Taking Chances to Help Peace

Nonviolent interventions are risky, but they show promise and deserve support

As thoughtful people sort out the lessons of the ongoing Iraq tragedy, some look for seeds of hope.

Tom Fox and his fellow hostages from Christian Peacemaker Teams represent one of those seeds. Three of those captives were freed last week. The body of Virginia Quaker Tom Fox was found on March 9. The day before the abduction, Fox wrote an entry titled "Why are we here?" in his online journal.

They went to Iraq, in Fox's words, "to stand with those being dehumanized by oppressors and stand firm against that dehumanization."

It's easy to dismiss them as naive idealists, trying to make a difference in the middle of chaos. But they are more than that. Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) is one of the ongoing experiments in humanitarian intervention. I see it as similar, in the political realm, to the early heart transplants: rare but holding promise for the future.

I was myself on a similar team, with Peace Brigades International, in 1989 in the midst of a bloody civil war in Sri Lanka. Every day we risked our lives as we accompanied human-rights activists who were targeted for assassination by hit squads. We were unarmed bodyguards whose presence raised the threshold for attack. The fact that we were internationals gave some protection.

I'm not a particularly brave person, and I doubt I would have gone to Sri Lanka if this kind of work had not already been tested in violent El Salvador and Guatemala, where Peace Brigades International (PBI) assisted local democracy advocates. There were some close calls, but no team members were killed.

Not long after PBI opened in Sri Lanka, CPT went to Haiti, Israel, and the West Bank. Both organizations are also now in Colombia, where villages terrorized both by guerrilla and government forces have asked for international assistance in establishing "zones of peace."

In Sri Lanka I was gratified that we assisted brave local leaders to build democracy. I was also frustrated that there were so few of us, but this kind of humanitarian intervention was too new and unproved to attract major resources.

The abduction of the four CPT members, however, gives new meaning to the concept of "resources." The captors said they would kill the four in a week unless their demands were met. The week stretched to two, then four, and then much more. What the captors evidently didn't expect was the range of Muslim voices against taking the CPT members hostage. Protests poured in, not only from mainstream Muslims but even from Hamas and Hezbollah. Unlike U.S. and British military intervention, which has little humanitarian credibility to most Muslims, the nonviolent Christian Peace Teams are clearly the "real thing."

The other kind of resource - major funding for expansion - has still not come to peace teams organizations, although PBI has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and a new organization, Nonviolent PeaceForce, plans to train thousands for a ready reserve to be dispatched to crisis situations.

Third-party nonviolent intervention, as researchers call it, is not a panacea. Its small-scale successes do, however, raise the question: Why not expand to large scale?

I knew African American civil rights pioneers James Farmer and Bayard Rustin, who led small-scale sit-ins in the 1940s. They didn't call for federal enforcement of civil rights in public accommodations. Calling out the military would have done more harm than good. Instead, they experimented with a nonviolent methodology that was at once more subtle and more powerful than military action. Their experiments became, in time, the movement that ended segregation in public facilities.

Like Farmer and Rustin, CPT is experimenting with a technique that is both subtle and powerful. The contrasting response of the Muslim world to U.S. violence, on the one hand, and CPT, on the other, is dramatic. Will pro-democracy forces take what actually works for humanitarian intervention and increase its capacity a hundredfold, or a thousandfold?

Yes, but that depends on those who believe in genuinely humanitarian intervention. People and institutions of good will can jump-start the technique of nonviolent intervention by investing money where their values are, backing the nonviolent "surgeons" who are already dramatizing the possibility of a new heart.

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