Nonviolence in Time of War

The war in the Balkans has created a moral dilemma for those committed to peacemaking. The atrocities of "ethnic cleansing" must be opposed. But so too must the massive bombing of Serbia by NATO forces, which has brought widespread destruction but done little to alleviate the suffering in Kosovo.

There are no easy answers to these questions. While the media have blanketed the airwaves and the front pages with coverage of the Balkan crisis, other voices fly beneath the radar: advocates of nonviolence grappling with the grays of real-world peacemaking; people of faith—Serb and Albanian, Christian and Muslim—on the war’s front lines; humanitarian workers seeking to bring a balm to ravished victims of war.

As we listen to these voices in the pages that follow, it becomes clear that the principles of faith and courage that undergird their lives may be under fire, but they have not diminished in strength or significance. We would do well to heed their lessons. —The Editors

this spring, Fuller Seminary students organized a forum on the NATO bombing of Serbia and Kosovo. The pro-NATO speaker asked those who supported NATO’s action to raise their hands. Not one person did. But everyone deplores the Serbian "ethnic cleansing."

Wherever I have gone, people have been asking, "How might the international community have prevented war in Serbia if ‘just peacemaking’ practices had been applied?" "What is the role of nonviolence in the time of war?" "How do peacemakers respond to people who ask, ‘What should we do now?’" "How can just peacemaking practices help recovery from war and contribute to long-term peace in the Balkans?"

Last year 23 scholars published a collection of essays titled Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War. We sought an ethic that goes beyond "just war" debates. We reached consensus on 10 recently developed peacemaking practices that are effectively preventing many wars. In spite of wars within nations—like Serbia, Bosnia, Chechnya, the Sudan, Rwanda, Chiapas, and East Timor—most wars between nations are now being prevented. From the perspective of these 10 peacemaking practices, what about Kosovo?

1. The practice of nonviolent direct action is abolishing many would-be civil wars, as in East Germany before the Berlin Wall fell. In Kosovo, democratically elected president Ibrahim Rugova was pursuing nonviolent direct action. But Serbian repression and Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) impatience shifted action to guerrilla war, violent Serbian army reaction, and NATO’s bombing. How could anyone think guerrilla war would be a successful strategy in a communist-led nation? Change in communist countries has been by incremental and nonviolent steps, as when Hungary won considerable freedom; or by nonviolent direct action, as in Poland and East Germany. We—peace groups and government—should have supported the nonviolent direct action strategy in Kosovo. Instead NATO claimed nonviolent strategies were too slow, chose the KLA as negotiating partner, and shunted aside the nonviolent leadership.

2. Take independent initiatives to reduce threat to the other side and invite reciprocation. German Chancellor Schroeder proposed a one-day cease-fire to provide a face-saving invitation for pullbacks of Serbian military forces, and to start new negotiations with Russian help. The Fellowship of Reconciliation suggested offering political asylum to Yugoslav soldiers and Special Police. Desertion rates were already high; asylum could deplete war forces more efficiently than bombing. A series of initiatives, such as a cease-fire each Sunday, would invite reciprocation.

3. Use cooperative conflict resolution. This practice affirms that the history and culture of a people can help us see the way to a solution. As Jews remember the Holocaust and Muslims remember the Crusades, Serbs remember the massacre by Turks in 1389. Serbs see their sacred history beginning in Kosovo. Therefore a prerequisite to Serbian withdrawal has been assurance that the KLA will be balanced by forces friendly to Slavic interests. The U.S. focus on balance of power in the whole region may blind it to seeing that Serbia requires balance of power in Kosovo. Had the United States agreed to Russian prominence in the occupying force, Serbian agreement to withdraw might have been quickly within reach.

War polarizes; adversaries have a hard time affirming the valid interests of the other side, or recognizing ways out. Nancy Rising of Peace Action points out that the United States maintained an economic blockade on Libya until it would extradite those accused of causing the Pan Am flight 103 crash in Lockerbie, Scotland. When the suspects were sent to the Netherlands for trial, the United Nations lifted the sanctions, but the United States said, "Well, we’ve got some other stuff" and maintained trade sanctions.

Rising concludes, "Milosevic has called for a cease-fire twice now. While I certainly don’t trust him, at least we could start negotiating even if he hasn’t accepted every condition we’ve laid down. Our actions remind me of the "Peanuts" cartoon strip with Lucy and the football. ‘Come on, Charlie Brown, kick the ball—I won’t move it.’ And whomp! There’s Charlie on his tail. Fooled again."

4. Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness. During the Cold War, Yugoslavia was a darling of the United States—a communist country that had established independence from the Soviet Union. The United States gave them the plans and licensed them to build U.S. anti-aircraft weapons and light arms and provided them with military aid. We could acknowledge that we are in part responsible for Serbian military prowess and aggressiveness. We could cut way back on U.S. weapons trade.

5. Advance democracy, human rights, and religious liberty. The "cleansing" we are seeing intertwines religion with ethnicity. The Serbs enter battle against Muslims holding up three fingers—their Orthodox sign of the Trinity. It resembles the pope of ages ago leading the Crusades to kill Muslims, carrying the cross of Christ on his banner. Ninety

percent of the population of Orthodox Greece opposes the bombing; most Muslim Americans favor the bombing. This is not ethnic loyalty, but Orthodox and Muslim religious loyalty. The Albanians and Serbs see each other as a threat to their respective religions. The Orthodox church and Islam both need to be urged to develop clear practices of religious liberty, not only in Serbia, but in neighboring Bulgaria and Bosnia, and in Russia and Islamic countries as well. Religious liberty is a long-term peacemaking mission for the whole Christian church.

