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Partial Gloom and Doom About Peacemaking







There is a new and exciting literature on the capacity of civilians to intervene in civil conflicts to either reduce the level of violence or to end the hostilities altogether. The last essay that appeared on this website concerned the role of civilians in ending terrorism in the Basque Country. Globally, there are many cases of citizens who have stood up heroically to create peace, saving huge numbers of people from further destruction. Effective peace brigades have been documented for Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Rwanda, Peru, Kenya and Colombia as well as the aforementioned Northeastern Spain. My own personal position is that this type of civil action is important and powerful. These cases need to be studied as the strategy guide for how to rebuild positive social action and affect when the world goes berserk in its customary fits of self-destructive violence.


That said, one does not want to get too happy-sappy by overestimating what idealistic citizens can do in the hellholes of the world. A recent collection of superlative essays curated by the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver speaks to this well. Civil Action and the Dynamics of Violence edited by Deborah Avant, Marie Berry, Erica Chenowith, Rachel Epstein, Cullen Hendrix, Oliver Kaplan and Timothy Sisk, most of whom are Denver faculty, offers a sobering assessment of what normal people can do to stop waves of violence that are occurring around them. (And yes, that is one very long list of editors.) One of the editors of that book, Marie Berry, has also done her own work on the role of women peacekeepers per se, War, Women and Power: From Violence to Mobilization in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina. I recommend both volumes.


Here are four takeaways from that literature – one optimistic, one neutral and two quite depressing.


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Here is the good news.


Heroic Civilian Peacekeeping Is Actually Quite Common.


These works contain stories of civil action against violence from conflicts all over the world. Even in settings like the Syrian Civil War, which is well-known for blood shed, citizens do rescue work, build hospitals, create safe speech zones, de-emphasize ethnic differences and negotiate with troops for more clement treatment. Syria is a particularly harsh setting, where the opportunities for peacekeepers to be effective have been constrained. In other countries, local peacekeepers have had even greater success in limiting civilian casualties.


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Here is the neutral news.


Civilian Peacekeeping Requires Strenuous Effort, Massive Social Mobilization and Alliances Between Organizations and Political Factions Across a Wide Spectrum of Social Groupings.


Peacekeeping is a big, big job. For it to be effective it requires huge numbers of individuals, very substantial donations of time, money and courage, and the simultaneous support of as many organizations and institutions as possible. In Tuzla, Bosnia, where peacekeepers were particularly effective, the primary challenge in was protecting Bosnian Muslims from predations by local Serbs. Civilian action was supported by clergy in all four local religions, members of nearly every ethnic group (including pacifist Serbs), members of many political parties and transnational organizations. Much of the work was coordinated by new spur-of-the-moment NGOs (notably the Tuzla Citizens Forum) which served as umbrella organizations to unite the efforts of highly diverse groups.


Where individual actions were less vigorous, or where major constituencies or organizations held back from peacekeeping work, civil action was markedly less effective.


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Now the bad news. Here is bad news number one.


Agents of Violence Can Exert Strenuous Effort Too. When the Bad Guys Move Swiftly with the Intention of Explicitly Neutralizing Peacekeepers, They Win and the Peacekeepers Lose.


In the settings where civil action was effective, the peacekeepers were “first on the table” to oppose bloodshed before local massacres could really get going on a major scale. They responded to first symptoms and early violent initiatives. When the agents of violence struck early and hard before peacekeepers could mobilize, they would paralyze civil action in its tracks. Paramilitaries can also choose to target peacekeepers per se. If peacekeepers are not mere neutral intermediaries, but are in fact primary victims, fewer people support the peacekeepers and civil action fails. Yes, it helps if civil actors can be organized, but militias and death squads know how to organize too. In Prijedor, Bosnia, the Serbian militants struck with lightning speed. In the first days, they targeted anyone who could possibly oppose them. The population was cowed; the militias ran wild.


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Bad news number two.


After-the-war Attempts to Prevent Future Massacres Can Lay the Seeds for Further Social Division.


Marie Berry notes that both in Rwanda and Bosnia, attempts to rebuild a culture of peace and restitute victims for their traumas became divisive and alienating in their own right. Civil wars don’t end with “the forces of justice and truth” prevailing. They end when one side wins the war. That one side has its own scripts. It has its own narrative of what occurred. It has its own political agenda of who must be kept weak in order for the winners to continue governing. In Bosnia, there was restitution available for women who were raped. Women who lost their children received little. In Rwanda, where Hutus had massacred Tutsis but the Tutsis finally won, Hutus were treated as the suspicious group that had to be controlled. There had been substantial violence by Hutus against other Hutus. The Hutu victims received little support. Tutsis were treated as victims – even if they were not in the country when the massacres occurred. Substantial proportions of the population were forced to move to government-created townships “to prevent future violence by providing modern urban conditions”. Many of these policing measures could provide the basis for future mobilization against the regime by those who have been marginalized and disaffected.


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Creating a culture of peace in times of violence is both difficult and dangerous. It is still nevertheless, a noble activity. Yes, that activity can be thwarted by the violent. It can be twisted by participants with agendas. But then all forms of well-intentioned human activity can be thwarted by the perverse or corrupted by the self-interested. One does what one can, knowing that opposition will be inevitable.


The new Denver work shows that civil action makes a difference. In settings around the world, countless lives have been saved and traumas prevented.


Peacekeeping works. But peacekeeping is hard work.

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