reimagining violence: civilian peacekeeping in atrocity response policy

Danny Hirschel-Burns is a junior at Swarthmore College, in Swarthmore, PA. He blogs at The Widening Lens, and you can follow him on Twitter at @DHirschelBurns.

While military responses to mass atrocities remain an emerging tool, various forms of military intervention—including unilateral, multilateral, and covert military activity—have become increasingly popular in public discourse. As Micah Zenko has observed, militant perspectives on atrocities response have become widespread, among civilian policymakers and public commentators alike. Often, support for military interventions relies on short-term, limited criteria: that is, whether or not the intervention successfully roots out the violence.

In order for a military intervention to be truly successful, however, it would have to not only mitigate violence against civilians, but also build the target nation’s capacity to prevent further violence from occurring. As the United States’ nation-building exercises in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate, however, military forces have little ability establish resilient institutions and build a strong civil society. While military interventions may eliminate some of the forces responsible for violence against civilians, Dursen Peksen has demonstrated that foreign interventions may increase the level of human rights abuses committed by the target government. While the notion of a “neutral” force deployment has gained currency in contemporary discussions of atrocities response in Syria, the notion of a neutral intervention is a fantasy; as Richard Betts has argued, any active military forces takes a side when engaging hostile forces. The glaring ineffectiveness, as well as the inevitable non-neutrality of external interventions, should take military intervention off the table as a future response to mass atrocities.

In spite of the negative long-term effects of military intervention, many human rights advocates and hawkish policymakers reason military force as a moral imperative. Diplomacy, a crucial, if undervalued mechanism for atrocities prevention and response, is often demonized, due to the perceived moral hazard of negotiating with unsavory regimes, non-state actors, and multinational institutions. Mass atrocities are messy, and even if negotiated settlements are imperfect, they can have a positive impact on the trajectory of violence in civil conflict.

Civilian peacekeeping (CP), too, remains an under-utilized approach. Civilian peacekeeping has its roots in Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence: he imagined a nonviolent army of civilian peacekeepers, but was unable to complete his vision before his 1948 assassination. His vision was partially realized in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as Shanti Sena, a nonviolent peacekeeping force, intervened in three separate riots in India, with varying, but generally positive levels of success. Other organizations, like Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP), Peace Brigades International (PBI), Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), and Michigan Peace Team (MPT) have more recently emerged as forms of civilian nonviolent intervention in conflict areas worldwide. Civilian peacekeeping, based on the theory of third-party nonviolent intervention, relies on a diversity of tactics: interposition, observation and documentation, protective accompaniment, and modeling nonviolent behavior. NP, the largest organization of the four, maintains hundreds of professional peacekeepers from around the world. NP has successfully deployed peacekeepers on a long-term and short-term basis. NP maintained peacekeepers in Sri Lanka for almost ten years during the civil war, and has responded quickly to outbreaks of violence in Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan, and South Sudan.

CP has some important advantages over traditional forms of peacekeeping. Since peacekeepers are civilians, they do not represent entire governments, nor are they burdened with the military mindset that contradicts civilian protection strategies. Civilian peacekeepers may maintain their neutrality, as they seek to prevent violence on all sides, whereas humanitarian military interventions pick a side when they engage an opponent. Civilian peacekeepers’ mediation is both more constant and non-hostile, so peacekeepers may establish a rapport with multiple conflict parties, making broad-based participation more likely. CP, as a form of non-state intervention, avoids the burden-sharing dilemmas frequently associated with military interventions. In addition to its structural benefits, CP’s emphasis on civil society participation is its greatest value-added. A strong civil society is crucial to preventing mass atrocities and a component of any well-functioning, participatory society. The presence of civilian peacekeepers is a constructive process, as peacekeepers work with the community to create sustainable domestic institutions. With their focus on constructive, rather than destructive civilian protection, CP operations should play a more prominent role in international atrocities prevention and response policy.

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6 thoughts on “reimagining violence: civilian peacekeeping in atrocity response policy

  1. Pingback: Reimagining Violence: Civilian Peacekeeping in Atrocities Response Policy | The Widening Lens

  2. Great post – I’ve written about the need to emphasize localized conflict resolution methods/peacekeeping/diplomacy as opposed to international/national militaristic intervention. It’s a topic that’s slowly gaining ground within CAR (conflict analysis/resolution) studies, as it promotes a legitimacy and potential longevity to the resolution that is not commonly found within a militaristic intervention. The idea of CPs is an especially important one, as they are, as you said, more able to connect/respond to different parties. I also think that they promote a much needed legitimacy to the potential resolution – by being civilians and/or locals, the resolution becomes a resolution of the people and the nation, instead of one manufactured by a militaristic group. I believe that this legitimacy can only add to the effectiveness and longevity of the overall resolution – after all, conflict resolution is about resolving the conflict in the moment, as well as in the future. I love your inclusion of “constructive vs destructive civilian protection” as well – you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    Again, this is an AWESOME post, and one that I’m definitely sharing. Thanks!

      • You know, I’m really more familiar with LCRMs (localized conflict resolution methods) and their corresponding organizations, specifically in West Africa (WANEP/WIPNET, for example) and their methods of resolving conflicts as opposed to the “blanket cure” that commonly is international militaristic intervention. As far as non-violent peacekeeping organizations are concerned, I’m not as familiar. To put it differently, I am more familiar with groups that work on resolving the conflict at hand through local and national means, as opposed to civilian protection and peacekeeping through nonviolence. They do tend to go hand in hand, however, in the cases I’ve researched, the only example I can give is WANEP/WIPNET’s involvement in Liberia – and they are more conflict resolution based. The idea of peacekeeping through them is through resolving the conflict. I could talk all day about how these groups see themselves through CAR, but not so much through physical peacekeeping. I can say that many of the groups, including WANEP/WIPNET promote non-violence as a means of conflict resolution. Sorry I couldn’t be of more help.

        I am, however, applying to study in Liberia with one of my professors next summer, specifically studying LCRMs and learning (from one of the best examples) of local conflict resolution. I’d be happy to inquire as to the status and or presence of any sort of civilian peacekeeping methods there, both during the civil war and after. One of the offices of WANEP is located in Monrovia, where we will be staying. Again, I’d be happy to inquire as to how they dealt with civilian protection/peacekeeping while resolving the conflict, and how nonviolence played a role in that, as I’m sure it came up. But again, this wouldn’t be until June/July of 2013.

        Again, sorry I couldn’t be of more help! And sorry about the delayed response – I’m currently studying abroad right now, and the time difference throws me sometimes.

      • @Meredith: Thanks for much for that feedback. That piece of information was one of the things I couldn’t find during my research. Glad I have people who will search for answers on other continents.

  3. Pingback: A Bolivia: A Change of Pace and A Project for the Future « The Widening Lens

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