The Common Good
July-August 2001

Building a Nonviolent Army

by David Hartsough, Mel Duncan | July-August 2001

'There is no better legacy we can leave than an effective nonviolent peace force.'

For decades people have dreamed, strategized, and organized around the vision of a nonviolent peace force. Mahatma Gandhi was building the Shanti Sena (Peace Army) when he was assassinated. More recently, Peace Brigades International (PBI), Witness for Peace, and others have advanced the concept of nonviolent intervention with important successes in Central America. For example, after two grassroots leaders were murdered in the mid-1980s, Peace Brigades provided unarmed bodyguards to human rights activists in Guatemala; no more leaders of the grassroots organization were killed.

The courageous work of that grassroots organization—known as the Mutual Support Group—led to a reopening of civil society in Guatemala. "Thanks to their presence, I am alive," said Nineth Garcia Montenegro, formerly a leader of the group and now a member of the Guatemalan congress. "That is an indisputable truth."

Peace Brigades International, recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, has 35 unarmed accompaniers in Colombia who are effectively protecting human rights workers and others in the zones of peace. Christian Peacemaker Teams has two small teams providing a peaceful presence in Israel/Palestine. Germany has begun fielding a civilian peace service.

The vision of a global nonviolent peace force came to Mel Duncan in a Buddhist monastery where Thich Nhat Hanh teaches. "We have too many people taking sides," Thich Nhat Hanh explains. "See that the most essential thing is life." A similar vision came to David Hartsough in a Serbian jail where he had been locked up for supporting the Kosovar Albanian nonviolent movement. When Kosovo exploded in early 1998, the world did not respond to the invitation of the Kosovar nonviolent movement for international nonviolent observers.

We (Mel and David) first met almost a year later, in May 1999, at the Hague Appeal for Peace. There, as U.S. bombers pounded Serbia and Kosovo, activists began to explore how to create larger-scale nonviolent intervention. Based on our meetings at The Hague, we developed a proposal for a global nonviolent peace force.

The mission of the Global Nonviolent Peace Force is to organize and train an international standing peace force that could be sent to conflict areas to prevent death and destruction and protect human rights, thus creating the space for local groups to struggle nonviolently, enter into dialogue, and seek peaceful resolution. A dynamic research team led by Christine Schweitzer of Germany, former head of the Balkan Peace Teams, is analyzing conflict situations where large-scale nonviolent intervention would be effective, reviewing nonviolent "best practices," and cataloguing training resources.

In Asia, Hartsough found Japanese activists, Filipino religious leaders, and Cambodian monks ready to join the effort. The Dalai Lama heads an impressive list of endorsers from six continents that includes Nobel Peace Prize laureates Mairead Maguire, Oscar Arias, Rigoberta Menchu, and Jose Ramos Horta.

The People's Millennial Assembly at the United Nations included the Peace Force as part of its formal recommendations. Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh, urged her colleagues to support the Peace Force at the Head of State Millennial Summit last September. She wrote, "There will be no better legacy that we can leave... than to have in place an effective Global Nonviolent Peace Force by the end of the decade."

The organizational, communications, and funding capacities to sustain a large-scale global nonviolent peace force are being gathered and an international convening event next spring will officially launch the operation. At that time we will also begin recruiting the first corps for a two-year commitment. We anticipate the first group will be sent to a conflict area by early 2003.

Profound questions remain about the use of nonviolence in large-scale conflicts—but even more disturbing questions surround the reliance on military force "for peace." Surely it is time to devote our energies to a way of preventing and ending violence and wars that honors life and leaves hope for the peaceful development of human destiny.

David Hartsough is executive director of the San Francisco-based Peaceworkers. Mel Duncan is chief operating officer of the Global Nonviolent Peace Force.

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