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There’s a better way to make communities safer — and it’s taking off around the world

Date: April 5, 2024

Press Clip Source: Waging Nonviolence
Link to Source: Here

A growing number of courageous and creative people are showing that unarmed civilian protection is far superior to any smart or dumb weapon.

Members of Nonviolent Peaceforce’s Community Safety Team in Minneapolis during the opening statements of the Derek Chauvin trial in 2021. (Instagram/Nonviolent Peaceforce)
Members of Nonviolent Peaceforce’s Community Safety Team in Minneapolis during the opening statements of the Derek Chauvin trial in 2021. (Instagram/Nonviolent Peaceforce)

By: Mel Duncan

The wars in Ukraine and Palestine continue to escalate as the U.S. bolsters them with billions more in weapons, feeding the insatiable military industries all in the name of security and stability. Yet, at the same time, a rapidly swelling undercurrent of sustainable and affordable nonviolent methods to protect civilians and prevent violence is accelerating throughout the world.

Although largely unreported, a growing number of creative and courageous people are building community safety from the ground up without introducing more violence. And a complementary infrastructure of research, training and communication is emerging to support their work.

Over the past 25 years, as co-creator of Nonviolent Peaceforce, I have seen unarmed civilian protection (also known as UCP or UCP/A to include the methodology of accompaniment) evolve to the point where our teams have worked alongside local communities using evidenced-based, civilian-led approaches to prevent violence and protect civilians in 15 countries. In helping to foster a community of practice, I have witnessed dozens of small and large organizations using active nonviolent methods to create community safety. Here are three examples I find to be particularly inspiring.

Making elections safer in Burundi

Almost a decade ago, Burundi teetered on the brink of mass atrocities. Large-scale protests and a failed coup attempt followed President Pierre Nkurunzizia’s announcement that he would run for a highly questionable third term in 2015. Government repression intensified with death threats, arbitrary arrests and disappearances becoming commonplace. Opposition and civil society leaders were killed. Thousands fled the country.

Over the next couple years, dire reports flowed from the country. Amnesty International observed that “security forces have been torturing suspected Nkurunziza opponents.” Adama Dieng, Special Adviser to the U.N. Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, warned that Burundi “appears on the verge of a descent into violence that could escalate into atrocity crimes.” He also noted that the language being used was “very similar to [that] used before and during the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda.”

Major NGOs urged a “coordinated global response” and the African Union voted to deploy armed peacekeepers. President Nkurunzizia responded by saying he would treat them as an invading force. After dithering for months, the U.N. Security Council voted to send a couple hundred police, but they never ended up going.

No one seemed to know what to do except Parfaite Ntahuba, an Evangelical Quaker minister who headed up the Quaker Peace Network in Burundi, or QPN. She got ideas from online and face-to-face trainings in unarmed civilian protection that she received from Selkirk College in Canada. She next led a delegation of Burundian civil society leaders to observe Nonviolent Peaceforce’s work in South Sudan. After the group received additional training in South Sudan, she and her colleagues developed a violence prevention and civilian protection project for the 2020 presidential election. 

Reasoning that the 2020 presidential election would be the next flash point, QPN targeted the five areas of the country that had endured the most violence during the 2015 election cycle. They recruited five leaders from each area — drawing from both major parties and ethnic groups — and provided them with a trauma healing workshop followed by a UCP/A training of trainers. These five leaders then recruited 20 people in their respective locations, who also received trauma healing and UCP/A training focusing on early warning/early response. 

Related: Unarmed Civilian Protection Six-Day Workshop Narrative Report (2022)

A small group of attendees commune together outside for trauma healing workshop in Burundi. (Nonviolent Peaceforce)
A trauma healing workshop in Burundi. (Nonviolent Peaceforce)

The five groups worked throughout the election season. For example, when members of the minority party felt threatened in one area, members of the UCP team — which included members of both parties — provided them with accompaniment. When the polls closed at another site, a crowd approached claiming the election was stolen. The police tried unsuccessfully to disperse them, but the local UCP team managed to calm everyone down and get them to return home — thanks to one of its members, who had observed the vote counting inside the polling station and testified that the election was not stolen.

While the 2020 election period was still marred by the arrest of opposition leaders, a lack of international observers and some killings according to Human Rights Watch, the work of the QPN teams played an important role in improving the situation. The teams reflected that their most important lessons about community safety included building relationships in advance, through ongoing daily contact with the many stakeholders in the community. They also highlighted the importance of intervening in small conflicts and how that stopped the conflicts from spreading into larger scale violence.

Last spring, when I asked one of the teams why people in the community paid attention to them, a Tutsi and a Hutu man stood up, locked arms and said, “Because we went in like this.” I then asked how they got to the point of being able to work together. “We first had to cry together,” one man responded, emphasizing the need to go through trauma healing together before starting on the UCP training.

Nevertheless, their work is not done. Human rights defenders and a journalist remain in jail. The U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burundi has expressed concern about the “shrinking civic space and a growing pressure on political parties, civil society organizations and the media” ahead of the 2025 election.

