Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping

Text by Erich Molz

What is it?

In recent decades, one central tenet of peacekeeping operations has come under increased scrutiny: the idea that peacekeeping has to be an armed endeavor by military staff. Undertaken by specially trained civilians, most Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping (UCP) activities fall into two broad categories: the protection of other civilians in conflict areas and supporting the different parties to find a solution to the violent conflict (Julian & Schweitzer, 2015, 1). From a broader perspective, these two forms constitute the “reactive dimension” and “proactive dimension” of UCP, respectively (UNITAR, 2012, para. 2; Venturi, 2015, 62).

Unarmed civilian peacekeepers have a wide repertoire of methods at their disposal such as “accompaniment, protective presence, local-level shuttle diplomacy, facilitated dialogue, safe space, confidence-building, empowerment, […] rumor control” (Venturi, 2015, 61) as well as “community security meetings, securing safe passage, and monitoring” (Julian & Schweitzer, 2015, 1). Often, these peacekeepers come from outside the affected communities or even from abroad, yet are usually invited by the community (Julian & Schweitzer, 2015, 3). In each and every case, the peacekeepers themselves forgo the threat and use of violent methods.


Peacekeeper with Locals. (flickr: Nonviolent Peaceforce, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

This does not surprise if we consider that peace armies inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’ constitute the most famous precursor and inspiration of modern UCP: groups of local activists committed to Gandhi’s nonviolence teachings pursued conflict mitigation and resolution in their own and external communities (Clark, 2009, 90). Internationally, UCP gained further prominence during the civil wars haunting Latin America in the 1980s. The accompanying of anti-government activists by foreign Peace Brigades International (PBI) volunteers was a remarkable success: despite widespread forced disappearances and murders throughout the country in the past, none of the activists protected by PBI lost their lives (Martin, 2009, 96; Peace Brigades International). Mel Duncan, co-founder of Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP), recalled a similar experience in Nicaragua where apparently none of the villages that hosted foreigners came under attack from the contras (personal communication, August 20th, 2015. See also Wallis, 2015, 38). The 1990s saw the slow adoption of UCP by governmental and intergovernmental organizations within their missions in the Balkans (Julian & Schweitzer, 2015, 2). Finally, since the turn of the millennium more and more efforts have been made to “mainstream” UCP (Venturi, 2015, 61-62).

Most authors thus credit non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with the rise of modern UCP (e.g. Julian & Schweitzer, 3-4). While PBI has done much to bring UCP to early prominence, today NP “is the primary actor driving the diffusion of UCP-mainstreaming” (Venturi, 2015, 62). Although they might be no match politically and financially to large intergovernmental organizations, these NGOs hold several advantages: as they are usually invited to a conflict area and do not encroach on a government’s sovereignty, “it can be easier for NGOs to enter conflict zones” and to protect the civilians based on an genuine commitment to ethical principles (Eguren, 2009, 101-102). In this sense, some contend that intergovernmental organizations have political constraints so significant that they will not be able to implement UCP as consequently as NGOs are (e.g. Rossi, 2015). Fittingly, the United Nations (UN) High Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations strengthened the role of NGOs by calling on “missions [to] work more closely with local communities and national and international non-governmental organizations in building a protective environment” (United Nations, 2015, 41).

How does it work?

Why would a peacekeeper give up his weapon when dropped into the midst of a war zone? Clearly, the main driver in the early days of UCP was idealism. However, researchers and peacekeepers themselves point out several factors how UCP can operate, with the most renowned theorization developed by Liam Mahony and Luis E. Eguren. They locate deterrence as the centerpiece of UCP’s effectiveness in reducing violence against civilians. In this case, deterrence has obviously less to do with the perceived threat of physical retaliation as the peacekeepers are unarmed. Instead, “aggressors decide that the negative consequences of bad publicity and international pressure [brought about by the UCP witnesses] outweigh the advantages of attacking activists” (Martin, 2009, 93). Hence deterrence on the ground is dependent upon the credible threat of international pressure. In order to make this threat credible, the peacekeepers must spare no effort to “build up their network of contacts – locally, nationally and internationally” and on all levels (Eguren, 2009, 102). If the potential perpetrator believes that the peacekeepers are not able to generate considerable international pressure, UCP will not be able to provide any protection. Apart from this, the perpetrators should preferably act under governmental authority because states are usually more likely to succumb to international pressure than “lawless” armed groups (Eguren, 2009, 103-104; for a contrasting opinion see Mahony, 2006, 18-19).

Over the years, deterrence has been complemented by other constructs. Recognizing that non-state actors might be less inclined to react to international pressure, some argue that the human propensity to view oneself as a “good” person can be used to “engage with [armed groups] and help them turn their positive self-image into reality” (Wallis, 2015, 39). This relates nicely to Mahony’s newer concepts of encouragement and influence to explain the impact of more proactive UCP. The former refers to “encouraging civil society’s capacity to protect itself” whereas the latter represents supporting progressive factions inside the perpetrator group (Mahony, 2006, 16). Generally speaking, UCP can open up space for civil society to pursue conflict resolution herself and for certain members of the conflict parties to “promote policies of respect for civilians” (Mahony, 2006, 26-27; encouragement also features in Eugren, 2009, 102). In this regard but also on the whole, relationship-building and trust-building with all parties involved in the conflict as well as with the civilians on the ground is commonly cited as a key ingredient, in particular for these more proactive forms of UCP (Furnari, 2015, 25; Schweitzer, 2009, 119; Wallis, 2015, 41-42).

