THE NONVIOLENT PEACEFORCE
(KUNM Airdate: 8/26/05)
The U.S. Military pays a modest wage to volunteer soldiers who are willing to take up arms and risk their lives in war-torn regions of the world. Could there also be nonviolent peace organization that would pay a modest wage to volunteer peacemakers willing to take unarmed peacemaking strategies into conflict regions? Actually there are a few such initiatives. One is called the Nonviolent Peaceforce. Formed in 2002, it's pilot testing its methods in Sri Lanka, where civil war and recently an assassination of a high level government official has created a demanding proving ground for the organization.
On this edition of Peace Talks, Carol Boss talks with the executive director of the Nonviolent Peaceforce, Mel Duncan.
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(Transcription Courtesy Rogi Riverstone)
CAROL BOSS: Can I ask you to relate a short story or anecdote that will give listeners - right off the bat - insight into the work of Nonviolent Peaceforce?
MEL DUNCAN: Our pilot project has been up and running for a year and a half in Sri Lanka. In that country, tragically, there is a rampant use of child soldiers. Last summer, a group of mothers, whose sons had been kidnapped during a temple festival, came to one of our teams and said that they had had enough, that they wanted to go after their children. This is extraordinary, in Sri Lanka, for a couple of reasons. Number one; there is a deep culture of silence. Secondly, often, the price one pays is another child, if they speak up. But these mothers decided that they were going after their sons. They came to our team. Very quickly, we were able to determine where the children were being held and trained in the jungles and we accompanied the mothers there. Mothers met with the leadership of the Tamil Tigers who were running the camp. Those local leaders were quite surprised to see this group of mothers, accompanied by a team of a dozen or so international peace keepers from eight different countries. So they sent for their superiors, who came in. In the afternoon, we were able to have Unicef join us, on the pretense that there were mothers out in the hot jungle and they needed biscuits and tea. So, Unicef showed up. Throughout the afternoon, the mothers negotiated directly with the military leadership. By late afternoon, the children, twenty-eight boys, were released to their mothers, with bus fare, to go home.
That is an example of how the Peaceforce works. Number one, that we are nonpartisan, we are not in the conflict area to choose sides. Number two; we employ effective, nonviolent strategies that rely, at least in part, on international connections. Number three; we support local people in doing the work, as opposed to doing the work ourselves.
CAROL BOSS: Would you explain, for our listeners who may not be familiar with the situation in Sri Lanka, what has been happening there, over the years?
MEL DUNCAN: No one can accuse us of headline chasing, by choosing Sri Lanka, because, in the United States, if it's ever reported on, it's usually on page six or seven. Sri Lanka is a beautiful, island nation, the size of the state of Wisconsin, off the southeastern coast of India. It is home to about twenty-one million people. It has also had to endure a civil war, which has raged for twenty-two years. Wars are never simple. The primary combatants are the Sri Lankan government, which is, ethnically, Sinalese and Buddhist, against combatants from the largest minority, who are Tamil and, primarily, Hindu. It's a war about identity; it's a war about territory, about human rights, about economic opportunity, about religion. It, tragically, has claimed over sixty-five thousand people. It is a place where the Tamil Tigers routinely use children as combatants. The median age of the Tiger casualties is age sixteen. It is also a paradise of an island that is littered with over a million landmines. There has been a ceasefire there for a number of years that was brokered by the Norwegian government. However, peace talks broke down two years ago this month, and have not resumed. The tragedy that Sri Lanka has had to endure was compounded on December 26th, by the tsunami.
CAROL BOSS: I know, before you sent in those initial, fifteen, civilian peacekeepers, a twenty-three day on core, nonviolent strategies was developed. Could you describe for us the methods of nonviolent action for conflict resolution?
MEL DUNCAN: We identified, through a tremendous amount of field research, four, effective strategies. I want to emphasize here: we are talking about field-tested, effective, peacekeeping strategies. We are not talking about people going in, wishing, hoping, and singing that something will change. We are talking about strategic, disciplined action. The four strategies that we identified are available in a feasibility study on our website (which is http://www.nonviolentpeaceforce.org ). The four strategies include accompaniment - that is, simply unarmed bodyguards. What we found, as we worked in various parts of the world, was that, first, there are creative and courageous peacemakers in the most violent places in the world today.
CAROL BOSS: Can you give us an illustration, while you talk about this?
MEL DUNCAN: In Columbia, the communities of peace that have staked themselves out as no militarized zones, where neither the paramilitary, or the military or the guerilla are welcomed there. These are zones of peace, and are to be kept as such. What we found, cross-culturally, is, more often than not, that work is being done by women, in terms of the on the ground, peacemaking work. What those women told us, around the world, is, "isolation kills us. If there is not a political cost to our death, we're much more likely to be disappeared." Accompaniment merely provides an unarmed bodyguard to a vulnerable, human rights worker or peacemaker to increase that cost of their assassination. It has worked very effectively in places like Guatemala and Columbia.
The second strategy that we found that works is that of presence, which is where larger numbers of trained internationals go to a vulnerable village, for example, or a contested border and, by their presence there, and the understanding that they bring the eyes of the world with them, they reduce the amount of violence in those areas. This worked very effectively in Nicaragua in the mid-1980s, during the Contra war. What we found was, if there were groups of internationals, especially people from the United States, in villages that were being, routinely, attacked by the Contra from Honduras - if there was an international presence, those villages were not attacked, for very simple, political and public relations purposes. As we found out later, that war was being directed by the United States' CIA. They were factoring in those public relations and political issues and leaving people alone. Presence is another strategy that has worked, that is working in Sri Lanka right now.
