The Power of Nonviolent Strategies During Violent Conflict

Nonviolent Peaceforce co-founder Mel Duncan visits Marquette

Mel Duncan, co-founder of Nonviolent Peaceforce visited Marquette University in the spring of 2017 to serve as the Center for Peacemaking’s Peacemaker in Residence. Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) is an international non-governmental organization that strives to mitigate violence and protect civilians while promoting long-lasting peace in conflict zones. Through methods of proactive engagement and relationship building, NP aims to work with all sides of a conflict and analyze which tactics would be most successful.

During his time on campus, Duncan led discussions in classrooms with students and met with faculty to discuss his work promoting peace internationally. He also delivered two public presentations: a keynote lecture and a presentation at the Symposium on Nonviolence and Just Peace. These activities educated and engaged the Marquette community about the transformative effect of unarmed civilian protection (UCP) in resolving conflicts with nonviolence.

Duncan began all of his presentations with a typology of nonviolence. This overview included three applications of nonviolence: civil resistance, civil defense, and civilian protection. Civil resistance entails people asserting themselves to bring about change. Secondly, there is civil defense which involves the methods civilians use to build up their own structures to protect the status quo. Nonviolent Peaceforce focuses on the third: civilian protection. The goal of NP, as well as civilian protection projects, is to offer protection and support to those most vulnerable during conflicts — the local population.

Duncan delivers his keynote address on Marquette’s campus.

How does NP work?

Nonviolent Peaceforce recruits and trains an unarmed civilian protection force in methods of proactive engagement designed to prevent violence, increase safety, and build the infrastructure for lasting peace. Non-partisan and unarmed, this civilian protection force employs tactics of pressure and persuasion to change the actions and behaviors of violent parties and protect civilian populations who are so often harmed during violent conflicts.

“Civilian protection that is based upon relationship building, nonviolence, the primacy of local actors, and non-partisanship I think can get us a lot farther than sending in a battalion of [soldiers] who don’t speak the local language, with guns.”

An Ambitious Dream Comes to Fruition

Duncan’s idea for a large-scale, professional, international, unarmed civilian peace force came to fruition in 1999 after the Hague Appeal for Peace where he met David Hartsough, a man with a very similar vision. The two would spend the next three years traveling the world meeting in zones of violent conflict. By engaging with people while living and working in these areas, they were able to learn what, if anything, they might need from an unarmed, trained group of internationals.

“We learned a lot. One thing is that no one can make anyone else’s peace for them. Secondly, that there were creative and courageous peacemaking and peace-building human rights defense work going on in the most violent conflicts in the world. Finally, we learned that this idea was not a vision that had originated with me or David but was a reoccurring vision. It had occurred and reoccurred to enough of us that we were now willing to come together and put our hearts and heads together to create a nonviolent peaceforce.”

Duncan continues to articulate another important realization during the time about the crucial role women play in violent conflicts: “Cross culturally, more often than not, efforts of peacemaking and peace-building are led by women. Those women told us time and time again ‘Isolation kills us; if there is not a cost to our death we are much more likely to disappear. If you are present with us, we are more likely to stay alive.” This testimony shows how powerful a tactic as simple as protective presence can be in conflict zones. Oftentimes, just accompanying vulnerable members of a community is enough to deter attacks.

Proving the Vision Works

Nonviolent Peaceforce began their first project in Sri Lanka in 2003. “When we started, there was a rampant use of child soldiers where kids were being kidnapped by a separatist group called the Tamil Tigers. They were pretty mean guys; they had no hesitation to blow up train cars full of civilians. They were taking kids and training them.” Duncan continues to explain that during the boys’ training, they were given cyanide capsules that were strung around their necks so if they were to be captured, they were to bite into these capsules. One morning a group of mothers came to NP saying their sons had been abducted the night before. There were twenty-six boys.

Duncan describes how Nonviolent Peaceforce was able to assist the two dozen mothers in negotiating the release of their boys from the Tamil Tigers. The mere presence of NP representative during the negotiation between the mothers and the Tamil Tiger leaders created enough pressure for them to begrudgingly surrender the boys back to their mothers. This became a routine activity for protection workers to accompany mothers into the jungle to retrieve their boys after kidnappings.

