Blessed Are the Peacemakers

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.

Both Duncan and Hartsough stress the importance of nonpartisan civilian peace teams specifically trained in pacifist strategies. Looking to career soldiers with a combat mentality and itchy trigger fingers, they warn, would be a mistake. As Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan and Thomas Weber wryly state in their book Nonviolent Intervention Across Borders: A Recurrent Vision (University of Hawaii Press, 2000), “A peace force which has been engaged in military operations will find it difficult to talk to the party it has been shooting at.”

GNPF will intervene only when it is invited by local peace activists who feel threatened in their work, says Duncan. Beyond monitoring violence, peace teams will act as unarmed bodyguards, providing protective accompaniment to endangered members of local grassroots organizations. They will also teach nonviolent tactics, so locals can carry on peacebuilding once the internationals have left. After all, the goal of GNPF is not simply to reduce levels of violence, but also to create a space for local activists to work without getting killed–“a political space where people can reconstruct a civil society,” according to Duncan.

Two decades of peace-team development, the rise of global communications, and the emergence of the International Criminal Court all seem to set the stage for GNPF. Nobel Peace Prize laureates the Dalai Lama and Oscar Arias head an impressive list of leaders who endorse the organization, and momentum is building with GNPF opening offices in San Francisco, Ottawa, London, and St. Paul, Minnesota.

Duncan nevertheless admits to some healthy skepticism about GNPF’s chances for success, but he looks forward to facing his doubts. “We live in a time where we must confront these questions,” he says.

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