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Matt Kohn

Matt Kohn

Posted: November 29, 2010 11:10 AM

Matthew Kohn interviews
Mel Duncan,
Executive Director, Nonviolent Peaceforce and
Rolf Carriere,
Senior Advisor, Nonviolent Peaceforce

When the US surrounded Iraq at the start of the second Iraq war, I imagined that if our military forces just remained at the Kuwait border long enough, they would be welcomed with no bullets fired. But news reports at the time indicated that waiting for Saddam to retire was too expensive. And the soldiers might get bored. I guess these were practical considerations. But everyone has the same hope: to see wars thwarted or ended by peaceful, nonviolent means.

What would it take to make this happen?

A few months ago, I discovered a small NGO with a simple vision that can be applied to many conflict zones. On the face of it, their idea seems so simple that I feared they were suicidal.

So, during the flurry of meetings at the recent UN General Assembly in New York, I sat down with Mel Duncan, Founder and Special Projects Director of Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP). Counterbalance to his gentle Midwestern demeanor, Mel brought along Rolf Carriere, a seasoned NP advisor from the Netherlands who recently retired from UNICEF with executive experience all over Asia.

Nonviolent Peaceforce( is a group of civilian, unarmed peacekeepers who are dedicated to protect threatened people, reduce violence in conflict areas and improve human rights situations through negotiation. Invited by all aggrieved parties, and working with specific and approved plans, the peacekeepers can understand local conflicts and diffuse them before they become national emergencies.

They call themselves a force. A force expends energy to make change. On the ground, NP members are conscious eyes and ears and tasked with nonpartisanship. Mel and Rolf believe the very presence of witnesses builds peacemaking and peacebuilding into a moral force that can extend the life of treaties. These witnesses are also negotiators working through agreements that already exist or need to be implemented on by locals on the ground.

One of Rolf's main contentions is that a majority of peace treaties fail within five years because of lack of follow-up. NP currently has operations in Sri Lanka and the Philippines and a small contingent in Sudan. Early next year, South Sudan is expected to vote for a split from the North, which will result in two countries six months later. Anticipating even further degradation of their quality of life, Southerners living in the North are already heading back to their ancestral homelands, where there are no jobs and little food. It is estimated that more than 20% of the population of the South are already living on starvation diets. This will inevitably create tension. It's easy to see how some peacekeepers might be able to help South Sudan mitigate conflict.

In Sudan, NP is positioned in three counties in Western Equatoria and in Greater Mundri. Tiffany Eashom, NP in-country Director write to me, "We are told repeatedly by civilians that... while peace agreements, boundary issues, resource use are being negotiated in capitals - civilians bear the brunt of the impact. Families, homes, crops are destroyed because most resources go high level issues."

In 2009, violence in the South resulted in nearly 2000 deaths, mostly caused by increasingly violent cattle raids that seem to occur most often during the dry season - exactly when the country can be mobile and vote. NP hopes to stand between the parties, continue to monitor Referendum-related activities and promote nonviolent response to conflict as well as work with schools that have had violence sufficiently intense enough to result in closure.

According to Easthom, "We have had direct requests from three other states - Northern Bahr El Gahzal,Unity State and Jonglei - all flashpoints for return to conflict scenarios and places where violent conflict occurs on multiple levels regularly - to deploy civilian peacekeeping teams and repeated requests to increase our presence in Western Equatoria."

In the future, Peaceforce could operate as an option when treaties are being negotiated or as an alternative to underfunded yet expensive UN military operations that are often ineffective because they are seen as an outside military force preying on local populations. Even when conflict zones are in poverty, the local and international costs of any war can rise to billions of dollars and create inflation. Once treaties are in place, unarmed peacekeepers may be better developing the peace and keeping it.

Would you like to join Nonviolent Peaceforce? About three-quarters of their complement are individuals recruited from local ethnic groups. They, and their international coworkers, go through a three-week educational screening period, after which everyone is paid to complete a two-month training course in peaceful, nonpartisan, conflict resolution. Each peacekeeper makes a two-year commitment.

Despite his denial, Mel Duncan is raising an army.

