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Brussels, November 2007

Historical overview of nonviolent conflict interventions

Two hundred years of history of nonviolent conflict interventions

A comprehensive history of nonviolent conflict interventions is lacking

A comprehensive history of nonviolent conflict interventions covering more than just projects of peacekeeping has yet to be written. It would probably be a history beginning with the last century, pointing out some earlier activities and events - like mediation undertaken by Quakers between colonialists and Indians in the 17th and 18th century(1) - as their prehistory. There would have to be mention of the conceptualisation of peace by international law as it started in the period of enlightenment with philosophical studies (2) like the probably best known and most influential oeuvre, Immanuel Kant’s “Perpetual Peace”, written in 1795. These thoughts survived more than one hundred years of realpolitics and war as a legitimate means of politics, influencing not only the peace movements of the outgoing 19th century, but also directly or indirectly the founders of the League of Nations and the United Nations with its Charter, the different Covenants on civil and human, and of course its peacekeeping missions.

A major role in such a comprehensive history the rise of pacifism (3) would play, the growth of nonviolent action (4) and nonviolent (social) defence (5), and of peoples’ struggles (6) around the world, many of them fought with nonviolent or mostly nonviolent means - all predominantly developments of the by-gone, 20th century.

The goal to establish a standing peace army

Three elements in common for most of the proposals

The goal to establish a standing peace army may be rightly called, as Moser-Puangsuwan and Weber do, a “recurrent vision”. It seems that between World War I and today there have been at least about one dozen of proposals of that sort that made their way into the literature on nonviolent intervention. Personally, I am convinced that there have been at least twice as many that have been overlooked so far(7). The better-known proposals have - with one or two exceptions each - two things in common: They emphasise the role of peacekeeping and/or even peace enforcement by interpositioning, and they seek to place the new instrument under the auspices of the United Nations or another international organisation. The proposals never found much if any attention with the bodies the proposals were directed to.

As a third element in common, most of the proposals (not all) had a strong connection to projects. In some cases, the proposal to create a peace army came after a project idea to intervene in a specific case. For example, after Maud Roydens concrete proposal to intervene in the Chinese-Japanese conflict, she and her followers developed a general proposal to the League of Nations. In other cases the peace army proposals were developed on a more abstract level, preceding projects that then were often seen at the beginning as pilot or exemplary projects (Christian Peacemakers, German Civil Peace Service). In this latter case, the organisations have tended to soon abandon the larger vision as unpractical or even no longer desirable.

Different contributions to peacebuilding

Not all of these proposals remained at an abstract level. There has been a larger number of spontaneously formed groups and projects in order to protest or stop violence, or to contribute to peacebuilding. There are a few overviews compiled on such projects.(8) But to start with a remark on what is not to be found here: Some nonviolent activities that are found in some of the standard overviews I am leaving out, because in my eyes they do not belong to the realm of nonviolent intervention. So there is neither mention of the Sahara Protest Action(9) when an international group including Africans protested against the first French nuclear weapons testing 1959-1960, nor of the different peace walks (10) and peace ships sent to protest against the nuclear arms race (11), nor of peoples’ struggles and cases of nonviolent resistance/social defence like the Kapp’ Putsch, the Indian liberation struggle, Prague 1968, Philippines 1986 and so on. In all these cases the nonviolent activists did not intervene in a conflict not their own but made themselves one of the conflict parties. Though a lot about the functioning of nonviolent action can be learned from studying these examples, including them here would have broadened at this point the subject beyond recognition.

There are projects where it is difficult to decide if the activists did intervene as externals or are fighting their own struggle. The problem arises especially when peace teams or the like become active locally, e.g. trying to mediate or to accompany threatened people in racist or ethnic conflicts taking place in their own country. On the whole, I tend to consider these projects rather as nonviolent interventions as long as the interveners do not belong to one of the primarily and directly concerned groups. For example, a Croatian citizen who intervenes in an area where members of the Serb minority are threatened by Croatian extremists, is rather an external party no matter if she or he is an ethnic Croat or Serb.

Some of the projects undertaken by groups and coalitions formed spontaneously, under the impact of a specific conflict or war they wanted to influence, have been larger-scale. It starts with the often-quoted attempt of the British pastor Maud Roydon to set up a peace army in order to stop the war between Japan and China in 1932. There was another wave of such actions from the middle of the 1960s to middle of 1970s - Cyprus, Vietnam, India, the Middle East and Northern Ireland being the conflicts around which such actions were conceived and carried out. A third wave of such spontaneous activities started in the 1990s first with the second Gulf War (Gulf Peace Team) and then different actions around the war in Bosnia/former Yugoslavia in general. Latin America became another focus.

