Analysis file Dossier : Interventions in conflicts: large-scale civilian and military based missions and Peace teams

Brussels, November 2007

Alternatives to military intervention: What is done by the military that could be done better by civilians?

The goal of developing nonviolent, large-scale intervention as an alternative to military intervention (1) is a recurrent subject. As has been described above, many peace services as well as at least a dozen short-term projects professed this goal.

In a broader sense, the search for alternatives to the military is one of two basic approaches in the pacifist debate: While one stresses resistance to unjust structures, accusing and making public what goes wrong and what the real interests behind are, the other always has accepted that there might be some functions which the military fulfils today which are necessary to fulfil and, consequently, need to be replaced in order to overcome war and organised violence. The most elaborate outcome of this approach so far has been the concept of civilian-based or social defence that aims at being an alternative to defence, one if not the basic function of the military. Of course, both approaches interact with each other and supplement each other, for example, when lessons learned in peoples’ struggles became integrated elements of social defence.

The following section will discuss the question whether a comparable alternative concept could be developed for another function the military has today, the function of military intervention in conflicts (2).

To issue a warning right at the beginning: There is of course a conceptual difference between the position that there are scenarios or tasks which civilians could do better than the military, and the more radical pacifist position that there are no circumstances under which military interventions are justified and needed, and that all could be replaced by concerted civilian action. I will come to this point in the end, but first develop my argument step by step.

1. The military has been fulfilling the following tasks/functions in the framework of military conflict interventions:

  • Deliver humanitarian aid and taking care of peacebuilding activities;

  • Provide communication and logistics in complex missions (3)

  • Broker agreements, e. g. over demarcation lines or cease-fires

  • Monitoring and verification (in Monitoring and Peacekeeping missions of all generations);

  • Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR)

  • De-mining

  • Peacekeeping of buffer zones and cease-fires, including prevention of infiltration;

  • Creating a safe environment for reconstruction and democracy building (in complex missions);

  • Protecting safe zones or safe havens

  • Protecting humanitarian aid and refugee camps

  • Assuming executive policing tasks, e.g. arresting war criminals or riot control.

  • Enforcing a cease-fire or peace agreement against the will of one or all of the parties including the forcible separation of warring parties and the guarantee or denial of movement (e.g. no-flight-zones).

2. The military has different inherent characteristics that need to be distinguished.

Of course, the picture drawn here is an ideal one based on the experience in Western countries of the Northern Hemisphere, and might not be true for all armies in all countries at all times.

  • It has the material resources necessary for effective deployment – both the equipment (planes, ships, trucks, armoured cars etc.) and very good and easy access to money, almost unlimited in comparison to other governmental and non-governmental actors.

  • It has good personnel resources (even without conscription) and training facilities.

  • It is always available at short notice, being a standing force.

  • There is a lot of special knowledge and special skills relevant to movement and security-conscious behaviour in war situations.

  • The personnel serving in the military understand that their profession is a dangerous one, and generally accept the possibility of injury or death as a professional risk.

  • It has weapons and people trained and ready to use them.

  • It has a high grade of legitimacy and prestige in many countries of the world. Just the fact of being a soldier might make acceptance by other soldiers easier.

These are often the reasons why the United Nations or other international actors decide to send a military mission rather than a civilian one.

Of course, there are also other factors external to the mission that may be very influential to the decision such as:

  • Politicians needing justification for spending so much of the annual budget on the national military.

  • Influence of important advocacy groups like the arms industry lobby. They have a need for the military being used because that creates new demands on weaponry.

  • The deep-rooted conviction that military force is the only solution, and that civilians need protection by soldiers in war-prone situations.

  • Expectations raised by public opinion (“something must be done”), and violence being the seemingly easy and clear-cut answer.

3. The military in peacekeeping missions also has certain inherent weaknesses:

  • It is a large and centralised bureaucracy that means that decision-making is slow, individual initiative is often discouraged, that there is a lack of flexibility and also distortions in information flow (4). Often the formal chain of command gets disturbed by an informal one: Commanders of national contingents often preferring to what is called to phone home for orders rather than working within the international structure.