The theater group Arlequín y Los Juglares supporting protesters in Medellín in 2021. (Raul Soto)
The theater group Arlequín y Los Juglares supporting protesters in Medellín in 2021. (Raul Soto)

The power of art in Medellin

A creative example of unarmed civilian protection is found in Medellin, Colombia, where the effective protective role of community-engaged artists is well documented. Since the 1980s Medellin has seen a sharp increase in violence. Civilians were caught in the crossfire between the Colombian armed forces, paramilitary groups and drug gangs. They were also constantly trying to hold together their communities and create safer spaces.

Despite the 2016 peace treaty between the Colombian government and the largest guerrilla group, Medellin is still profoundly scarred by the physical, emotional and cultural toll of the decades-long conflict. The city currently has the second highest rate of victims of armed violence in the country. Yet, in the 2023 journal article, “Art that Protects,” researchers describe how art has enabled community activists to rebuild community connections and engage with armed actors, which is essential for protection. Their work has built trust because the armed actors “recognize the value of artistic practices for their relatives and neighbors.”

One artist reported, “With our body dressed up we have been a shield to protect the community … The neighborhood thugs came and told us ‘Welcome, don’t give money to anyone, we don’t ask artists for money here, because we respect artists.’” The community art — whether it be parades, theater, singing or clowning — dissolves boundaries, does not compete with masculine narratives of violence and allows people to reclaim safe spaces.

The authors found that the value of community art strengthened social ties, “enabling the community to be an active agent in social transformation, which in turn is a central element for recognizing its self-protective role.”

Six young men stand together outdoors. They are wearing white vests and posing for a picture. Three men are holding a water cup following a break from facilitating civilian safety at an event.
The Brothers with Will Wallace, Nonviolent Peaceforce’s Director of Community Peace Building (second from the left). (Nonviolent Peaceforce)

De-escalation in Minneapolis

There are a growing number of examples in the U.S. where UCP/A is sorely needed. After the murder of George Floyd, Nonviolent Peaceforce started working with EMERGE, a North Minneapolis program for former gang members and those at risk of joining gangs. After some challenging conversations about nonviolence being a practice that white people urged Black people to do when they had no intention of doing it themselves, a group of young men who call themselves “The Brothers” decided to try some role play scenarios of UCP using real life examples from the North Side. That led to some serious applied UCP training.

By the time the 2020 presidential election came around, The Brothers provided poll protection in their neighborhoods. This was the very same area where then-President Trump was calling upon the Minneapolis Police Union, which was supporting George Floyd’s murderer, Derrick Chauvin, to provide a presence at the polling places. There were no major incidents.

The Brothers also provided unarmed protection at several demonstrations during Chauvin’s trial and at potentially volatile community events. Several were hired by a local Catholic school to provide unarmed security as well. Nonviolent Peaceforce also trained the school specialists who had been hired by the Minneapolis Public Schools to replace the Minneapolis Police officers stationed in them.

As one Brother put it, “How many people do y’all know get rewards for not being violent. We know how to de-escalate a situation.”

Scaling out UCP/A

These are but three examples of the importance of UCP/A, which continues to grow rapidly around the world. According to a database kept by Selkirk College, there are currently 61 civil society organizations providing nonviolent protection and accompaniment in 30 areas of the world. And that’s just the groups that they know about. Many more groups are doing this work in communities, neighborhoods, barangays and barrios around the globe.

Huibert Oldenhuis, Nonviolent Peaceforce’s global head of programming, has observed that the growth is more of a scaling out than scaling up. “By scaling out autonomous initiatives that are locally driven but globally connected, we preserve the adaptive power and nimbleness of UCP/A and facilitate locally driven responses.”

These groups are now forming a UCP/A Community of Practice, which met for the first time in Geneva last October. They are sharing training and lessons learned, as well as common struggles like decolonizing their work, ecological violence and the spreading of rumors and hate speech on social media.

The United Nations has started to recognize that peacekeeping can be done without guns. In 2015, an independent panel on peace operations convened by the U.N. made the groundbreaking recommendation that “unarmed strategies must be at the forefront of U.N. efforts to protect civilians.” Since then, more than two dozen U.N. policies, recommendations and resolutions have recognized unarmed approaches for the protection of civilians. Ten U.N. agencies have also since funded UCP/A projects.

Increasingly, independent qualitative and quantitative evaluations affirm the effectiveness of UCP/A and the positive impact it has on the protection of civilians. This research has demonstrated that UCP/A saves lives, creates safer spaces and reduces levels of violence. It has also shown that it changes the behavior of armed actors. They have found that the use of nonviolence — not just being unarmed — creates a set of proactive strategies. 

The global violence interruption group Cure Violence has had quantitative data collected on them for many years. That independently-funded and collected evidence has shown an 18-94 percent reduction in shootings and killings, plus a host of other positive impacts in the areas where they work in the U.S. and Latin America.

Meanwhile, the international research network Creating Safer Space — which supports local projects from Myanmar to Colombia — has also created a database to collect UCP/A research. Here one can find a library of evaluations of various projects, a literature overview and, most importantly, a place to post new research as it becomes available.

Despite the mainstream media’s efforts to feed the flow of violence, there is a rapidly swelling, undercurrent that is surfacing throughout the world — exposing a vast reservoir of courageous and creative people using proven and effective methods far superior to any smart or dumb weapons for transforming violent conflict. It is only a matter of time, courage, faith and hard work until this undercurrent becomes mainstream. Let us hope and work like hell so it is sooner rather than later.

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