBI, a number of other organizations have joined the ranks of non-violent peace teams, some with hopes of building a large reserve of well-trained team members able to go into conflict areas as peacemakers and actively use and share their conflict resolution and peacemaking skills. There has also been a growth in mediation and conflict resolution efforts, both in academic programs and in non-governmental organizations (NGOs). However, as we see in the Georgia conflict, ‘when the chips are down’, governments turn to other governments, not to NGOs.

The confidence of governments only in other governments should come as no surprise. The world is still organized around the role of states, and both the diplomatic services and the military are trained to be state-centric. There is no non-governmental peacemaking organization that springs to the mind of a government official in a crisis situation, with the possible exception of the International Committee of the Red Cross which is bound to governments by treaties which set out its rights and responsibilities.

As Brian Urquhart, for many years the chief political officer in the United Nations, has written "Peacekeeping depends on the non-use of force and on political symbolism". The Red Cross is one of the most universally recognized political symbols. Even those who do not respect the Geneva Conventions know they are not supposed to shoot people with a Red Cross flag. Only the UN flag has such wide recognition as a non-state symbol.

The second weakness of non-governmental peacekeeping is the lack of availability of people on short notice. While there are an increasing number of people who have studied in conflict resolution courses or have participated in efforts in the field, most have jobs, families etc. and cannot drop everything to live on the Georgia-South Ossetia frontier for three months. The military are sitting around waiting for something to do. The only civilian equivalents are monks. I had once thought that it might be possible to re-create the ‘fighting monks’ of Japanese history. I saw teams of Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu monks all trained and ready to be deployed. For a while in the 1980s when there were a good number of communes, I thought about ‘New Age monks’ that could play the same role. But I must not have been convincing enough.

The third weakness is related to the other two. The people on the ground who are to be protected or at leased ‘observed’ know what the military are. They may not like soldiers, but they have seen them before. Non-violent peacekeepers without a recognizable symbol or uniform are unknowns and there is little time to explain.

Non-violence is still more potential than reality. On the International Day of Nonviolence, we have to consider the road not yet travelled.


Rene Wadlow, Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens and editor of the on-line journal of world politics and culture:


1. Thomas Weber.Gandhi’s Peace Army: The Shanti Sena and Unarmed Peacekeeping, (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996, 293pp.)

2. For an account see: Daniel Clark Transnational Action for Peace Transnational Perspectives Vol 9, N°4, 1983

3. For a full analysis see: Liam Mahony and Luis Enrique Eguren Unarmed Bodyguards: International Accompaniment for the Protection of Human Right, (West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press, 1997, 288pp.)