  • Its security provisions often prevent its members from making easy contacts on the ground and gaining trust

  • It is structured according to sending nations (national battalions instead of a “UN-army) which leads to local people perceiving them rather as reps of these nations, giving warring factions a chance to play on the perceived differences, becoming therefore a hindrance to co-ordination of the mission (because battalion commanders tend to ask for orders rather back home then from the commander of the mission)

  • The presence of military with a population that has been traumatised by soldiers before the arrival of the international mission might cause distrust and fear.

  • Its presence reinforces the implicit message of only the military can solve the conflict- civilians are helpless victims (5).

4. Some of the inherent characteristics listed under (3) could be transferred to a civilian body/organisation without any problems other than the political will to do so, while others cannot.

Easily transferable are:

  • Material resources,

  • Personnel resources,

  • Being a standing force,

  • The personnel having the knowledge and skills needed, and

  • Accepting the professional risks (as police and fire brigade personnel do).

There is no inherent reason why the tax money spent today for the military could not be used for an equivalent civilian organisation (or a number of such organisations). The equipment that would be useful could be transferred to these organisations, e.g. in form of a centrally administered pool available on request for everyone in need of it (6). Volunteers could be recruited and trained in the skills necessary, and the necessary legal provisions (7) made in order to allow a larger number of people to be able to leave their jobs at short notice in order for one or two years of deployment with a civilian force. Sufficient professional positions could be created in addition to have a small trained corps available at all times that then would only have to be filled up by the reserves.

There remain two very central characteristics of the military: Having means of physical protection and enforcement available (being armed), and the issue of prestige.

5. In the following points I will go through the tasks/functions of the military one by one and ask which of the characteristics of the military are relevant to each of these functions, and if/how they may be replaced.

5.1 Deliver humanitarian aid, taking care of peacebuilding activities, and

5.2 Provide communication and logistics

The arguments in favour of the military getting active in the fields of humanitarian aid and peacebuilding include some,- like having the equipment necessary, which easily could be transferred to a civilian body. In many cases even today it could be argued, and has been argued by humanitarian organisations, that the military is not capable of doing these tasks in a responsible and efficient manner, and should rather leave them to the organisations specialising in them.

5.3 Broker agreements

Cease-fires and other agreements are negotiated by those who are present in a conflict situation or have otherwise good access to the parties in conflict. Where there are no military peacekeeping missions, either influential leaders from within the society, international mediators, sometimes also NGOs, and in the case of international civilian missions these civilians have been fulfilling the same function. That means that this function is an outflow from having a specific role in a conflict, and has nothing to do with being the military or not.

5.4 Monitoring and verification

There is broad agreement in the literature that monitoring relies heavily on the acceptance and even support by the parties in conflict. If that condition is fulfilled, military observers in pure observation missions have often been sent to the field without carrying even side-arms for their protection. So again it can be argued that a civilian presence of a similar kind could fulfil the same function as long as the observers bring the technical and military knowledge necessary.

5.5 Disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration

While for soldiers disarmament and destruction of weapons is something they tend to do only hesitatingly because these are their tools, the same act may be a cathartic action for civilians. Demobilisation often means putting soldiers in prison camps, at least for a while. Having other soldiers as jailors has been proven to be not good - civilians are better at this job as well. The same is true for the task of re-integration which is a task anyway usually done by civilian agencies and NGOs (8).

5.6 De-mining

De-mining is even now often been taken care of by NGOs. Some NGOs have specialised on de-mining, others have a de-mining component. Experience teaches that these civilian teams (especially women teams) are better than soldiers, having a smaller rate of accidents and casualties (9).

