NP South Sudan Head of Mission, Aseervatham Florington, was privileged to be invited to Rome & provide opening comments for Pax Christi conference - The Path of Nonviolence: Towards a Culture of Peace.

My name is Florington, a faithful person to God, born and raised in the Eastern Part of Sri Lanka during the war. Today I stand before you all, to testify and witness that Unarmed Civilian Protection (UCP) is an effective tool and in many occasions a mechanism that is being used by well-trained unarmed civilian peacekeepers who are on the front lines saving lives by being present in communities affected by violent/ armed conflict. I myself was involved in violent behavior at some point back in my life when I was with a Para Military group in Sri Lanka. I was completely transformed in 2005 when I was in India with a friend of mine who constantly reminded me there was another way to live. Thus, I became a humanitarian aid worker and served as Child Protection Officer in my own village. In 2008, I joined Nonviolent Peaceforce where I believed and experienced the effectiveness of nonviolence, which I failed to experience in my former life. I kept my Catholic teaching and beliefs from the time I attended seminary to become a priest, which has shaped me to be a global peacekeeper. I have been an unarmed civilian peacekeeper since 2011 in South Sudan. Last Sunday, what stood out most to me from the Word of God was the phrase, “We are all ambassadors of God!” And here I am today as a nonviolent person explaining the power and principle of nonviolence that we follow both in our personal and professional life.

  • The world is less peaceful today than at any time in the last decade.

2018 Global Peace Index

  • Every 2 seconds a person is forced to flee their home. There are now 68.5 million people who are forcibly displaced, a record high.

UN High Commission on Refugees 2017 Annual Report

And the pressures of climate change already are creating more violent conflict.

The current approach for the protection of civilians is insufficient to meet the needs and often ineffective.  If all of the resources for civilian protection and violence prevention were added together, both military and unarmed, employed by multi-laterals, governments and civil society organizations (CSOs), the sum total does not come close to meeting the burgeoning need.

Increasingly UCP is being recognized as an effective and affordable approach to protect civilians and prevent violence. Forty-two nongovernmental organizations now practice some form of UCP in 24 areas.  Yet, few of these groups know, share or communicate with each other.

Nonviolent Peaceforce is providing global leadership to encourage and connect this emerging field. Protection by presence and deterrence are key factors in UCP. In all of these aspects, unarmed civilian peacekeepers use nonviolent strategies to provide protection to all civilians affected by the ongoing violent conflict in communities. Regular and constant engagement with all armed actors, spoilers, decision makers, opinion leaders and women are part of the daily work of peacekeepers. Unarmed peacekeepers live among and with the communities to help them to identify the risks, threats and help them to lay strategies that they could use to prevent any form of attacks on their villages. Thus, UCP is implemented through community engagement. These unarmed civilian protectors provide direct protection to civilians under threat of violence and work with local civil society to protect themselves and prevent further outbreaks of violence. 

Nonviolent Peaceforce is providing Unarmed Civilian Protection in five areas across the world, the Philippines, Myanmar, Northern Iraq, Bangladesh and South Sudan.

These well-trained civilians apply one or more unarmed protection strategies that differ from location to location based upon ongoing contextual analysis and community engagement. For example, in South Sudan, Nonviolent Peaceforce’s team has grown to 200 protectors since we were invited in 2010 (then Southern Sudan).  Since the re-ignition of the war in December 2013, thousands of people have been killed and millions of people have been displaced. Tens of thousands have fled to UN complexes where impromptu camps, known as Protection of Civilian Areas (POC), have been established. Women living in these POCs have to go to the bush to collect firewood, sometimes walking more than 30 kilometers.  Soldiers from both sides often rape them. Rape is used a weapon of war. What is instructive is that, during a two-year period when NP’s civilian protectors accompanied them, these women were never attacked.

These civilian protection accompaniments entail more than just going for a walk. Nonviolent Peaceforce scouts the routes in advance, letting combatants know that a group of women accompanied by Nonviolent Peaceforce will be coming through. Part of our ability to protect depends on being able to communicate with the combatants. If we surprise someone in the field, then we have not done our job. 

On the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, Nonviolent Peaceforce was asked by the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to team up with three local groups to handle the civilian protection component of the 2009 ceasefire. We successfully did this for four years until the comprehensive peace proposal was signed in 2014. Nine Nonviolent Peaceforce teams monitored, verified, reported and intervened on threats to civilians across the island on a daily basis. More importantly, we trained and supported over 300 local people who did the same.

