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Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping and Conflict Intervention

1 April 2013 No Comment

Tiffany Easthom

Connection Point Director Yasmina Mrabet interviewed Tiffany Easthom, Country Director at Nonviolent Peaceforce, about strategies and challenges in peacekeeping work. Her answers are below.

Can you share with us a little about your personal background, and what encouraged or inspired you to work in peacekeeping?

I was a “social justice” kid – I always had some cause or another that I was engaged in from a very young age, so arriving into an adult career doing this kind of work has been a natural path.  My undergraduate degree is in Justice and my MA is in Human Security and Peacebuilding.  When I was studying for my MA, I became intellectually obsessed with the issue of the impact of violent conflict on civilians and the consistent failure of the formal structures intended to protect civilians to do so.  I kept wondering how civilians could work to protect themselves rather than relying on or waiting for formal structures to be able to do so when they just weren’t.   Through the course of my studying this issue, I learned about organizations that were doing this kind of work and was fortunate enough to be able to go to work for Peace Brigades International and from there found my way to NP.

What exactly is nonviolent peacekeeping? Is this work done in zones where conflict is overt and protracted? Or where conflict is latent and in danger of erupting? Or both?

Unarmed civilian peacekeeping is done in both of the contexts that you have described.  UCP is the methodology where civilians, working as nonpartisan parties in a conflict environment, implement a series of strategies – rumour control, shuttle diplomacy, facilitated dialogue, protective presence/patrolling and accompaniment, confidence building between the parties, monitoring cease fires, peace agreements, borders etc., influencing parties to the conflict to understand the political benefit and political cost of actions that result in either the harm or protection of civilians.  The best protection is prevention, and ideally UCP is employed in contexts where tensions are rising and can be de-escalated before violence occurs.

In situations where conflict is overt, UCP can be employed to increase the safe space for civilians to operate in – the establishment of humanitarian corridors, negotiating for the return of abductees (often children and women), narrowing combat areas, and encouraging combatants to restrict their engagement to be with other armed combatants only.  The list can go on; the important thing to remember is that conflict is not neatly started or ended and it takes a multiplicity of efforts to end it.  People are often hypnotized by the complexity of conflict and therefore think that it is futile and do not engage. The reality of conflict is that there is always an entry point, and it may not be what you immediately expect.

We understand that a part of your work involves fostering dialogue. What are some of the obstacles to beginning dialogues, and what are some examples of overcoming these?

The obstacles that impede dialogue relate to trust and security.  Often the initial issue is security – dialogue takes place between conflicting parties, and regularly in the area where violent conflict is taking place.  Parties are often concerned about being targets of violence during dialogue.  NP works with parties to identify safe locations, mutually agreed upon to be neutral and safe.  NP also provides protective presence during dialogues to deter spoilers to the process from actualizing on threats.  Helping parties to a dialogue establish trust is also a challenge at the beginning.  We often spend a great deal of energy shuttling back and forth between the parties, building up the initial trust between the parties that will enable them to feel sufficiently comfortable to at least enter into dialogue.  I would say that another challenge that is worth considering is the importance of remaining clearly nonpartisan and ensuring that the parties are leading the dialogue themselves, recognizing NP only as the facilitation support rather than the lead, so that the solutions are coming from the conflicting parties, thereby increasing the likelihood of success.

Peacekeepers walk to small village during a needs assessment in South Sudan. Photo Credit: Nonviolent Peaceforce

What are some unique challenges and opportunities of women peacemakers working in conflict zones?

This is a wonderful question.  Men, women, boys, and girls all experience conflict and consequently peacemaking in different ways. While there are of course similarities, gender and age roles influence the way that conflict affects people and the roles that they must play.  It is still not common, although not unheard of, for women to serve as armed combatants – instead they play these intense roles as supporters of the combatants, heads of the families, trying to ensure sufficient food, shelter, safety and security for large families.  During armed conflict, normal social patterns break down and behaviors that were considered previously unacceptable increase – such as sexual violence, domestic violence, theft, threatening behavior.  Women tend to bear the brunt of these changes: the men return from combat and find that the women have taken on bigger roles in the community than they used to have, and everyone has trouble adjusting. For women from the conflict-affected communities, serving as peacemakers can be empowering. Where they have taken on large roles during conflict they are often able to demonstrate a newly discovered agency and shift the balance of power in their families and communities.  This opportunity comes with an obvious challenge; changes like this can result in pushback and threats to the security of the change agents.

When women serve as international peacemakers we have a unique opportunity to share our culture, education, and experience with communities who may not be used to seeing women in these kinds of roles.  As cliché as it sounds, at times working with armed actors as women can be highly effective.  We engage in a way that is non-traditional for armed actors and can effectively de-escalate tension and serve as non-threatening interlocutors.

The opposite can be true as well; there are times when deeply entrenched expectations of the role of women can be debilitating to building relationships with senior-ranking men in governments or armed groups.  I had an experience when  I was the head of the agency I was working for in-country and  one of my teams was having serious challenges gaining access to a particular area, as they were being blocked by the authorities.  The authorities told them they would only discuss this issue with their boss. So I traveled for 12 hours to appear as requested, and when I walked into the room they were so stunned that I was a woman they stammered over pleasantries and then left me in the room with an assistant.  Challenges!

How can women and men around the world support and raise awareness about your work and strategies in approaching conflict? Are there any resources you can share that would be useful to others working in the peacebuilding and conflict resolution field?

I always encourage people to try not to be overwhelmed by conflict and to try and see past the large, complicated story to the lives of the individuals who are dealing with the impact of this level of violence on a daily basis.  People watching the news from their homes and the people sitting in the negotiating rooms and in the think tanks experience conflict in a much different way than those who are literally running for their lives.  While we watch from a distance or analyze conflict from an academic perspective, we take time, we discuss and we have all the time in the world. For those who are trying to stay alive, to find food, to protect their children, to avoid being raped, every second counts.  And while they may speak a language you don’t recognize, have different colored skin, worship in different ways, they are literally no different than you are; they experience fear, pain, love, and loss in exactly the same way.

When we talk about conflict and conflict resolution, we often are talking about the conflict of others – but we don’t handle conflicts that we are involved in very well. We carelessly throw hate language around, we say things like “I could kill that guy.” When you work in a conflict zone, you become pretty sensitive to the real meaning of that language.  Conflict, whether it is inter-personal, communal, or inter/intra state, has the same elements, and all of those elements can be managed and understood. Read, study, reflect on the way you respond to conflict that you are involved in and that you witness, and challenge yourself to improve, to influence, to get involved in your community or the world at large.

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More from Nonviolent Peaceforce:

Diary Of A Peacekeeper In South Sudan

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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

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