by Mary T. Yelenick1 and Harley Henigson2
At the core of “peacekeeping missions” by the United Nations—the preeminent international organization dedicated to global peace—lies a fundamental contradiction: the reliance on armed actors to build peace. UN peacekeeping missions consist of soldiers from troop-contributing countries, deployed pursuant to a UN peacekeeping mandate and rules of engagement. Yet, the logical fallacy of using the threat of violence as a deterrent to violence is being increasingly questioned, with the international community slowly coming to the realization that the use of violence begets only more violence. Even if a peacekeeping intervention succeeds in the short term, the inherent threat of violence will only perpetuate more violence. Peace cannot be won; it must be built.
While UN peacekeeping missions remain the de facto conflict-resolution tool on the ground, there do exist a number of viable and effective alternatives to armed conflict resolution. Among the most compelling and innovative approaches is that of unarmed civilian protection (UCP), as practiced by civilian peacekeepers in some of the most violent regions of the world. Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP), www.nonviolentpeaceforce.org, and Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), www.cpt.org are two of the foremost international nonprofit organizations employing UCP as a conflict resolution strategy. (Over the years, several Pax Christi USA members have been unarmed civilian peacemakers with CPT.) Both NP and CPT send unarmed civilian peacekeepers to live within, and engage with the people in, communities affected by violent conflict.
During an event on conflict resolution strategies in New York, NP civilian peacekeepers highlighted the effectiveness of UCP in countering violent conflict through the simple act of being present and engaging with affected communities. One of the most insightful accounts of the power of UCP was given by one of NP’s civilian peacekeepers, who explained how protective accompaniment provided to women on a regular basis significantly decreased those women’s exposure to the risk of sexual violence when they ventured outside of refugee camps.
Since the beginning of the current conflict, South Sudan has earned the dubious distinction of being one of the most violent and insecure places on earth. Even those South Sudanese who have succeeded in fleeing the conflict to the relative safety of a refugee camp, continue to be exposed to violence. South Sudanese women living in the camp are especially vulnerable, as they are regularly forced to leave the confines of the camp to find water and firewood. The proliferation outside the refugee camps of armed militia groups that sometimes set up informal “checkpoints” means that women leaving the camp are at elevated risk of sexual assault and violence. To mitigate that risk, NP organizes regular protective accompaniments, providing protective presence to civilians moving outside of the refugee camps. The presence of a trained civilian peacekeeper allows the women to pass safely and unimpeded through the high-risk areas.
It is the relative anonymity and powerlessness of the civilians in the refugee camp, and the corresponding impunity of offenders, that emboldens militia groups. Violent attacks on civilians, and especially sexual assaults, are frequently underreported. Even when they are reported, the lack of a functional and impartial judicial system, as well as a culture of silence and victim-blaming, means that the likelihood that the perpetrators will face any meaningful consequences is extremely low. The simple presence of an outsider—in this case, a member of an internationally recognized and respected protection organization—changes that equation, and erases the potential assailants’ sense of impunity. When armed actors know they are being watched by someone from outside the community, their behavior changes.
The unarmed civilian peacekeepers make it a point to get to know everyone in the community: the refugee families, the guards, the local villagers, and the militia members themselves. “I talk to everyone,” the NP civilian peacekeeper explained, noting that she does not judge, or criticize. There is a tacit recognition that members of the local militia may be the sons or grandsons of the elderly aunties in the camp—and that those men’s own life choices and actions have undoubtedly been shaped by the often violent reality of life in South Sudan. The NP civilian peacekeeper does not plead or cajole; she simply informs the militias when and where the accompanied women will be crossing the militia-controlled territory each day. And in response, she and the people she accompanies on a regular basis are given free and unimpeded access.
NP’s work with the community, including protective accompaniments, changes not only the actions of the combatants, but also transforms the lives and psyches of the community members themselves. Civilians protected by armed soldiers may feel secure, yet they do not feel safe. The very presence of guns creates an omnipresent threat of violence. By contrast, the community members with whom NP’s civilian peacekeepers live and work do feel safe. Through their work, the NP civilian peacekeepers are able to demonstrate to the refugees in the camps that those refugees are not alone; that their lives matter and are of importance to the wider world; and that organizations like NP are personally invested in, and devoted to their safety and well-being. In this way, the community remains connected with the larger world and to the organizations and people dedicated to building peace in South Sudan.
And the effects of Nonviolent Peaceforce accompaniment on the physical and psychological security of the communities NP works with are striking. No civilian accompanied by an NP civilian peacekeeper in South Sudan has ever been physically or sexually assaulted.
- Mary T. Yelenick: Pax Christi Anti-Racism Team, UN-NGO Representative of Pax Christi International to the United Nations
- Harley Henigson: Nonviolent Peaceforce South Sudan
Photo by Nonviolent Peaceforce, uploaded in 2016 at flickr.com