It is interesting to notice that there has been an obvious relationship between the different actions just because probably often the same people were involved in them, and also a clear relationship between spontaneous actions to the foundation of more stable groups and organisations. In the case of the 1970s this was more a delayed then a simultaneous reaction: While in the first half of the 1960s only one more influential organisation, the World Peace Brigade, was founded (and incidentally dissolved rather soon) - activists involved in such actions and in World Peace Brigade later were involved in leading positions in the founding e.g. of Peace Brigades International, Witness for Peace, Christian Peacemaker Teams and so forth. In the 1990s things moved far quicker: Several new organisations formed almost at the same time as spontaneous actions were carried out - Balkan Peace Team, Civil Peace Services in several European countries and so on.

The goals and activities of these kinds of projects are not as easily described as it might seem. They are not all about stopping or controlling group violence by interpositioning international activists between the warring parties, although that has been the objective of the majority of them. Some of them just aimed at making the issue public and expressing solidarity to the victims of the war (e.g. protest actions after the suppression of the Prague Spring by Warsaw Pact troops in 1968, two Walks for Peace in the Middle East and one or two of the peace caravans/marches taking place in the 1990s in Bosnia.

There are a few projects listed in this category which are exceptional insofar as they concentrate on accompaniment of refugees back to their home (e.g. the Latin American ones), or monitoring of the human rights situation and accompaniment of threatened individuals like in “Cry for Justice”, a project carried out by an umbrella of different groups in 1993. Although these are no stable organisations but rather projects carried out by a number of groups together, and therefore belong in this chapter, the approach and tactics of these projects are rather comparable to that of peace team organisations described in the next chapter, and some are taken up there as examples again.

The number of participants (or prospective participants since some of the actions never took place in the end) has a rather large range. “Mir Sada”, a peace caravan to Bosnia planned by an Italian and a French organisation in 1993 gathered the probably largest group of about 2.000 people.(12) The smallest had perhaps 20 participants. But as impressive as the larger numbers are, considering the risk the participants took willingly (most actions made it quite clear to all prospective volunteers that they might get killed in the course of the action), it must not be forgotten that all of these projects were of a short-term character. The own experience of the author is that it is far more difficult to find persons to commit themselves for a longer time like one or two years without offering proper compensation (salary) which none of the projects described here did.(13)

Some reasons for project-failing

In regard to the effects/goals reached by the projects setting out to stop or prevent a war, it seems to be correct what Weber says in his summary: “Most of the early major initiatives stalled at the proposal stage primarily because of a lack of money and the absence of international organisational and logistical support”.(14) Others at least arrived in the field, but none of them reached the goals they had set out for themselves, which was to stop a war.(15)

Nevertheless, it needs to be pointed out that most of these initiatives took place in an environment of international or quasi-international war with clear geographical borders between the warring parties. Only very few of them (the ones in Yugoslavia) were set in what is today the predominant kind of conflict, civil war between mixed ethnic (or religious) groups. Perhaps - this shall be left open at the moment - interpositioning there failed because the method used - a massive body of activists being at one place together, for a short time only, and without any footage in the communities, was inappropriate. Therefore, the seeming impossibility of interpositioning projects should not to quickly be assumed for such civil wars where there are no clear boundaries between the opponents, and the weaponry used rather falls into the category of small arms. This goes at least for projects falling into the realm of peacekeeping that is in situation when there is some agreement on a cease-fire between the parties in conflict.(16)

The large scale intervention approaches - some approaches will remain left apart

Some very important approaches to conflict transformation will be neglected in this study in order to concentrate on large scale intervention approaches, especially those developed and undertaken by professional “unofficial” conflict resolution workers because what they do can only be done by a small number of people. Professional conflict resolution workers may either come originally out of the Track One system (e.g. elderly statesmen like Jimmy Carter), or from religious or professional backgrounds.(17) In contrast to peace teams and peace services, people of this category work mainly in the field of peacemaking. They may offer unofficial good services and mediation (e.g. the Quakers who entertain a house in Geneva for this purpose)(18) , which is often a preparation for more official negotiations taking place later. Another activity is Conflict Solving Workshops (19). This is a special method developed and carried out by a smaller number of international conflict resolution organisations like International Alert (based in London), Nonviolence International (Washington), Berghof Centre for Conflict Resolution (Berlin) or Simon Fisher and his team of the Harvard School. Their purpose is to get people together who are not first Track themselves, but who have good access to the power holders of their society.

The number of institutions and NGOs concentrating purely on peace making activities is rather small. This is probably due to the fact that it is not easy to get access to the top-level leadership in almost any given conflict. All reports agree that it needs a long time to build up the trust necessary to have a standing in this field.