Mel Duncan: My name is Mel Duncan and I am the founding director of Nonviolent Peaceforce. I was inspired to help create Nonviolent Peaceforce through a number of encounters, especially living in a monastery with a Vietnamese monk. It was upon leaving there that I wrote a thought-piece about civilian peacekeeping.

About six months later I found myself at The Hague Appeal for Peace in May 1999 where 9000 people had come together to put together an agenda to do away with war over the next century. And it was there that I found a number of people who had been working on the same concept of nonviolent peacekeeping. We decided to put our resources together - our intellects, our spirits, our finances, our lives - to increase the scale, the scope and the professionalism in the international nature of civilian peacekeeping.

So we created a proposal and spent the next two years visiting with people in some of the most violent places in the world, learning from them what they were doing that was working and what, if anything, they could need from a group of well-trained unarmed civilians. We also conducted an academic research analysis of this work. In late 2002, we convened organizations from around the world who were interested in creating Nonviolent Peaceforce and we officially began in December 2002.

MK: So before then, what were you doing?

MD: I've been an organizer all my life. I've been an organizer around issues of peace, justice, and sustainability since I was 16 years old.

MK: So where did you grow up?

MD: I grew up in Iowa and went to college in Minnesota.

MK: What were the hallmarks of your previous activism?

MD: I started organizing with people with disabilities in the early 1970s. That led to the first of many statewide statutes to protect people with disabilities. And that, along, with the work of a lot of other people around the country led to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the early 1990s. [I organized] a variety of a other human rights initiatives. I also worked with a coalition of labor unions and peace organizations on Peace Conversion-

: What is that?

MD: The conversion of military dependent industries to socially useful production.

MK: And when you worked on nuclear waste, what was that about?

MD: That was trying to stop the building of a high-level radioactive nuclear waste dump on banks of the Mississippi river a few meters away from a Native American reservation. That was an 18-month struggle and we lost, and the nuclear waste dump was built on Prairie Island and is still there.

MK: So, 2002 was the beginning. Rolf, were you involved?

Rolf Carriere: I was there at the Hague, but there were over 9,000 people there and that was not the time for us to meet. But in 1999, I had been to the meeting at the Parliament of the World Religions, in Capetown, South Africa. It was the second such meeting. I presented some papers there to about 15,000 people including the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. I talked there about child survival and the kind of issues I was dealing with as a UNICEF country director in several countries - Bhutan, Burma, and Bangladesh and later Indonesia. And I came across someone who sat down for lunch who had a bunch of stencils which asked, "Do You Want to Create a Nonviolent Peaceforce?" So, I said to this guy, 'can I have a copy?' So I read it, and I thought, "Shit, why didn't I think of that idea? This is actually a good idea. Why hasn't The World come up with such an idea?" So I came back to Washington, and I called David Hartsough, whose name was on the card, and I said, "I'd be interested in helping you with this idea."

And we did some brainstorming about what country would be the first for such a deployment. The places where it is not happening is all the conflict zones in the world so let's go there and accompany health teams into those conflict zones and have "Zones of Peace" or "Corridors of Tranquility" and see if they could take place.

Soon thereafter, I was UNICEF representative for Indonesia. I could see violence happening in Papua New Guinea. And so I invited David Branch, someone who was already working with Mel, to come as a consultant for three months.

In 2005, I retired from the UN. Mel said, "Why don't you become an advisor and let's find a strategy to work with the UN?" It's entirely clear that this idea needs the imprimatur, endorsement and even the active support of the UN even though we are not aiming to be a UN agency and even though we are not looking to work under the aegis of the UN. We are a global civil society organization made up from people all over the world. And responding to requests from people and organizations in the global south, people who are living in conflict zones and are threatened. So it is a transnational solidarity effort. And so I've been working as a pro bono advisor for the last five years. Averaging a day or day and a half a week. Sometimes a lot more.

