Building a New Force

What might happen if the world had a standing nonviolent army of thousands? Could we transform our response to conflict?

When Israeli tanks rolled into Ramallah during “Operation Defensive Shield” last April, they met with a surprise: international volunteers had somehow gotten into the city and walked blithely past them, ignoring threats backed by gunshots fired over their heads, to enter the building where besieged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was trapped, thus discouraging further military action against him. This was an unusual event in the history of modern warfare. The press noticed. For a while, “human shields” made daily headlines:
“Both television and newspapers [gave] a heroine's welcome to Sophia Deeg, a 50-year-old Munich teacher who acted as a human shield for Arafat at his Ramallah compound,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle on May 2.

For a moment, the media gave a glimpse of a radical possibility: a different kind of force, a nonviolent army that could constitute an entirely new and creative response to conflict. Such a force is not a dream; an actual Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) is being born. Nonviolent intervention has been going on—without benefit of media coverage—for some time. This new organization is poised to take it to a new stage by creating a 2,000-member professional corps, along with 4,000 reservists, 5,000 volunteers, and a research division, ready to respond wherever there is conflict around the globe.

NP's mission is not merely to end violence after it has already begun, but to prevent or dampen outbreaks of violent conflict before they escalate. The Peaceforce would enter a conflict only after being invited, with the aim of creating the space for local groups to resolve their own disputes peacefully.
NP would draw its membership from throughout the globe, so that it could circumvent political divisions and visa problems. Its 2,000 professional peacekeepers would be paid, trained, and signed on for two-year contracts.

The Nonviolent Peaceforce began to take shape in 1999 when San Francisco-based civil rights and peace activist David Hartsough and veteran St. Paul community organizer Mel Duncan discovered each other at the Hague Peace Conference.

In three years the project, operating from offices in St. Paul and San Francisco, has garnered endorsements from seven Nobel Peace laureates, established bases in Europe and Asia, and built up a network of participants and potential volunteers from around the world, emphasizing the global South, in part to avoid the problem of ‘peace imperialism.'

If all goes well, an international convening event will take place in Delhi, India, November 28 through December 2, 2002. At this event, delegates will elect an international governing committee to carry the dream further, and select a pilot area for its first field effort, based on an in-depth study completed the year before.

A recurrent vision
Knowing that success would depend on careful planning, Hartsough and Duncan decided that before the Peaceforce coalesced, they should conduct a feasibility study to document and glean strategy from the many small peace-team projects already working around the globe. What the study found was a 100-year history of nonviolent intervention that has intensified in the last 20 years, yielding a growing body of evidence that nonviolent intervention does work.

Nonviolent intervention is a recurrent vision among people who refuse to believe that humankind is
condemned either to fight or stand by helplessly when violence rages. Though people no doubt have stepped in to break up fights as long as there have been fights (the Buddha is said to have defused a war over water this way, and Chinese philosopher Mo Tzu made a name for himself by doing this in the fifth century BCE) what is now called nonviolent intervention arose 100 years ago, in Mahatma Gandhi's great campaigns for Indian rights in South Africa. When Gandhi was not calling his Satyagraha volunteers “pilgrims,” he often referred to them as nonviolent “soldiers.”

Gandhi, who had served in two wars, realized that, while war itself is an unnecessary evil, there are some qualities of war that are not only positive but indispensable. Soldiers need courage, discipline, training, loyalty, and restraint. But nonviolent activists need these qualities even more. Why not turn the restless energies of men (and women) into different channels, creating a disciplined “army of peace?” They would use the same courage and sacrifice, but for the opposite purpose: instead of violence they would harness it for nonviolence; instead of mobilizing what peace theorist Kenneth Boulding would later call “threat power,” they would use it for “integrative power.”

Since Gandhi's time and especially in the last two decades, various forms of nonviolent third-party intervention across borders have had dramatic successes in protecting life and reducing human rights abuses and destructive conflict all over the world. These interventions have taken a number of different forms.

One element is witnessing—being present as an observer, sharing information with the outside world and demonstrating to all the parties involved that the world is watching. “My heart breaks,” a Quaker volunteer in Hebron writes in Peace Team News, “as I recall the kindness we received from these gentle people, the smiles and the thanks that greeted us, the words of hope ... that we might let the world know of their suffering and despair.” (For another story of witnessing in the occupied territories, see “The Boy Who Kissed the Soldier”.)

