The recent rescue of James Loney, Harmeet Singh Sooden, and Norman Kember in Iraq, and the death of Tom Fox, have focused attention on the Christian Peacemakers. Not all the attention has been flattering; there have been sharp questions raised about the role of non-violent peacemakers in a conflict zone.
There has been criticism and suggestions that peacemakers are na´ve and just create problems for soldiers. But it is important for Canadians to understand the benefits of the presence of non-violent peace teams, in order to understand why they are there.
In his lifetime, Mahatma Gandhi developed the concept of the shanti sena or peace army. This vision has contributed to the formation of many peace-team organizations based on non-violence.
At any one time there are hundreds of peace-team members placed in a dozen or more conflict zones, each person working within the framework of making space for peace through their presence.
Each organization has its own safety protocols, its own criteria for selecting volunteers and for choosing deployments.
Each provides training and support for its team members, and although there are many commonalities among these peace teams, there are also unique features in each group's mandate.
One of the longest running peace team organizations is Peace Brigades International, which celebrates 25 years of global non-violent accompaniment this year.
PBI currently has projects in Colombia, Mexico, Indonesia, Guatemala, and Nepal. It has deployed more than 1,000 team members and has suffered no fatalities.
PBI provides international presence for human rights activists whose lives are at risk due to the activities of armed groups (death squads, paramilitary, etc).
This method is effective in protecting lives because the armed groups in these regions will not benefit but, rather, will pay a diplomatic price for harming internationals. Thus PBI team members are able to pass on some safety through their presence, with limited risk to themselves.
Iraq is currently a chaotic situation, with armed groups not unified with a single strategy, and undeterred by criticism when internationals are harmed.
This makes it more dangerous for international organizations to be present, and all such groups with the exception of the Christian Peacekeeping Teams have withdrawn their members. However, without an international presence, the Iraqi people will be left alone to suffer the ill-effects of the occupation and the armed chaos.
For 3 1/2 years CPT has provided an effective voice of support for Iraqi civilians and has reported what team members have learned to the larger world.
Christian peacemakers documented the abuse suffered in Abu Ghraib prison before this became a major story and is highlighting to the world the ongoing detention of some 14,000 Iraqis without due process.
I consider the most important aspect of CPT's presence in Iraq to be its message to Iraqis:
There are internationals, including Americans, Britons, Canadians, and many others, who care about what is happening to you. We are working to get the word out about what you are suffering and to put pressure on for due process and respect for international human rights.
We are doing this through non-violent means and we are willing to take some risks to do this.
We can never know how many Iraqis have been moved in a positive way by this presence, although we do know that CPT's work has encouraged the formation of a Muslim Peacemakers Team, which is working at bridging the Shia-Sunni divide.
How many Iraqis have been inspired by this example? How much violence has this presence deterred?
CPT's presence has been an inoculation against blanket hatred of the West.
Iraqis now know that there are those in the West who care about their communities and their lives.
Do we believe that the only ones who should take risks for peace are men and women in uniforms? Many of us passionately believe in the power of non-violent presence.
This passion has led to the formation of the newest peace team organization, the Non-violent Peaceforce, which has placed 25 team members in Sri Lanka.
The force has plans to expand this unarmed presence to many other conflict zones where there is a need.
There is a role that cannot be played by the military or police.
It is one of working with civil society organizations to develop the social infrastructure needed to rebuild a wartorn country, and it is one of showing international support for threatened individuals, organizations and communities.
This role has been recognized by Amnesty International, by human rights defenders and by Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, including the Dalai Lama, Rigoberto Menchu Tum, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, and Oscar Arias Sanchez.
Anders Kompas, Director of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, describes international presence as "extremely necessary and valuable in working to defend human rights."
Active non-violence has transformed conflict in many parts of the world: in India, in the civil rights movement, in the campaign against apartheid. Lives have been lost in these struggles. These must be measured against the gains that have been achieved.
Ultimately society must put an end to war. To do so we must build a culture of peace and respect for human rights.
We cannot attain this by staying inside a bubble of safety. Taking risks will be necessary.
We all know too well the devastation of war. We would do well to support the development of non-violent alternatives, and to see what can be accomplished by them.
Lyn Adamson is a member of the International Governing Council of the Non-violent Peaceforce. She has served with the International Women's Peace Service in the West Bank and served on the executive of Peace Brigades International Indonesia Project.
© 2006 Toronto Star Newspapers Limited