MD: What Rolf is illustrating is a dynamic we have found over and over again. When we would lay out this vision of unarmed civilian Peaceforce, there will often be an air of recognition from people. People would say, "We did that in our village" or "I wrote a paper about this in university" or "My whole life has prepared me to do this." And while David Hartsough and I are credited with starting the organization, we much more held the focus for a recurring vision that had occurred and recurred to enough people around the world that there was a critical mass of people who stepped forward and said, "Let's do this."

RC: What really interested me in the vision they had was to go to scale. In my 34 years at the UN almost entirely in Asian countries, I'd seen lots of well-intentioned small-scale activities that should be supported for sure but were never going to make a dent to meet the enormous needs that were there. So you need to think at a different scale. You need to really scale up in a quantum kind of way to begin to do that. So with regard to protection of civilians who are under threat, we have 115,000 blue helmets from the United Nations in 17 conflicts deployed right now. If you ask how many unarmed civilian peacekeepers there are out there - it's just a few hundred. There is not even a thousand.

So the idea that Mel had was - let's go for 2,000 to start, then we'll be noticed. Because if you have 2,000 courageous people in conflict zones who are willing to stick their necks out, who are professionals, smart and well-trained and understand the conflict dynamic and who is in charge [on the ground] and how the chain of command works and if you will monitor and record all that is happening - then the next phase will be one of recognition of the concept. And our organization called Nonviolent Peaceforce will also be recognized. And people like yourself will come and record this and take this to a new level. The idea that you called didn't surprise me.

MK: (laughs) You guys called me.

: That surprises me even less.

MK: But that's OK. Because even when we talked on the phone, you didn't tell me anything about co-founder David Hartsough. But I made my first film about Iraq war conscientious objectors and guys who were in combat with enemies they could not see or meet. Now, if I am correct, he was a conscientious objector in 1959?

MD: David Hartsough is a lifelong Quaker. In 1955, as a young teenager, his father took him to Montgomery Alabama to take part in Church action to support the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He met a young, recently graduated Rev. Martin Luther King.

MK: So David is white and his father took him to support the black bus boycott?

MD: Which is the spark of the Civil Rights movement. Then David went on to Howard University and in 1960 took part with his classmates in the lunch counter sit-ins. As soon as exams were over, they went to Virginia where they had just made it a felony to sit at a segregated lunch counter. And as so often happened at that time, the police were not called, but the thugs were allowed in and attacked them at the counter. He's organizing a trip to Iran right now.

MK: Good luck with that.

MD: It's his second one...

MK: Is he your mentor?

MD: My associate, my collaborator. Really the way things broke down, he was much more the non-violent theorist, and I am much more the implementer. So, together, we can get some things done.

MK: So what ideas did he have that were specifics you could apply yourself to?

MD: He had been advocating for large-scale civilian peacekeeping for quite a while. I was at the Hague, feeling rather discouraged, crammed into a room, and I hear this guy lay out the same vision I had - but his was explained as a question. I grabbed him by the arm and I said, "If you're serious we have to start organizing right now."

MK: So how did September 11th affect what you're doing?

MD: On September 11th, 2001, I was actually at the European Parliament with a man who is now the Executive Director, Tim Wallis. I was located at our Brussels Office. And I was evacuated; everyone was evacuated because they thought that might be another target. And what we found was that there was a recognition on the part of many people that you could not deal with these kinds of acts within all the looming violence in the world by introducing more violence. That it didn't make sense to invade Afghanistan or Iraq.

MK: But they didn't realize that immediately.

MD: A lot of people did.

MK: On that day?

MD: Maybe not on that day, but soon afterwards. And certainly by the time of the proposals for those invasions.

MK: So you were automatically against the proposal to go to Afghanistan.

MD: Yeah.

MK: Why?

: Because it made no sense to me to invade a country to go after a lawless element that could easily transfer from one country to another.

MK: Mhmm.

MD: Who had been in Saudi Arabia, who'd been in Somalia. Now they happen to be in Afghanistan.

MK: Sudan, too.

MD: Secondly, I knew enough about history to know that nobody's going to subdue Afghanistan. You can go back to Genghis Khan. Talk to the Soviets. The British. It just made no sense. It was a police action. And to deal with it with a military invasion makes no sense now, and made no sense then.