A third strategy that we employ is monitoring. This is something that many listeners will be familiar with. For example, the Carter Center does this a lot. We had some monitors for the United States election last November, although that did not stop the fraud. I think this was most effectively used in South Africa, during the transition from an Apartheid society to an open, Democratic society. It was the South Africans, of course, who were doing the work, but they had the support and the monitoring of the internationals.
The fourth strategy we found that works is interpositioning: trained, disciplined civilians place themselves between two, conflicting parties and serve as a buffer zone.
CAROL BOSS: On Peace Talks, we like to give our listeners some practical applications. Can you talk about some lessons people can draw from these situations we are talking about, and the nonviolent strategies: lessons they can apply into their everyday lives.
MEL DUNCAN: The first lesson is to know that we are not talking about extraordinary human beings. We are talking about you and me. We are talking about the people who are listening. It is within our capacity to do this kind of peacekeeping work. Secondly, there are effective, peacekeeping strategies that people can use in their own, home areas and in their communities. For example, I discussed interpositioning: trained, unarmed civilians, placing themselves between two, armed, fighting factions. We can reduce that to the living room: a trained, unarmed parent, placing him or herself between two, fighting children, giving those children an opportunity to cool off, to figure out another way of dealing with their conflicts.
There are many examples, in our communities around the United States, where people are vulnerable in their neighborhoods. Perhaps they are vulnerable to police actions. Accompanying and witnessing are very important for communities that are under siege.
Another example, in the United States where interpositioning was used happened in my home state of Minnesota about a decade ago, when Ojibwa people began practicing their spear fishing rights. These are treaty rights that they have had forever or, they had the rights and then they were allocated to a treaty. When they started to practice those rights, on lakes in northern Minnesota, groups of so-called white sportsmen started coming to the docks, taunting, throwing, yelling, and creating a volatile situation. Some of the leaders of the Ojibwa people said, "We really need a group of trained, nonviolent activists who can serve as a buffer." We were able to do that throughout that spear fishing season. It reduced the violence to the point where the sportsmen who were doing the taunting finally just gave up and went home. We can learn about these very practical things. I would, again, remind leaders, and your listeners that, if you go to our website, you can get a link to our training curriculum. That is yours. You can use it.
CAROL BOSS: To end, you wrote, in the fall newsletter of the Nonviolent Peaceforce, "It is up to us. We cannot wait on governments or politicians. They are timid observers of new ways. We, ordinary people like you and me, must stay strong in our vision in these tough times. We must engage our imaginations and create the alternatives. We can, and will, demonstrate that tough peacekeeping and protection by well- trained, unarmed civilians can effectively deter violence."
MEL DUNCAN: That's right. We can do that. The resources, Carol, abound. That is what I have found in my work. Throughout the world, most of the veterans of nonviolent struggles - whether they are from South Africa, the Philippines, Chili or the United States - are still alive today. And most of us still have plenty of energy. Plus, we have a whole group of young people who are not accepting that we have to go to war, that we have to have a single superpower dominance. We have the technological capabilities that allow us to organize in ways that we could not have dreamed of, fifteen years ago. And we have the spirit.
DISPATCH FROM SRI LANKA
Dear NP Supporter,
Sri Lanka has shot into the world news again with Friday's tragic assassination of their internationally known Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, the most prominent person to be assassinated since the signing of the ceasefire. A state of emergency has been declared and there have been reports of house-to-house searches and arrests in parts of Colombo. The North and East, where NP has its field offices, have been quiet. Whether in Colombo or elsewhere, it is difficult to notice much change in the street. Unfortunately, that's Sri Lanka - ceasefire or not, the killings go on.
Almost anyone who has been resident or worked in North-East Sri Lanka for a year or more, including the entire NP team, has a family member, friend, or acquaintance who is no longer living because of this bloody war. Unlike Mr. Kadirgamar, these dead are seldom known outside the families or communities directly affected. You may visit a home and notice a garlanded picture on the wall or your host may mention a dead relative. Sometimes your only indication that a relative has been killed might be your realisation that there is one family member who is only referred to in the past tense. In one case, I discovered this truth when I remarked on an unusual shining motor bike parked in the family's sitting room, while the remainder of the family transport was parked outside. This was the family's memorial to a son who didn't come home from college one day.
In Sri Lanka, we are working with many courageous individuals who are struggling to find nonviolent ways to stop the violence. It's a slow and painstaking task for those lonely Sri Lankans trying to bring about such change. Coping by being careful about where you go, what you say, and with whom you associate is how these people are still alive today. Such self-preserving habits are no guarantee for longevity and they certainly don't bring to an end the killing and counter-killing. Sometimes the only hope is the knowledge that the situation in Sri Lanka is not unique. Other communities in other parts of the world have emerged from oppression to justice, someday it will happen here too. In such a context it seems almost churlish to mention that all of NPSL staff appear to be safe and well except for Angela who was admitted to one Colombo hospital today with severe headaches and Sjors, who was admitted to another Colombo hospital yesterday with suspected dengue fever.
Please help us turn the news of this violent act into an opportunity to educate others about the situation in Sri Lanka and the work of Nonviolent Peaceforce there, and renew your commitment to our cause with a donation in honor of those who quietly struggle every day: http://www.nonviolentpeaceforce.org/english/help/donation.asp
William Knox NP Sri Lanka Project Director
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