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?"
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.
That may change. The failures of war-fighting for peace, most notably now in Iraq, are getting ever more costly – of life, material, and our civil liberties.
The new global norm of "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) should inspire the use of civil society and nonviolent means. While it includes military interventions, R2P is based on emerging international human security and human rights doctrine that aims to avert further failure by the international community to prevent and stop genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.
It may yet dawn on the world that these courageous nonviolent peacekeepers are not "unarmed;" they are armed with what Gandhi made bold to call "the greatest force mankind has been endowed with" – nonviolence.
Nonviolent Peaceforce is working to bring this kind of peacekeeping to greater prominence, with the goal of increasing its current 70 field team members to a cadre of 2,000 by 2012. For a recent deployment, Nonviolent Peaceforce had applicants hailing from 55 countries for every position available.
Well-trained unarmed civilians are saving lives and protecting communities under threat in some of the world's most violent places. They are growing. Recently the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue issued a study documenting how and why this type of "proactive presence" works.
People are ready for peaceful change and they're willing to dedicate their lives to create it. Civilian unarmed peacekeeping could be the way to recognize and help develop the vital protection role global civil society may credibly, effectively, and legitimately play in human security. For the benefit of children and women in armed conflict, for refugees, journalists, human rights defenders, peacefully protesting monks, aid workers, or election campaigners – for all of us. Because ultimately, none of us is secure until all of us are.
• Rolf Carriere spent his career in UNICEF in Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Burma as liaison to the World Bank. Both volunteer as senior advisers to Nonviolent Peaceforce. Michael Nagler is professor emeritus of the Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and president of the Metta Centre for Nonviolence Education.