MK: So, when it happened, what were you thinking? "OK, this is bad." But if you were President of the United States, what would you do? Assuming you got elected for your ideas, and then you were president, what would you have done?

: I would have engaged with the international community about engaging in a police action that would have gone directly after the people responsible and held them accountable.

MK: But would you have used a military force with guns?

MD: I would have used a police force, yes.

MK: With guns.

MD: But not military. There's a difference between police and military.

MK: Yeah.

MD: There is.

MK: But I'm not sure in Afghanistan what the difference is.

MD: Well, it's more precise. It doesn't involve occupying territory. It doesn't involve overthrowing governments. It involves pursuing and bringing to justice criminals.

MK: So, maybe a special forces operation from the military with the intent to apprehend and remove.

MD: Yes.

RC: But a global one, not a US.

MD:Not a unilateral.

RC: This was not an attack on the US only. This was an attack on civilization, full stop. So therefore, I think this merited an approach through the UN, not a single country.

MK: Does the UN have the ability of apprehending a person with the intent of a terrorist?

RC: That's perhaps something that needs to be set up and this could have been an opportunity to set it up. The charter of the UN always foresaw that the UN would have a standing military force. It's one of the first articles of the charter. It's never been acted upon because clearly the US was the victor of the Second World War, with the Soviet Union an important second. But it was clear that the US was not going to cede to the UN its prominence due to the maintenance of peace and security. That it was going to be that power. And that to this day, is the big weakness of the UN. The UN then created the idea of peacekeepers. They were not mentioned in the charter of the UN. It was a Canadian proposal. The first deployment was between Israel and Egypt. But there's never been a serious attempt to create a standing force that was ready to go. It takes months, sometimes years, before you have the full complement of the military peacekeepers in place. And at a very, very, high cost.

MK: So, then the next logical question is: would there have been a place, in fall 2001, for Nonviolent Peaceforce in Afghanistan?

MD: Probably not. We have a set of criteria that we look at and that we analyze very carefully before we go in. We have to be invited by local civil society. And we have to be in a place where we are able to protect. In the fall of 2001, there was not a war going on in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those had not been initiated. There were governments we disagreed with that were clearly repressive. I mean, I was in Iraq in 1999. I saw exactly what was happening. But we don't invade countries because we disagree with them.

MK: So Peaceforce is a job, like any other job. It's an army without weapons.

RC: It's a force more than an army.

MD: It's a moral force.

RC: Because it takes a lot of conviction, and courage to go in there and to do this. I mean people are damn conscious. This is not just a 9 to 5 kind of job. In fact, quite often it is a 24-7 job. Particularly when you are doing the direct bodyguarding of someone who is under threat of assassination. So it is, this tough work. It's not something you can fall asleep over.

MD: This isn't just where you sit around and sing Kumbaya.

RC: (laughts).

MD: As to our basic ability to protect - one of the primary sources is relationship. And building trust in relationship on the local levels. And that doesn't come quick.

RC: With all the conflict parties.

MK: So you need to build the force, you need to build the people in the force. You are building an army. You are building an army.

MD: They are a force of... nonviolent peacekeepers.

MK:I never went to bootcamp. So you guys seem to have actual bootcamp. What do you call it?

MD: We call it Mission Preparedness Training.

MK: You need a cool name.

MD: That's not very cool, is it? That's the first three weeks. It focuses on three primary concepts. One: The primacy of local actors. Two: nonpartisanship. And Three: nonviolence. So people come out of there knowledgeable about how nonviolent peacekeeping works. This also serves as a protracted screening, so not everybody makes it out of this. If they do, then they go on to in-country training, which typically takes 6 to 8 weeks.

MK: It seems to me that if I was in the military in the past, and I wanted to keep doing the things I was doing in the military, but not do them in a military way, I would seek you out.

MD: (shows a photograph): This guy right here is a veteran of the Irish military and was on UN armed peacekeeping missions. And now he's our security coordinator. We do have a number of military veterans who have served with us.

