Mission intrepid: the world's civilian peacekeepers

When the shooting stops, legions of good Samaritans mobilize to help conflict-torn nations become peaceful civil societies.

This is what Petya Nikolova knows about her new assignment: She has no experience for it; she's not sure which village she will be assigned to; and her training may include tips on how to spot a land mine.

"Of course it's a challenge, but I'm eager to meet the challenge," says the Bulgarian foreign ministry official, on her way to Bosnia for a two-week stint monitoring municipal elections later this month.

Ms. Nikolova has just completed a two-week course in civil-military cooperation at the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre here.

Increasingly, civilians like Nikolova are where the rubber meets the road of international peackeeping. They move in when shooting stops, clearing the way for ballots.

"Civilians are doing the most important work in peackeeping," says Colin Granderson, ambassador at large from Trinidad and Tobago and a co-author of a United Nations report on peacekeeping reform. "They manage elections, the judiciary, establish the rule of law, civil administration - and they suffer the most casualties."

Peackeeping has come a long way since former Canadian Foreign Minister Lester Pearson came up with the idea of positioning neutral UN armed forces between warring sides during the Suez Crisis of 1956. When in human history, one may ask, has there been anything like it - legions not only of diplomats and soldiers under orders but of civilian volunteers, going into perilous regions around the world in efforts to ensure that the word "universal" in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights really means something?

Nowadays, peace agreements generally have a large civilian component - which is often "underimplemented," says David Gairdner, director of programs at the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre. "It's over things like garbage collection that agreements go off the rails."

Most of today's peace missions have a similar structure. At the core is the military, augmented by employees of the UN and other international organizations as well as national civil servants like Nikolova. But one of the critical, and often forgotten, components of peace missions is the "freelancers," those who make a career bouncing from one crisis to another, under contract for periods as short as two months: delivering food aid here, or monitoring elections there. No one is responsible for them, they have only the training they pick up on their own.

Those working for international organizations - soldiers or civilians - are quantifiable. As of the end of September, for instance, the UN reports having 37,941 soldiers and civilian police officers, as well as 12,270 civilians, deployed in 15 peacekeeping operations around the world.

But UN officials say it is impossible to make even an unofficial estimate of the number of nongovernmental organization contractors in the field.

The world of freelance peacekeepers is full of stories of career plans set aside for "a year" that somehow stretches out longer. Mr. Gairdner, now director of programs at the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre here, was on his way to law school in the early 1980s when he had an opportunity to teach in Africa - in Lesotho, as the struggle between the white minority regime in South Africa and the African National Congress was heating up. He got caught up in human rights work and never made it to law school.

Civilian volunteers "have life-altering experiences," Gairdner says. "At some point in their life they've made a personal commitment. They've seen that something was wrong, and they've seen a role for themselves in finding a solution."

His own quest for solutions took him to the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Guatemala, where he did human rights work and helped develop civil administration.

In Guatemala, for instance, which lacked a registry of land ownership, he worked to develop one. This is typical of the kind of assignments civilians take on in postconflict situations: helping develop the civic infrastructure that peaceful countries take for granted. In Guatemala, the land registry was necessary to help increase the state's ability to tax; without which, it lacked resources to implement fully the 1997 peace agreement.

Lyndell Findlay, an Australian who now works as a course manager at the Pearson Centre, had a successful practice as a financial planner before she made the transition into peace work some years ago. "I was looking for work more in harmony with my personal principles," she says.

She got a degree in peace and conflict studies from the University of Queensland and ultimately worked supervising a peace education program in the refugee camps of eastern Kenya, full of those fleeing the chaos of Somalia.

"You have to be self-motivated," she says, recalling her training experiences.

It was "a five-minute security briefing, and one sheet of paper with some things written on it," she recalls. "It was a hardship-duty post. We went to work in an armed convoy. We couldn't leave the compound where we worked on foot.... There are things you're not prepared for. But you've accepted being there. And you find your normalcy in the midst of chaos."

The Pearson Peacekeeping Centre here, funded by Canadian departments of National Defense and Foreign Affairs and International Trade, offers two- and four-week courses for Canadians and international visitors, both civilian and military, in various peacekeeping topics, such as human rights, negotiation, and mediation. A course in personal security is planned.

But part of the story at the Pearson Centre is who's not there: generally not NGO representatives. Despite a scholarship program to help defray program costs, seminar participants are largely Canadian and foreign military and civil servants, such as Petya Nikolova, the Bulgarian diplomat. Some of the bigger NGOs, such as Medecins Sans Frontieres, do their own training.

Given how tough the work is, international aid is a surprisingly competitive field. And those who want to get into it are not all idealistic 24-year-olds with backpacks, either. Marianne Wightmann, of the World University Service, a development organization in Ottawa, estimates the median age of the volunteers she mobilizes at 40.

Ms. Wightmann has been sending "ununiformed Canadians" into trouble spots for years.

"[The peacekeeping officials] think they want constitutional lawyers. But constitutional lawyers won't go into hellholes," she says. "When I was deploying people to Cambodia to monitor elections, I sent people off who could live in a rice paddy for a year."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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