5.7 Peacekeeping in buffer zones and cease-fires,

5.8 Create a safe environment for reconstruction and democracy building,

5.9 Protect safe havens

5.10 Protect humanitarian aid and refugee camps

Classical peacekeeping missions have not been based on the real capacity of the peacekeepers to enforce the separation of the parties. The peacekeepers were allowed to use armed force only for their self-protection. Even today, when the rules of engagement have changed, and robust peacekeeping is almost universally accepted, it is still considered (10) to be an essential condition for both classical and complex missions that the parties previous to the deployment have agreed to the cease-fire, and to the presence of the peacekeeping mission. What has changed in regard to the use of weapons is that peacekeepers nowadays usually have leave to use force in order to make sure that they can carry out their mandate.

The question to be raised here is if the same results (or even better results) could be achieved by other means. Putting together lessons learned from military peacekeeping missions and from non-armed intercessionary (11) peacekeeping as it is practised by nonviolent groups using the tactic of accompaniment, it seems that having physical means of enforcement available is only one of the tactics possible. Respect for the peacekeepers, and consequently refraining from use of violence, depends on many factors besides the peacekeepers being armed:

  • Identity. Factors here might be age, gender, country of origin, religion and others.

  • Role (peacekeeper), and whom you represent (e.g. the UN). This has become important in international missions when members of those missions would probably not have been respected because of their identity alone.

  • Law and tradition (For example rules against harming unarmed opponents, rules of hospitality).

  • Communication: making oneself known and trusted by creating personal relationships, using rational argument and moral appeal, or setting examples, by displaying a behaviour different from usual (e.g. working in teams whose members come from nations known as enemies of each other)

  • Co-operation with all sides. Often it might be possible to identify issues where there are interests of let’s say a paramilitary group that coincide with broader interests of everyone. For example, many such groups have taken up social welfare functions in territories they control. Or they might also be concerned with containing normal criminal acts. If the international missions manages to begin co-operation on such issues, they might succeed in winning trust and access to the leaders of such groups.

  • Having leverage to apply pressure, e.g. by granting or withholding goods or privileges sought by the sides in conflict. That is a strategy that might work both with governments and with other armed groups (guerrilla, even criminal gangs) if it is possible to identify objects they are interested in (continuing to) obtain or to avoid losing.

  • Being able to organise international pressure, both from international grassroots’ and governmental levels (12). This seems to work in cases when the perpetrators are related to the government, and that government cares about international opinion. Activating the great chain of nonviolence (Johan Galtung) might work in such cases when no direct communication is possible between the parties in conflict.

  • Having access to public opinion in the country. This is something that might work in countries with some degree of functioning society and state, when the government is dependent on voters, or at least of some general acceptance of what it does (13).

  • Being both creative and stubborn when confronted with the threat of violence. Doing the unexpected, one of the rules taught in nonviolent self-defence classes, might also be a good rule for non-armed peacekeeping. There are many examples to be found in peoples’ struggles and nonviolent resistance movements, as well as in the experience of Peace Brigades International.

This list is possibly incomplete. Still, it might serve as an argument that being an armed soldier is not the only way to gain respect in a peacekeeping situation, even in countries and situations where being a soldier at first glance seems to be essential for being respected. The rule of do not allow yourself to be stopped can be met by other means, because there should always be possibilities for gaining respect another way (14). But replacing the military in such settings is not a one-by-one exchange, having non-armed people doing the same as military peacekeepers do. Rather, in order to replace military peacekeeping, it would be necessary to combine un-armed peacekeeping with peacebuilding and peacemaking efforts.

It is important to point out that military peacekeeping missions also use these other tactics, and are rarely based on deterrence by arms alone. Both the work of armed missions and of unarmed groups shows that the element s of communication, of creating new relationships, of peacebuilding activities are also important factors in reducing violence. In many settings peacebuilding and peacekeeping activities and functions have been combined successfully.

Here is also the point where the mentioned structural weaknesses of the military come into play. Many of the tactics described above require a high degree of well-funded personal knowledge of the actors on the ground, and much flexibility in adopting to changing situations. Many of them work better if the belligerents fail to divide up the international mission into friends and enemies as they like to do with nationally structured UN missions.