Also, the very broad category of citizens’ initiatives will be excluded, those initiatives - be it NGOs or more informal groups - that get involved in international work on a very grassroots level, seeking a person-to-person contact and either trying either to help people/groups in another country, or building networks on issues of mutual concern.(20) Examples for the first kind of activity would be all those grassroots groups which form themselves to collect money for social projects or refugees in conflict areas, be it street children in Brazil, orphans in Chechnya or a church community somewhere in Africa. They usually work in an area of conflict but with a predominantly humanitarian approach, and unlike the professional aid organisations often have little awareness of the impact their work might have on conflict. Examples for the second kind of activity are those citizens’ networks, which have formed either around a specific issue/conflict or on a regional base. One of the better known is the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly(21) , which was founded in 1990 as a citizens’ mirror to what was then still the CSCE. The HCA has organised regularly conferences of representatives of country groups from all CSCE/OSCE countries, and in addition got involved in some conflicts in the area on a more concrete basis. One of their most successful projects were conducted by two women from Armenia and Azerbaijan who managed to negotiate an exchange of war prisoners in the 1990, and won international recognition by doing so. And though not citizens-only, the twinning projects between towns and schools as they flourish in Europe should also be mentioned here. Many of them are supported by an active group of citizens who regularly visit each other, and organise support in cases of crisis as for example when the war in Yugoslavia broke out.


  • (1) : Walker 1981:61 pp., Büttner 1995:71

  • (2) : Like Erasmus of Rotterdam, Pierre Dubois, Eméric Crucé, Maximilien de Sully, William Penn, Abbé de Saint-Pierre, Friedrich von Gentz. See for example Dougherty/ Pfaltzgraff 1997, p.190

  • (3) : The term ‘pacifism’ has been coined 1901 by the French activist E. Arnaud. But radical rejection of all war is much older, and can be found as a commandment not to use violence in many religions and philosophies. As sources of modern pacifism as it developed in the 20th century in Europe and North America, usually the following three are named:

    • the various peace churches and other religious minority communities forming itself since the Enlightenment (e.g. Mennonites, Quakers)

    • the institutional approach expecting peace from the yet-to-be made binding rule of international law as it has been pursued by the bourgeois peace societies at the end of the 19th century, forming themselves under the impression of the first instances of modern war (American Civil War, German-French War)

    • the socialist and anarchist antimilitarism as developing since the last three decades of the 19th century

See: Brock/Young 1999, Holl 1988

  • (4) : See Sharp 1973, Boulding 2000, Ackerman/Duvall 2000.

  • (5) : And/or Civilian-based defence. See Sharp 1985, Boserup/Mack 1980, Ebert 1981, Ebert 1981b, Martin 1993, Müller 1996.

  • (6) : See for example Ackerman/Duvall 2000 and Martin 1991.

  • (7) : For example, just from my personal knowledge: In the middle of the 1990s there was a small, informal group of nonviolent activists in Germany, including myself, who tried to find people to create a ‘peace army’ as we called it to prepare for nonviolent resistance against future NATO wars (‘interventions’). This initiative never made it beyond the production of a leaflet, and a few discussions at different meetings, and is - as far as I know -nowhere documented. I assume that similar things have been happening again and again in many countries.

  • (8) : Beer 1993, Büttner 1995, Evers 2000, Moser-Puangsuwan 1995, Müller/Büttner 1998, Schirch 1995, Walker 1981, Weber 1993, Weber 2000. In addition, there are some articles and booklets on specific projects and organisations: Griffin/Nolan 1991 on Witness for Peace, Coy 1994 and Mahoney/Eguren 1999 on Peace Brigades International.

  • (9) : e.g. Moser-Puangsuwan 1995.

  • (10) : Like the San Francisco to Moscow Walk in 1960-61, see Moser-Puangsuwan 1995

  • (11) : One exception is made for the World Peace Brigade because such an action has been one of three of their activities which otherwise were interventionist enterprises.

  • (12) : Maud Roydon and her fellows had found about 1.000 volunteers what they considered an insufficient number.

  • (13) : Though it might sound contradictory, it seems that it is possible to find people to risk their lives - as long as the action is over in a few weeks and people may then return to their daily life of work or study. This comment will be further researched and duly documented in later stages of the research on NP.

  • (14) : Weber 2000:16.

  • (15) : Those with more modest goals, like giving protection to returning refugees, had much more chances to succeed.

  • (16) : Here I disagree with Weber who uses the same argument - most wars not having clearly defined front lines - as an additional argument against the impossibility of larger-scale peace-keeping. My argument is that the alternative is not necessarily small-scale accompaniment and humanitarian assistance)(as Weber seems to assume) but that there are other kinds of large-scale intervention practised more recently by civilian international (state) interventions. See below.

  • (17) : Diamond/McDonald 1993:42

  • (18) : See Burton/Dukes 1990

  • (19) : See Hill 1982, Walton 1970, Ropers 1995

  • (20) : See Diamond/McDonald 1993:65 pp. on “track 4: private citizens”.

  • (21) : See ‘hca Quarterly’ produced by the HCA headquarters at Prague.