Fight violence with nonviolence
Unarmed civilian peacekeepers are saving lives today.
Legends relate that Buddha stopped a war between two kings who were quarreling over rights to a river by asking them, "Which is more precious, blood or water?"Skip to next paragraph
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Could ordinary people use the same kind of wisdom – and courage – to check the impulse to fight wars today – over oil, water, or identity? Mahatma Gandhi thought so. He created teams of civilians called the Shanti Sena or "Army of Peace" and deployed them in various communities around India where they could avert communal riots and provide other peacekeeping services.
Over the past 25 years nonviolent peacekeepers have been going into zones of sometimes intense conflict with the aim of bringing a measure of peace, protection, and sanity to life there. Rather than use threat or force, unarmed peacekeepers deploy strategies of protective accompaniment, moral and/or witnessing "presence," monitoring election campaigns, creating neutral safe spaces, and in extreme cases putting themselves physically between hostile parties, as Buddha did with the angry kings in ancient India.
Civilian unarmed peacekeeping has had dramatic, small-scale, quiet, and unglamorous successes: rescuing child soldiers, protecting the lives of key human rights workers and of whole villages, averting potentially explosive violence, and generally raising the level of security felt by citizens in many a tense community.
Recently a village on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines was under threat by two armed groups who had come within 200 meters of each other. The village elders called for help from the Nonviolent Peaceforce stationed there, who intervened and by communicating with all sides persuaded the armed group to back away. Thanks to mediation, no violence erupted, no lives were lost.
Why haven't you heard about this exciting work? Because it is terribly underfunded, for one thing. There is also a prevailing prejudice that only governments or armed forces – including those of the United Nations – have the responsibility or means to contain conflict. While the UN Security Council has often authorized "all necessary means" to maintain peace and prevent violent conflict, in fact, the UN has not systematically considered large-scale civilian unarmed peacekeeping.
But the biggest obstacle by far is the widespread – and rarely examined – belief that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. It is the belief that there is only one kind of power; threat power, which in the end can be relied upon to get others to change their minds or, failing that, at least their actions.