Nonviolent Peaceforce then shifted their approach into a prevention mechanism to avoid abduction altogether. By positioning peacekeepers in visible sites where abductions where occurring, the mere presence of the workers deterred the Tamil Tigers from attacking. Incidents of abductions plummeted.

Relationship Between Unarmed Civilian Peacekeepers and Separatists

“One of our principles is non-partisanship and so we have to have the ability to work with all the armed actors. We had built relationships with the leaders of the Tamil Tigers before we started. They don’t have to love us or even like us, but they did have to know who we are, why we are there, and how to get a hold of us. The Tigers that came out, knew who we were and they did not want this to become an international incident,” said Duncan. This relationship is absolutely key in an unarmed civilian peacekeeping force in their ability to to provide protection for civilians. According to Nonviolent Peaceforce’s website proactive engagement such as promoting communication and relationships “depends on building relationships of mutual trust and understanding that preclude the kinds of ‘naming and shaming’ that other forms of UCP may involve.”

Unarmed Civilian Protection (UCP) includes a Mix of Strategies of Proactive Engagement

In reference to NP’s website, “UCP relies solely on dialogue with the armed actors themselves to help them behave in ways that will reduce violence and protect civilians.” Ten strategies of dialogue and engagement are displayed in the graphic below.

Learn more about UCP at NP’s website:

Proactive Engagement Succeeds in South Sudan

Duncan with community members and NP staff in South Sudan.

The power of unarmed protection workers is seen again in South Sudan when a militia infiltrated a civilian protected area called Bor. NP protectors Eric from the United Kingdom and Andrés from Brazil stood blocking the door to a hut sheltering 14 women and children. Men with shiny AK-47s strapped around their necks demanded the protection workers step aside no less than three times. Each time they refused, holding up their Nonviolent Peaceforce identity cards stating they were unarmed and here to protect civilians. They would not leave. In the end, they were able to save the civilians inside while people just outside the hut were shot point-blank. Later, these protection workers explained they felt if they would have been armed, the militia would not have spared them or the people inside. The lack of weapons on the side of the protection force fundamentally changes the dynamic during a conflict.

A New Dream: The Future of UCP

Nonviolent Peaceforce has special consultative status to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, and thus, Duncan spends much of his time at the United Nations headquarters in New York. In this role, Duncan is one of the leading advocates in the world for the expansion of UCP. In addition to highlighting the positives of UCP, he offers some insight to why armed peacekeeping can be problematic.

Duncan comments that today, there are a over 100,000 armed peacekeepers deployed in violent conflicts around the world. Although these peacekeepers can, at best, protect civilians and keep violent groups at bay, there is nothing transformational about their work that creates the proper infrastructure for lasting peace.

Often times, armed peacekeeping is based on threat and domination and, while the solution does not lie in its abolishment, Duncan believes there should be a more balanced approach between armed and unarmed approaches.

Duncan explains that for many people in the United Nations, there is still this redemptive myth of violence, meaning armed peacekeeping is the default response. However, this tactic has proved ineffective in many conflicts which reinforces the necessity to explore means of protection through unarmed civil society and local groups. Duncan notes, “Peacekeeping has changed a lot. 98% of those 100,000 armed peacekeepers now have protection of civilian mandates which is new.”

Armed peacekeepers also rarely engage with the community while the UCP model Nonviolent Peaceforce uses emphasizes working to build relationships and trust among community members. This separation between armed peacekeepers and civilians can create an atmosphere of distrust, often hindering communication and cooperation.

As the current international system is overwhelmed with refugees, it is crucial to explore alternate methods of protecting civilians that put civilians first and focus on building a lasting peace.

“Last year, there were 65 million people who had to leave their homes because of violent conflict. More people are fleeing their homes for longer periods of time from war and violence than anytime since World War II…the sum total of all the peacekeepers in the EU, even the unilateral Peacekeepers if you add those in, and the unarmed approaches, that doesn’t come close to meeting the need. Not close. How do we scale up? In ways that are replicable, that are grass roots, and don’t cost a lot of money.”

Duncan and Nonviolent Peaceforce are working hard to prove that Unarmed Civilian Protection (UCP) is the solution.