Blessed Are the Peacemakers

Nonviolent activists are being deployed in trouble spots around the world

| May-June 2001

On his deathbed, Mahatma Gandhi spoke of his dream for a global shanti sena, or “peace army.” That wish is gradually coming to reality. In the past 20 years, dozens of nongovernmental organizations and ad hoc coalitions devoted to nonviolent intervention have sprouted. Among the most prominent are Peaceworkers, Witness for Peace, Balkan Peace Teams, and Peace Brigades International, which was recently nominated for the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet these are all relatively small organizations, often unable to respond quickly to calls for help or to rise above the ad hockery that cripples so many well-intentioned peace groups. “Sadly,” writes activist Donna Howard in Peace News (Dec. 2000/Jan. 2001), “we in the peace movement have to date been unable to provide a compassionate response that is both large scale and timely when conflicting parties threaten to take up arms.”

That's just what veteran peace activists Mel Duncan and David Hartsough propose to do through their Global Nonviolent Peace Force (GNPF), an organization dedicated to unarmed intervention in areas of political repression and violence. Founded in 1999 at the Hague Appeal for Peace, a gathering that drew nearly 10,000 activists from more than 100 countries, GNPF is currently focusing on research and planning and hopes to deploy field troops by 2003. These troops would be sent to trouble spots like Kosovo and East Timor when requested by local peace groups. “It will be similar to Peace Brigades International and Witness for Peace,” Hartsough notes, “but will have a more streamlined decision-making process and be more international, with participation from all over the world.”

Through GNPF, Duncan and Hartsough hope to create a viable alternative to large-scale military involvement. “The mission,” they write in Fellowship (Jan./Feb. 2001), “is to mobilize and train an international nonviolent standing peace force.”

Nonviolent intervention begins and ends with the simple act of bearing witness. An international presence—armed with cameras instead of guns—goes a long way toward minimizing violence. As one Israeli peace activist recently told Duncan, “When internationals are present or the media is there, Israelis don't shoot.”

A growing number of world leaders support humanitarian intervention to help quell violence; when push comes to shove, however, most governments deploy armed troops that often fan the flames of aggression. Even U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan—a staunch advocate of a more humanitarian approach to ending violence—frequently relies on military intervention in U.N. peacekeeping missions, a pattern Hartsough finds regrettable. “We cannot afford military responses such as in Kosovo, where we bombed civilians in order to ‘protect' civilians,” he says.