Another argument for the use of armed peacekeepers usually is that they must have the means to defend themselves. But it has to be pointed out that wearing weapons for self-protection consists of two factors: One is deterrence of a potential aggressor, and the other is the actual use of the weapon in case deterrence did fail. Deterrence, or respect, as it has been argued above, can be reached by other methods then the threat to wound and kill. But if deterrence did not work, then the non-armed peacekeeper does not have the possibility of defending himself or herself. That is the risk nonviolent peacekeepers would have to take, as it is the risk that soldiers take if it turns out that their arms are of no use with the result they still might be killed.

5.11 Assume executive policing tasks

These are tasks that under normal circumstances are carried out by the police, the discussion in the UN now considers different options, including strengthening international police. I think that at least for the time being the stance taken here is that this might be the right direction, rather than allocating these tasks to the military. If law and order break down in a state, there is certainly the need for an international police coming in invested with executive power. While some policing tasks might be in the range of what unarmed civilians could do (e.g. crowd control which nonviolent groups have quite a long history of experience with), others like a non-armed peacekeeper arresting war criminals seems to be something beyond her or his scope.

One thing needs to be considered in this context: Imagining an international mission where international police are sent in but otherwise only unarmed peacekeepers would mean that the police are the only international institution armed. This situation might not only have repercussions to the activities of the peacekeepers, but also lead to falling back into older ways of thinking like “Oh, this is too dangerous now; this the police should do”. Here a solution needs to be found, perhaps based on co-operation of International Police Task Force with local police if any exist, with them being the only ones carrying arms, or a strict limitation of the role of IPTF to classical police tasks.

5.12 Enforce a cease-fire or peace agreement against the will of one or all of the parties

Peace enforcement might mean different things, there is certainly a difference between two or several parties are in conflict and none of them feels inclined to agree to a cease-fire, and when at least one party wants peace, or when the problem lies more with locally based groups not heeding the agreements made on a higher level. Surely, the mechanisms of non-armed peacekeeping as outlined above would work better when there is more agreement to stopping violence. If all sides in theory agree, then maintaining the ceasefire becomes a question of controlling the spoilers, a scenario which has been discussed in the paragraph above, and is a question of gaining respect and practising un-armed deterrence.

If the war in question is of high intensity, and neither side wants a ceasefire, it is very unlikely that an unarmed organisation would even find access to the area of conflict – an experience of many peace army attempts tried hitherto. Personally, I cannot imagine almost any scope for a nonviolent intervention under such circumstances. There have been individuals coming from a nonviolent background arguing in the case of Rwanda that if there had been a Civil Peace Service in place, these volunteers would not have left the country but stayed to prevent mass murder. But other people with knowledge of the situation in Rwanda strongly disagree (15). Judging from the experiences un-armed larger-scale missions and peace teams have made, I tend to agree with the latter position. There was no leverage for un-armed peacekeepers to make the perpetrators desist from violence. If a quick strengthening of the UN peacekeeping mission present, and giving them an enforcement mandate, would have changed things of course needs to remain open because of the wide-spread and decentralised nature of the violence. They would have had to be almost omnipresent in order to stop all violence.

Military enforcement actions seem only to have a chance to succeed if they are willing to take a risk and accept casualties on their own side, what the Western countries want to avoid at all costs. When Nato under the leadership of the USA decided against a ground war in the case of Kosovo/Yugoslavia in 1999 in order to minimise the risk to their own soldiers (no allied soldier died during the war), the bombing did not stop no matter what the Yugoslav troops and paramilitaries were doing in Kosovo. In fact: The systematic driving out of Kosovars on a mass scale (16) only happened during the war, and it is only due to a certain restriction from the Yugoslav side that it did not lead to genocide as many have feared.

Chances for a nonviolent peace enforcement project I can only see is if the war in question is more of a protracted kind with a smaller number of actual fighting incidents involved. In such a case the chances of entering into the field, moving in the field, and influencing what happens might be higher.