Aside from this, violence against civilians in the presence of unarmed civilian peacekeepers might also backfire by causing outrage which results in a new wave of local support for the civilians under threat and their cause, rather than only international pressure (Martin, 2009, 93-97). For this to happen, the peacekeepers have to address the obfuscation strategies used by the perpetrators.

On a broader level, it has also been argued that UCP can contribute to peacemaking both directly through the proactive work of the peacekeepers and indirectly as it “models a way of living that does not rely on violence,” proving that peace is not as illusory as it might seem (Julian & Schweitzer, 2015, 3).

Proactive Presence–Helping the Children. (flickr: Andrew E. Larsen, CC BY-ND 4.0)

Where is it going?

It goes without saying that UCP does not work in all circumstances, for instance when a conflict party is not at all interested in reducing violence (Schweitzer, 2015, 119). Careful pre-deployment analysis and a coherent reasonable strategy are required before entering any conflict zone (Mahony, 2006, 36-46). Moreover, more systematic research into the effectiveness and impacts of UCP is needed as most studies to date have been conducted or commissioned by NGOs.

Nonetheless, UCP is in the ascendant. It has reached a wider global audience outside the field of social and political sciences through an article in The Guardian (Dziewanski, 2015), PBI has expanded significantly by launching four new projects since 2013 (Peace Brigades International) and NP seeks to “mainstream UCP policy and practices as an effective response to violent conflicts” over the next few years (Nonviolent Peaceforce, n.d., 2). Most notably, the UN has recognized the potential of UCP: “Unarmed strategies must be at the forefront of UN efforts to protect civilians” (United Nations, 2015, 37). Indeed, the UN observes carefully how the NGOs are faring (Mel Duncan, personal communication, August 20th, 2015). Whether UCP will have a more prominent role in intergovernmental peacekeeping missions is yet to be seen but one thing is sure: unarmed civilian peacekeeping is here to stay.


Clark, H. (2009). Editorial Introduction [Section II]. In H. Clark (Ed.), People Power: Unarmed Resistance and Global Solidarity (pp. 89-92). London, United Kingdom: Pluto Press.

Dziewanski, D. (2015, October 30th). The unarmed civilians bringing peace to South Sudan. The Guardian. Accessed May 15, 2017, at https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/oct/30/the-unarmed-civilians-bringing-peace-to-south-sudan

Eguren, L. E. (2009). Developing Strategy for Accompaniment. In H. Clark (Ed.), People Power: Unarmed Resistance and Global Solidarity (pp. 98-92). London, United Kingdom: Pluto Press.

Furnari, E. (2015). Relationships are critical for Peacekeeping. Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 27(1), 25-30. doi: 10.1080/10402659.2015.1000187

Julian, R., & Schweitzer, C. (2015). The Origins and Development of Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping. Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 27(1), 1-8. doi: 10.1080/10402659.2015.1000181

Mahony, L. (2006). Proactive Presence: Field strategies for civilian protection. Geneva, Switzerland: Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. Accessed May 12th, 2017, at http://www.fieldviewsolutions.org/fv-publications/Proactive_Presence.pdf

Martin, B. (2009). Making accompaniment effective. In H. Clark (Ed.), People Power: Unarmed Resistance and Global Solidarity (pp. 93-97). London, United Kingdom: Pluto Press.

Nonviolent Peaceforce. (n.d.). Strategy 2015-2020. Accessed May 15th, 2017, at http://www.nonviolentpeaceforce.org/images/publications/NP_Strategy_2015-2020_1.pdf

Peace Brigades International. (n.d.). PBI’s history. Accessed May 12th, 2017, at http://www.peacebrigades.org/about-pbi/pbi-history/

Rossi, A. (2015). The Glass Ceiling for UCP in Inter-Governmental Organizations. Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 27(1), 9-17. doi: 10.1080/10402659.2015.1000184

Schweitzer, C. (2009). Civilian Peacekeeping: Providing Protection without Sticks and Carrots?. In H. Clark (Ed.), People Power: Unarmed Resistance and Global Solidarity (pp. 112-121). London, United Kingdom: Pluto Press.

UNITAR. (2012, September). Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping: Has its Time come?. Accessed May 12th, 2017, at http://www.unitar.org/unarmed-civilian-peacekeeping-has-its-time-come

United Nations. (2015). Uniting our Strengths for Peace – Politics, Partnership and People [A/70/95–S/2015/446]. New York, NY: United Nations. Accessed May 15th, 2017, at http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2015/446

Venturi, B. (2015). Mainstreaming Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping. Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 27(1), 61-66. doi: 10.1080/10402659.2015.1000193

Wallis, T. (2015). Saving Lives, Saving Souls. Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 27(1), 37-42. doi: 10.1080/10402659.2015.1000189