MK: And it seems like if you ever needed to recruit, they would be perfect. After all, they're doing Blackwater things, but you're doing the things they thought they would be doing when they first joined the military.

MD: There's a little bit of a pay disparity between Blackwater and us.

: Oh, come on. You're just starting out. (Laughs). Would you try to form a Peaceforce and place it somewhere where there are two factions you equally, strongly, dislike? Where both sides have committed reprehensible acts?

MD: We're totally nonpartisan, and lots of times, it's pretty damn easy.

RC: There's not really a question of "liking a party." By being there, by being proactively present, you are able to deter violence and human rights violations because these people understand that you represent the eyes and the ears of the world. You're witnessing, you're monitoring what's going on. And people don't like to be seen, they all have their vulnerabilities. They all would like to be Prime Minister. They don't want to go to The Hague or the I.C.C. for being the perpetrators of some act. So that is how you function in a conflict situation where all the parties are perpetrators.

MD: Even in the perpetrator, it's important to recognize the humanity in that person. And I can remember spending one night, early on in the Sri Lanka project with one of the leaders of the Tamil Tigers. Clearly a group that executed - and that's the proper verb - some very brutal acts, for a long time. And this fellow was killed a year and a half ago. And at the end of spending the evening with him, he had been a child soldier himself, he walked with a limp because he'd been shot. By the end of the evening, he was sharing with me his deep sorrow that he and his wife were unable to conceive children. So, there's humanity in all of us, and it's up to us to recognize it.

MK: But do you try to use that? Is it a ploy?

MD: A ploy?

RC: You appeal to their humanity. You appeal to that sensitivity, to that vulnerability. Because that's the only way you can dissuade people from doing what they might have been planning to do. There is no other way. And just by being there, and being in a relationship with these people -- no matter all the reprehensible things they may have been doing - that helps at least for now - here and now - to not kill someone.

Even if there were individuals who felt under threat, maybe they were running for political office. And they felt under threat. They could turn to us and ask for protection. And we individualize our protective accompaniment, is what we call it. And it can be for a week, maybe for a month. And the same with communities, they may feel under threat and they may ask us to stay with them because the argument is that if there are eyes and ears, the perpetrators will not create any acts of violence.

MK: When you stage a Peaceforce, it's a combination of nationals and foreigners?

RC: It's very important because the people from the global level bring a certain strength and independence. And the people from the local level, they know the culture, they know the language - they know what to do, what not to do. And it's the combination - the Glocal combination - that actually provides you with the formula where you can get the best of both worlds. If it were only international, we would be making many mistakes. If there's only nationals, particularly people from the ethnic groups for example, the religious groups that are at war against one another, it's not going to work. The combination is vital.

MK: Talk about Sudan. Why are you there?

MD: We were invited by two civil society groups. SONAD - the Student Organization for Nonviolence and Development and the Institute for the Promotion of Civil Society. They actually took buses to come to our International Assembly in Nairobi and presented this proposal. We reviewed it and looked at it according to criteria. Based on that, our governing council, which is elected by our member organizations, green signaled it. So we sent an exploratory team for three months to work with our local partners. That was November 2009 through February 2010. Based on that, they put together another proposal, which the governing council accepted. And so we started raising money and doing the training. So our first team hit the ground in late May early June. We've been invited because of the Referendum. Both to protect civilians and prevent violence in the run up to the Referendum. And then also, [we will] do the same in the post Referendum period. So we anticipate we will be there at least two years.

: Why are you in Western Equatoria?

MD: There's the LRA (Lord's Resistance Army, a terrorist group once based in Uganda now spread in small amounts throughout South Sudan). There's other more historical points of violence between the herders and the farmers, and different South-South tribal potentials. And all of that is happening right now in a tinderbox that could explode into a war that nobody wants, like prior to 2005. So if we can help in a little way to prevent violence and prevent those sparks from starting a fire, then that's been a good day's work. We have a provable, workable method that will protect civilians and prevent violence. We shouldn't have to scrape to send more peacekeepers.

MK: How many more do you need?

MD: We need at least 200 more.

: And how many do you have?

MD: Right now we have 50.