During that time, two armed groups converged on a village. The villagers were prepared because this was not the first incursion. We had trained villagers in early warning/early response. Instead of panicking, this time they implemented a protection strategy that included calling on the local group Bantay Ceasefire and Nonviolent Peaceforce, who were at a monitoring post nearby. In route to the village, the civilian protection team called the local commanders of both armed groups, suggesting to the army officers that the patrols must have made a mistake in getting so close to the village.  They also said they knew that the armed groups didn’t want to scare civilians, and, furthermore, that the commanders knew that such action violated the current ceasefire. To assure that things would go well, the civilian protectors said they would go and stay in the village until the patrols left. By the time the civilian protection team arrived in the village both patrols had backed off, and 600 villagers stayed home instead of becoming displaced.

UCP is built on the three pillars of nonviolence, nonpartisanship and the primacy of local actors. By working nonviolently, civilian protectors do not bring more guns into environments already teeming with violence. By utilizing diverse nonviolent interventions, they break cycles of retaliation. Modeling nonviolent behaviors stimulates nonviolent behavior in others. And practicing active nonviolence boosts the sustainability of peace operations and builds the foundation for a lasting peace.

While it has limits like any strategy, UCP can be employed in a variety of stages of a conflict. UCP can sometimes be employed in a complementary manner to communicate with UN armed peacekeepers, as it is in South Sudan. At other times, it can be employed in areas where UN armed peacekeepers cannot or will not go.   

UCP is being increasingly studied by third parties, including international organizations and academic institutions. In reviewing evaluations, case studies, reports, interviews and observation of nine UCP organizations, Dr. Rachel Julian of Leeds Beckett University found that through UCP: 

  • Lives are saved
  • Communities are able to stay at home
  • Peace and human rights work is more possible, involves more people, in a wider area
  • Supports the re-establishment of relationships in divided communities
  • Behaviour of armed actors is changed
  • It’s demonstrated that violence and threats of violence can be tackled by unarmed trained civilians
  • It takes time

Without supplemental support for the protection of civilians, through methods like UCP, the traditional approach to protecting civilians is inadequate to address the threat to civilians. At the same time, the scope of support for UCP is insufficient to meet growing needs. Pathways for Peace, a joint report by the World Bank and the UN found that “Deaths in war, numbers of displaced populations, military spending, and terrorist incidents, among others, have all surged since the beginning of the century.

UCP can benefit Catholic leaders and humanitarian organizations by:

  • Providing protective accompaniment to church leaders who are vulnerable because of their work for peace
  • Provide proactive presence to churches who harbor vulnerable people
  • Support churches in areas of conflict to set up EWER
  • Provide access to remote and restricted areas for groups like CRS

Concrete steps for the church to support UCP

  • Teach about UCP in Catholic schools and universities
  • Research UCP in Catholic Universities e.g. good practices and monitoring and evaluation
  • Promote UCP as a vocation
  • Holy see mission to the UN advocate for further recognition of UCP in UN politics, resolutions
  • His Holiness to urge that UCP be respected and that expanded when he meets with the South Sudanese government an opposition leaders
  • Individual churches could support unarmed protectors with resources and prayers
  • Pray

How the encyclical and other major church teaching on nonviolence would advance the work of UCP;

  • Show that nonviolence is not an extraneous activity but central to the teaching of Jesus and the life of the church
  • Add further legitimacy to UCP work
  • In some cases, extend our ability to protect when we relate to Catholics involved in violent conflict whether they be combatants, victims or other stakeholders if we show that the church promotes this work e.g. working with a priest in Bentiu and enlisting his active support

Every moment of every day, creative and courageous people are protecting civilians, preventing violence and building peace all over the world. I have had the privilege of knowing and working with some of these people.  I am in confident that the support of the Church will elevate our work. There are more unarmed civilian protectors, peace builders, mediators, conflict transformers, human rights defenders and civil resisters working in the world today than ever before in history. Everything we need to build a culture of peace and nonviolence exists in the here and now.

Nonviolent Peaceforce is a nonpartisan, nonsectarian organization. We welcome people of all faiths as well as those who hold no religious beliefs. We work with people and institutions around the world, including the Vatican, to adopt nonviolent practices and promote unarmed civilian protection.  

You can protect civilians who are living in or fleeing violent conflict. Your contribution will transform the world's response to conflict.