I'm moving to Sri Lanka to join a "peace army." I have been a social justice activist throughout my entire career in mathematics and ecology. After September 11, however, I also became an anti-war activist.
I have spent the last couple years networking, coalition building, organizing public education, and doing direct actions in my local community.
I'm now resigning my civil service job doing statistics to join the first civilian peacekeeping team of the Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) in Sri Lanka.
The 19-year Sri Lankan civil war has killed 64,000 people on the island and displaced 1.6 million. There are many factions, some fighting with others in the same ethnic or religious group who struggle for political representation and access to resources. Two of the main warring parties - the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) - signed a Norwegian-backed ceasefire in January of 2002. Both sides have accused the other of violating the ceasefire agreement, but the war has not resumed as such. Human rights abuses continue, however, including disappearances, killings and denial of civil rights in the struggle for just distribution of power.
The Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) is a three-year-old non-government organization with offices and members around the world. Its goal is to establish a standing "peace army" of civilian peacekeepers trained in nonviolent peacekeeping tactics. They could respond to invitations and appeals of local communities threatened by war.
Like myself, the members of NP believe that to go to war or to do nothing are not the only options and that the time is right for this alternative tool. Their first small band of members from five continents is leaving this fall for Sri Lanka where they will accept an invitation to live and work in communities threatened by violence. Teams will be trained and deployed at intervals throughout the three years of the project, each team member committing to two years.
The NP documentation stresses that only local protagonists could build a lasting peace, but that the political space for local groups could be enlarged by nonpartisan international interveners. This focus on respectfully creating political space for local struggles for peace and social justice appealed to me.
Civilian peacekeeping efforts have been successful, but are left to those who have the means, and who often undervalued volunteers. This is not a substitute for sustainable work done by individuals whose governing directive is the elimination of violence and nothing else. Large scale, well equipped, well organized peacekeeping work has been transposed onto armies, imposing peace through the threat of violence and directed by nation states with many directives.
The NP methods can be broadly grouped into four categorie: accompaniment, monitoring, international presence, and inter-positioning.
A "core training" in the above essential tactics took place for a month in Thailand this summer. The team members came from different backgrounds and with different experiences, but were all devoted to the area of peacework that had led them there. One women had worked with children in Kosovo, one with youth in poor neighborhoods in Kenya, one had escorted refugees home in the Philippines. A couple had trained in Palestine and one had lived and worked there for years with civilians facing the daily dangers and troubles of living under occupation. Some had also worked as election monitors in their own communities; others had lived and worked in Sri Lanka before and were driven by those experiences.
Of course, none of us know what success will look like. But it's noteworthy that the first person whom Peace Brigades International accompanied twenty years ago is still alive today. She was the young wife of a labor activist who had disappeared. She formed a support group for families of the disappeared which evolved into an activist group seeking answers and justice. Before that time, people who stood up and stood out for such efforts were killed and disappeared. She felt the accompaniment of PBI gave her the political space to act, and she did so with great effect. Although others debate it, she credits PBI for her still being alive.
NP's methods have been proven by other groups, but NP is structured specifically to lay the foundation for a larger scale peaceforce. It trains its personnel in a broad range of roles and puts a priority on being international and inclusive. The international governance council, made up of regional representatives elected by over 70 member organizations from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and North America oversee the organization. It is this council and not nation states that will decide which projects to take on and when to end them.
The council's most important decision so far was which project to choose of the three shortlisted: Israel/Palestine, Guatemala, or Sri Lanka. Now that the Sri Lanka project has been chosen, the NPwill draw on a 300-page feasibility study funded by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).
The USIP study outlined the criteria for success, including that all parties have a stake in peace and are susceptible to international pressure. It examines how third-party nonviolent intervention has helped small-scale successes and found no reason why civilian peace keeping could not work on larger scale.
People always ask me how this project will be funded. (Few, however, question the funding sources of conventional armies and the opportunity cost of not using these funds for schools and health care.) The main sources will be individuals, foundations, friendly governments, and religious organizations. The 2002 operating budget was $700,000 and the Sri Lankan pilot project will cost $1.6 million.
Nonviolent Peaceforce points out that this is less than the US government spends on the military every two minutes. I'm not fond of drawing parallels between the Peaceforce and conventional military operations, but I find that comparison extremely relevant.
Military peacekeepers, such as those in the Canadian military, understand the idea of "presence" very well. While listening to the CBC the other day I heard a young Canadian solider describe his job in Kabul, Afghanistan as a military peacekeeper. His job was to affect the atmosphere by remaining visible with "a big gun." I had never wanted to be a part of an army of any kind, but I also hope to affect the atmosphere where I will work in Sri Lanka - without the big gun.
There are enough resources to support every human on this earth, yet many people die every day of hunger and intentional violence. Many government administrations, including the world's richest and most powerful, are driving toward increased militarization and the further legitimizing and prevalence of war. Millions of citizens all over the globe poured into the street last winter to protest against the war on Iraq, saying that the only two options are not to drop bombs or "do nothing." It will have to be the citizens who develop and build alternative tools to war, with an economy that invests in and rewards peace and peace education.
So at this point in my life, I am moving to Sri Lanka in the hope that I can help build this Nonviolent Peaceforce. I hope it will be one of those effective tools citizens can use to support each other in waging peace.
If you would like to find out how to invest in the Nonviolent Peaceforce by buying a $20 peace bond, or by joining the local Emergency Response Network that we rely on for safety, please visit www.nonviolentpeaceforce.org> or <www.npcanada.org for local updates and reports.