The protected are not the only ones moved by this courageous kind of intervention. This story is told by volunteers who found their way into Jenin blocked by a large group of soldiers, according to the Catholic Radical: After some discussion back and forth, the commanding officer said to them, “You people have a lot of faith.” One of them answered, “When the people of Israel fled to the Red Sea, they didn't even bring a boat, but God got them through.” The officer paused awhile. Then he said, “Go back 100 meters and cut through the fields.”

The mere presence of internationals changes the atmosphere of conflict, often defusing hatred. When they ‘short-circuit' entrenched hostility in the way we've just seen, third parties can actually reawaken the humanity in people under arms. These people are voluntarily risking their own lives and safety to reflect, through their concern, the humanity of those who have become mere victims.

Elana Wesley, part of a team of internationals in the Balata refugee camp in Palestine in June, describes her team's efforts: “As the Israeli forces made their way from house to house, knocking down joint walls between families, the internationals tried to explain to soldiers that the doors were open to adjoining rooms and apartments and there was no need to make holes in walls to gain access. The internationals offered to walk in front of the soldiersso they could enter through doors rather than destroying walls.”

The phrase that I've emphasized illustrates one of the key principles of nonviolent intervention: non-
partisanship. You are not there to protect one group from another, even when your actions do have that effect. You are trying not to be part of the political mix at all. You are there to protect peace, for everyone, and that means getting in the way of violence against anyone—as did the African-American woman from Michigan Peace Teams who covered a fallen Klansman with her own body when he was attacked by an anti-racist mob.

Another kind of nonviolent intervention is accompaniment. Peace Brigades International volunteers have successfully accompanied threatened human rights workers for 20 years now all over Central America, East Timor, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere. They monitor, and thus moderate or prevent, human rights abuses—and in the extreme they can even stand between armed groups to stop violence.

The latter kind of action—the real ‘war stopper'— has captured the imagination of visionaries since Anglican minister Maude Roydon tried to raise an “army” of peacemakers to get between Chinese and invading Japanese forces in 1932. Unarmed groups within a society— the civilians who interposed themselves between government forces and the Polisario guerillas in the Western Sahara in the 1970s, for example—have put themselves between hostile forces and stopped potentially disastrous conflicts. But the method has yet to be tested by third parties intervening on a large scale.

The largest peace teams right now are active in one of the places where the violence is worst—in
Colombia. “Large,” of course, means ridiculously small when compared to the kind of force needed for armed operations. Peace Brigades International's team in that country is all of 36 people, yet they are succeeding not only in protecting threatened human rights workers but also the fledgling peace communities in the north of the country.

It is the potency of such tiny efforts that inspires activists to dream of what a larger project might accomplish. If 36 people can shift the terms of conflict, “What would it mean if there were 100 of us?” asks Donna Howard, who is furnishing protective accompaniment to a woman whose partner was recently assassinated in Guatemala. Howard is part of the team building the Nonviolent Peaceforce, which asks the far more ambitious question: What would it mean if the world had at its disposal thousands of trained nonviolent soldiers?

The new project, if it succeeds, will result in a worldwide peace service capable of intervening in a conflict or incipient conflict more quickly than the UN peacekeeping division and—more importantly—with a different kind of power from that of national militaries. While the US government insists there is no alternative to endless war, the Nonviolent Peaceforce is quietly attempting to institutionalize a proven alternative. If it succeeds, the world will have two kinds of standing army to choose from.

The NP study concludes that nonviolent intervention is humanity's greatest chance to mobilize civil society against the war system, and finally to bring it to an end. As long as the international community can think of nothing else to do but bomb someone to stop some conflict it deems intolerable, as long as societies know of no other way to defend themselves but to take up arms, war will be with us. But when they do come to know that there is actually an alternative, more and more people will demand that their governments choose it.

Recently, Kathy Kern, a longterm nonviolent volunteer with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron, found herself shouting to an Israeli soldier who warned her (in an unmistakable American accent) not to try to rescue a woman and child trapped in a house that they had encircled with armored vehicles. “You are putting yourself in danger,” the soldier warned. Kathy yelled back, “Everyone here is in danger.” That gave him pause. Then he added, “Kathy, you are making a fool of yourself. You are turning this into a circus.”

Hmm. This could be the best thing that ever happened to the war system.

For more information about local Peaceforce affinity groups forming in a number of cities, visit The Nonviolent Peaceforce is organizing Work a Day for Peace on September 11, 2002, and invites people to donate that day's wages to the group. Michael N. Nagler is professor emeritus of classics and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and
co-founder of its Peace and Conflict Studies Program. He is the author of
Is There No Other Way? The Search for a Nonviolent Future, which won an American Book Award.

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