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Nonviolent Peaceforce is a global non-profit organization that protects civilians in violent conflicts through unarmed strategies and strives to build peace side-by-side with local communities. (Photo: Nonviolent Peaceforce)

Nonviolence or Nonexistence

Robert C. Koehler

The day before he died, Martin Luther King said these words at a packed church in Memphis:

“Men for years now have been talking about war and peace. Now no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world, it is nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.”

That’s where we are today . . . half a century later!

Here in the U.S., we have a military budget pushing a trillion dollars annually, which is a hell of an investment in nonexistence. But we also have a growing peace consciousness that cannot and must not stop until it changes the world.

One of the people working tirelessly to make this happen is Mel Duncan, co-founder of Nonviolent Peaceforce. Just over a month ago, he did his best to bring some peace consciousness to a House Appropriations subcommittee, in an effort to get funding for a global lifesaving program that’s in place in some of the most conflict-ravaged regions of the world. It’s called, simply enough, Unarmed Civilian Protection, but there’s nothing simple about what it is or how it works.

For instance, in South Sudan, according to Duncan’s statement to the subcommittee, “Nonviolent Peaceforce has a team that has grown to 200 protectors since we were invited in 2010. Since the reignition 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 U.N. complexes where impromptu camps, known as Protection of Civilian areas, 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.”

For some people, enduring such hell is part of life. Duncan adds, however: “What is instructive is that during a two-year period when NP’s civilian protectors accompanied them, these women were never attacked.”

Protection, he explains, isn’t just functioning as bodyguards, exuding sufficient threat of force to intimidate the bad guys and impose “peace” from the outside. Nonviolent Peaceforce “scouts the routes in advance, letting combatants know that a group of women accompanied by NP will be coming through,” Duncan points out. “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.”

He adds that Unarmed Civilian Protection “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.”

Here’s how Annie Hewitt put it at Truthout: “Nonviolent peacekeeping allows people to see humanity visibly manifested; unarmed peacekeepers must be decent and kind, they must listen actively and make all parties to a conflict feel as though they matter. In doing so, humanity is revealed to be not the property of one side or another, nor something that must be imported from outside.”

This is the sort of consciousness that lacks political traction — certainly in the United States — despite two stunning realities: It works and it’s relatively inexpensive, at least compared to the cash hemorrhage of war and war preparation. It costs Nonviolent Peaceforce about $50,000 a year to keep one peacekeeper in a given country, compared to as much as a million dollars per year for every soldier stationed in one of our war zones.

And these wars will not end by themselves — certainly not the wars that have evolved in the 21st century. Thus: “Every two seconds a person is forced to flee their home. There are now 68.5 million people who are forcibly displaced,” Duncan told the congressional subcommittee members, citing the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. This number is the highest ever, worse than World War II.

And with climate change creating environmental chaos, the collapse of social infrastructures around the planet will intensify.

“Climate disruption is mainly hitting the poorest people in the world — those who consume the least,” Duncan said. “There’s a good chance there will be more and more conflict. We have to look at ways to deal with conflict constructively and nonviolently. We have to support those approaches that are effective and affordable.”

Nonviolence or nonexistence.

We are at a point in the great human experiment at which we have to move, with all our science and technology, beyond the simplistic thinking of war. Congressional funding for a program such as Unarmed Civilian Protection — a decision on which will probably be made within a month — is a crucial step.


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Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. Koehler has been the recipient of multiple awards for writing and journalism from organizations including the National Newspaper Association, Suburban Newspapers of America, and the Chicago Headline Club.  He’s a regular contributor to such high-profile websites as Common Dreams and the Huffington Post. Eschewing political labels, Koehler considers himself a “peace journalist. He has been an editor at Tribune Media Services and a reporter, columnist and copy desk chief at Lerner Newspapers, a chain of neighborhood and suburban newspapers in the Chicago area. Koehler launched his column in 1999. Born in Detroit and raised in suburban Dearborn, Koehler has lived in Chicago since 1976. He earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Columbia College and has taught writing at both the college and high school levels. Koehler is a widower and single parent. He explores both conditions at great depth in his writing. His book, "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" (2016). Contact him or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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