In Puritan England, the drive for religious liberty led to the development of the ethic of human rights, and to democracy. In this century, the drive for human rights has spread democracy, and democracy has spread peace. No democracy has fought a war against another democracy. In dramatic contrast with dictatorships, democracies have almost never massacred their own citizens, and rarely had civil wars.

Western policies need to encourage democracy in Serbia and Kosovo. This requires a free press in Serbia and support for elected leadership in Kosovo, not the KLA. The KLA, the Serbian repression, and the NATO bombing have set back democracy disastrously.

6. Foster just and sustainable economic development. When a country experiences unexpected economic deprivation, it is more likely to have a war. First the partition of Yugoslavia and then the economic blockade caused unexpected economic downturns that may have fueled Serbia’s readiness to go to war. The economic blockade and the Balkan wars have also caused economic downturns in surrounding countries and regions, including Bulgaria, Montenegro, and Macedonia. The whole area needs a Marshall Plan for shared economic recovery. Germany knows how the Marshall Plan helped turn the Europe of two world wars into a Europe of democracy and peace, and has been leading the call for a plan for the Balkan region that must include Serbia, just as the first Marshall Plan included Germany.

7. Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system. The International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague is an emerging cooperative force. The Fellowship of Reconciliation and the German government have urged that a warrant be issued for the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic for his war crimes. They want to strengthen the rule of law, to advocate an alternative to this destructive war, and to separate Milosevic from the people of Serbia.

Another crucial force for cooperation in the new international system needs to be Russia. We must do what we can to encourage democratic and peaceful leadership rather than reactionary and authoritarian leadership, or anarchy, in Russia. Russia warned that NATO expansion would be used to impose Western will, isolate Russia, and undermine Slavic interests. Now the bombing, in their eyes, has made their warning come true.

"For Westerners, it is really difficult to imagine how badly humiliated Russians are," says analyst Anatoly I. Utkin of the USA-Canada Institute, who believes that the world is sliding back into a cold war. "It is a feeling spread right across the country, and it’s very dangerous." Many experts worry that NATO’s bombing will bring about victory for reactionary and communist politicians in this year’s elections for parliament, thus moving Russia in a less peaceful direction for years to come. Initially, the United States bypassed Russia in the negotiating and decision making. By now it may realize it must support rather than denigrate Russia’s offers to help negotiate.

8. Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights. Would NATO or the United Nations lead the peacekeeping force in Kosovo once Serbia withdraws all or most of its army? Rigidity on this question began the bombing, and flexibility on it could have stopped the bombing early. NATO backed the KLA’s insistence on NATO troops—strong enough to overcome violence by the Serbian army, and anti-Serbia enough to make independence for Kosovo likely. For the same reasons, Serbia insisted on lightly armed U.N. troops, not well-armed NATO troops. Here was a possible tradeoff: a more complete Serbian withdrawal in exchange for a U.N. peacekeeping force, with a strong role for Russian and other Slavic troops. Serbian opposition leaders said Milosevic would accept a U.N. force in Kosovo that included forces from NATO countries.

We have a stake in a Kosovo not dominated by the KLA—a militaristic group outside the rule of law—but ruled by more peaceful, democratically elected leaders who will allow Serbs access to their holy sites in Kosovo. Reactionary, terrorist leaders could produce a regime that imposes a Taliban-like Islamic state that oppresses Albanians and drives Serbs out. U.N. forces that include Russia can help balance the military force of the KLA as well as Serbian forces, and can help provide a rule of law in which democracy has a chance to survive.

Furthermore, to spread peace we need to act in this crisis in ways that strengthen the United Nations. The United States is now the largest deadbeat nation in the world, owing far more to the United Nations than does any other country, and it’s time to pay up. Not a few peacemakers applaud the new reality that, in the last 10 years, the international community has shown it will perform humanitarian intervention to stop ongoing massacres, as in Uganda, East Pakistan, Rwanda, Somalia, Liberia, and Haiti. In the postmodern world, the sovereignty of the nation state no longer automatically allows massacre and systemic violation of rights.

9. Reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade. The Serbs controlled the former Yugoslavian army and kept the weapons. They had a far greater offensive capability than their neighbors, and it tempted them to make war against Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. Their destructive actions prove the truth that reducing offensive weapons is an effective way to prevent wars. An agreement from the Serbs not to spend their scarce money on rebuilding their military so long as their rivals also agree to limits would greatly advance future peace in the Balkans.

10. Encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations. A little over a year ago, television news showed massive demonstrations against Milosevic by Serbian groups. Some reports said the democratic forces in Serbia had a 50 percent chance of defeating the government and its unpopular policies in the coming elections. Now the bombing has quashed the opposition groups and united Serbia behind the Milosevic government.

For lasting peace, we need to encourage freedom of the press and grassroots groups in Serbia. We can connect with peacemaking groups in the United States, strengthening their efforts to push elected officials toward peacemaking alternatives. Churches can form prayer, study, and action groups to support the practices of peacemaking that are effective in abolishing wars. Let’s all work and pray for a better way next time.

Glen Stassen is the Lewis B. Smedes professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and the editor of Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War (The Pilgrim Press, 1998).

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Nonviolence in Time of War"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines