AN ABSURD SUGGESTION: PEACEKEEPERS WITH EMPTY HANDS BY ROBERT MERONEY

When you think of “peacekeeping” one often thinks of Armed Military Peacekeepers (AMP), blue-helmeted UN soldiers carrying weapons in different world hot spots.  It is probably because it looks like common sense that you need armed military forces for violence prevention, and the only thing able to stop violence is violence (or the threat of violence.)   The unofficial moto of the United Nations solider suggested by former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold has been “Peacekeeping is not a soldier’s job, but only a soldier can do it.”  But there is now evidence that suggests that Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping (UCP) is far more successful in limiting further violence than is generally understood.

Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping are civilian personnel that carry out non-violent, non-interventionist and impartial tactics in order to protect civilians in conflict zones from violence and encourage other efforts to build a lasting peace.  Techniques used by these groups include accompaniment, presence, rumor control, community security meetings, arranging safe passage, and monitoring.  Like armed peacekeepers they use inter-positioning and accompaniment to separate armed groups and deter violence.

The first writer to use the term UCP was Lisa Schirch (1995) on behalf of the Swedish Life and Peace Institute who called for “civilian peacekeeping”.[1]  The concept is not new, and during the 17th-century England Quakers offered their services as mediators before or during conflicts.  Then the first modern-day proponent was probably Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy of “Satyagraha” (holding firmly to the truth).[2]  Gandhi founded Sabarmati Ashram schools to teach nonviolence, truth, fearlessness, and equal rights, so that his intervenors would be disciplined, and formed a Peace Army (Shanti Sena) in the period between the World Wars to intervene in violent situations.   Other NGO type UCP groups include the World Peace Brigade, 1962; Peace Brigades International, 1981; Christian and Muslim Peacemaker Teams, 1984, 2005; Meta Peace Team, 1993; and Nonviolent Peaceforce, 2002.[3]

The first reaction of many people to the proposal of UCP intervention is one of unabashed amusement, scorn, and ridicule.  They point out that one reason armies and war have been around so long is that they have been a successful instruments of handling conflict – “otherwise it (war) would have died out long ago.”  They note military intervention provides a defense against the evil neighbor, though they usually do not admit a nation’s own aggressive intentions has been the primary legitimization for armament and war for thousands of years.[4]  Most critics would argue that unarmed intervenors would themselves be brushed aside by weapon carriers and likely themselves become victims of violence.  Yet the reality has been that UCP intervenors do not represent an immediate existential threat to weapon holders, and injuries and fatalities are significantly lower than for traditional military peacekeeping AMP groups.[5]  The fatality rate for UN peacekeeping mission staff as shown in the table below is more than twelve times as high as UCP front line staff.

  Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping United Nations Peacekeeping **
Total Fatality Rate Total Fatality Rate
Fatalities 6 0.2%* 3747 2.8%
Injuries 20 —– —– —–

*Likely overestimate since data is from 13 of 50 UCP organizations, one of UCP deaths was from an auto accident, and five of the UCP deaths occurred in UCP groups defined as partisan.  Also four of the fatalities and eighteen of the injuries occurred in Palestine, which might suggest UCP works less effectively in certain social or political contexts.

**Source:  United Nations, 2014 and 2018, Includes all data since 1990.

The ability to accurately measure the success of violence prevention activities remains unmet, as the goal is essentially attempting to measure something (violence) that ostensibly was prevented and thus is nonexistent (i.e. hard to prove a negative).  Nonetheless, UCP groups can provide testimonials from regions around the world where conflict was avoided, tensions were reduced, and accommodation between antagonists were achieved (at least for a time).[6]

I find the Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping approach hopeful, brave, and exciting.  It correlates with the tradition of unarmed police in England, Scotland, Wales, Republic of Ireland, Norway, Iceland and New Zealand who have successfully maintained order without carrying guns.  The presence of guns on all sides always seems to reinforce fear and escalate violence.[7]

[1] Lisa Schirch (2006) Civilian Peacekeeping: preventing violence and making space for democracy, Life & Peace Institute, Uppsala, Sweden, 118 pp.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satyagraha and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanti_Sena

[3] Rachel Julian and Christine Schweitzer (2015) The Origins and Development of Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping, Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, Vol. 27, 1-8.

[4] Christine Schweitzer (Ed.) (2010) Civilian peacekeeping: a barely tapped resource, SSOAR open access repository, www.ssoar.info/ssoar/handle/document/33222 , 77 pp.

[5] Janzen, R. (2014) Shifting Practices of Peace:  What is the current state of Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping? Peace Studies Journal, Vol. 7, Issue 3,  http://peaceconsortium.org/peace-studies-journal-vol-7-issue-3-2014

[6] Case Studies of Unarmed Civilian Protection, July 2015, 22 slides https://www.nonviolentpeaceforce.org/images/publications/UCP_Case_Studies___vFinal_8-4-15.pdf

[7] In the United Kingdom:  The vast majority of officers are issued with other items for personal defense, such as speed-cuffs, extendable “ASP” batons, and incapacitant sprays such as PAVA or CS spray.  Since 2004, police forces have also been issued Tasers to Authorized Firearms Officers for use against armed assailants which are considered by the authorities to be a less-lethal alternative to conventional firearms.

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