If at least one side in the conflict is interested in achieving a cease-fire, the task of the international intervenors would be to create a situation in which the other sides (or side) see more advantages in peace than in continuing war. Here presence on the ground of practising peacekeeping functions of different types combined with peacemaking activities by different actors at all levels might not be hopeless. On the other hand, it would be a high-risk enterprise and chances for success probably depend on the conflict in question. In theory, nonviolent activists could

  • Convince all sides to lay down arms by means of mediation; by involving influential third parties; by engaging in peacebuilding activities that makes peace more attractive than war (e.g. economic aid programs), or

  • Raise the costs of continuing the war by sanctions or boycotts; by creating unwelcome international publicity or by undermining the will of the individual soldiers to continue to fight (methods of civilian-based defence)

6. Summary

Most of the functions the military fulfils today in peacekeeping missions could be transferred to nonviolent peacekeepers. But there are two residues: One is the need for fulfilling some policing tasks in situations when law and order broke down in a country, or when local police is unwilling/unable to act in accordance with international law. Here is a need for some kind of international police.

The other residue is the question of intervening in on-going armed conflicts of high intensity. Perhaps some kind of Rapid Deployment Force under the auspices and control of the United Nations as a safeguard - such as police often maintain a heavily equipped anti-terror unit that is rarely if ever used -might satisfy the felt need for having an instrument ready to prevent mass murder and genocide in the worst case (17). If nonviolent peacekeeping on larger scale proves efficient, perhaps one day this rapid deployment force would be considered unnecessary and be abolished as the last remnant of what once was the military?

In order to reach this goal, civilian-based Defense would have to be introduced to replace the function of military defense, and international politics would have to undergo a radical re-orientation away from serving national interests to serving justice, meaning the interests of all world citizens.


  • (1) : In the Draft Proposal for an International Nonviolent Peace Force it says: “A major contribution of the GNPF will be to build international interest and support for nonviolent movements around the world that present the hope and reality of alternatives to armed intervention.”

  • (2) : I do not talk here about other kinds of wars that might come under the pretext of protection of human rights but are basically motivated by other, economic and/or strategic interests. The Nato war in Kosovo/Yugoslavia was in my eyes an example of the latter.

  • (3) : See Seiple 1996:11

  • (4) : This is of course true for all large bureaucracies, not only of the military. But it seems that at least some armies suffer from these disadvantages much more then civilian bureaucracies because of their emphasis of giving and taking orders rather then team leadership.

  • (5) : See the Do-no-harm-approach of Mary B. Anderson (1998)

  • (6) : In some countries, humanitarian organisations already have started or at least are discussing establishing such a pool.

  • (7) : I am thinking of job guarantees (like maternal leave provisions) and insurance cover including pension provisions and life insurance.

  • (8) : This is based on information given by Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan at the Research Review Seminar of Nonviolent Peaceforce in July 2001.

  • (9) : This is based on information given by Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan at the Research Review Seminar of Nonviolent Peaceforce in July 2001.

  • (10) : It would be correct to say “again” because it is rather a return to this rule from the side of the United Nations, after a period in the 1990s when deployments in ongoing wars were tried.

  • (11) : Term used by Schirch 1995:26pp

  • (12) : That is what Mahony/Eguren consider as “deterrence” in accompaniment (1997:84 pp.)

  • (13) : This is a tactic often referred to in civilian-based defence theory. See, for example, Mellon et al 1985:92

  • (14) : And not being armed might even prove an advantage because it takes the temptation away to “test” the peacekeepers as has been described for example in the case of Lebanon. There every time the contingents changed over, the new ones where shot at from the nearby militaries just to greet them and to see how they reacted. (See Heiberg 1990) The un-armed peacekeepers of course would have to remember that they might be tested as well.

  • (15) : This refers to an unrecorded debate that took place at an early conference on Civil Peace Service in Berlin/Germany in 1994 or 1995.

  • (16) : In contrast to refugee movements due to fighting activity between the Yugoslav forces and the UCK. (Schweitzer 1999)

  • (17) : This is what the Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan (1998) has proposed.