Reimagining Violence: Civilian Peacekeeping in Atrocities Response Policy

29 Sep

*This post originally appeared on Securing Rights.

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 to 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) 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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