When I look across the world today, one of the organizations that most gives me hope for humanity is Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP).
This NGO does what I imagine would have made Mahatma Gandhi proud: They employ a mix of international and local “protection officers” in areas affected by violent conflict to protect civilians and build peace alongside local communities. The special thing about these protection officers is that they do not use weapons—instead, they use a method called Unarmed Civilian Protection (UCP), meaning they are civilians protecting civilians.
NP’s methods are based on the principle of nonviolence, drawing on a long history of nonviolent leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr and Gene Sharp. Nonviolence, like violence, is a behavior that can be learned. For example, one could draw from the work of Marshall Rosenburg, who dedicated his life to teaching nonviolent communication, often in war zones such as Israel and Palestine.
Long-term peacemakers Mel Duncan and David Hartsough founded Nonviolent Peaceforce in 2002. Currently, the organization has active programs in five different countries — Iraq, South Sudan, The Philippines, and Myanmar — and advocates for the inclusion of UCP in international policy forums at the United Nations and in capitals around the world.
In Iraq, the post-war situation has resulted in millions displaced. Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps have been set up around the country, but the camps themselves can be hotspots for violence: Many cases of human rights violations have been reported from these camps. NP began its work in Iraq in 2017 to provide services to people fleeing violence, and they are now focusing efforts on vulnerable IDPs in camps and people returning to areas that are contested and high-risk.
Nonviolent Peaceforce’s innovative, community-centered approach
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to speak to Kalim Ul Masih, who came to Iraq to work for NP as head of mission “to make a positive difference in people’s lives.” He describes Nonviolent Peaceforce’s methodology (UCP) as “an innovative, evidence-based methodology; with a demonstrated track record of reducing violence against civilians across the world.”
Nonviolent Peaceforce’s fundamental mission is to reduce violence and create long-lasting peace. They achieve this by living and working within local communities, building trust, and developing peace-building strategies through a variety of activities. NP enters into dialogue with leaders from all sides involved in conflict and consciously amplifies the voices of different groups, such as women and youth, enhancing their ability to express current concerns and identifying solutions together.
NP spends time building meaningful relationships with community members, which helps ensure that their protective presence is recognized and significant, and that their ability to amplify the voices of the vulnerable is effective.
Additionally, NP works with other NGOs to offer support and make it easier for them to undertake humanitarian work in safety. For example, NP will offer protective presence during food distribution or WASH stations. Nonviolent Peaceforce also helps secure a safe environment for citizens during voting time and serves as a communication and negotiation bridge between conflicting groups.
How Nonviolent Peaceforce ‘Walks the Walk’
Kalim Ul Masih describes working for NP as “meaningful” because it “walks the walk” at all levels. His “colleagues are committed to the NP principles of nonviolence, non-partisanship, primacy of local actors, and civilian-to-civilian action.” NP does not arrive with prescriptions, but facilitates local people finding their own solutions. This makes for a pioneering, coherent, and compassionate organization.
Notably, NP has worked with local leaders in the IDP camps in Iraq, creating safe spaces for meetings where they can resolve issues. They have assisted in ensuring inclusive participation of vulnerable people in decision-making, concerning their ability to access services such as healthcare and legal assistance, and have trained civilians in self-protection.
In Iraq, there was a shortfall in girls receiving education. Thanks to the relationship that NP built with the local community, they became aware of the reasons. NP began accompanying the girls on their walk to school, deterring violence or threats of violence so that they could gain the education so vital for their future.
One major protection issue facing the IDPs in Iraq is that the Iraqi government has started closing the camps. The process of IDPs returning to their place of origin is difficult—once they go through this complex process, their community is often transformed, they are not always welcomed back home, and their houses have often been destroyed.
Although NP cannot stop the forced evacuation, they do provide protection to help civilians as they return home or move to a new location. Nonviolent Peaceforce makes sure to identify and address the specific needs of vulnerable groups, such as the many widowed mothers and their children, the elderly, or people with disabilities. Rather than providing material aid, they provide protective presence, build skills for self-protection, and create space for meaningful dialogue that can lead to sustainable peace.
“It is my hope that love is what brought you to this work. It is my conviction that love is what will keep you going.” – Layla F. Saad
Kalim Ul Masih would like to see better recognition of the important work that international humanitarian groups do in Iraq. He also expresses his hope for humanitarian groups to have full access to federal Iraq, in order to extend their peace-making activities for those who are most vulnerable, such as girls and women. Kalim also emphasizes that the help and capacity of Iraqi colleagues and Iraqi society is essential in reaching peaceful outcomes for the communities they work for.
The Heart Math Institute is demonstrating, with peer-reviewed science, that the human heart can be in a coherent or incoherent state. Nonviolence is an approach that, by firstly focusing on the feelings and needs of all equally, creates the connections of reciprocity and understanding of “the other” and can ultimately lead to dissolving barriers, in recognition of a shared humanity.
This universal care seems to reach to the incoherent heart of fearful, defensive conflict, replacing it with the coherent heart state of compassion, thus creating peace for the benefit of all. Doesn’t this sound like “the force of love,” fundamental to all spiritual traditions?
Thanks to the work of Erica Chenoweth and others, the effectiveness of nonviolence and its greater capacity over military intervention for securing long-lasting peace is now proven and officially documented.
With its outstanding record of work, Nonviolent Peaceforce is demonstrating the desire that most humans have in their hearts: Peace. By offering its services to conflict regions with such courage and conviction, NP is actively evolving our world towards that noble goal.
Nadia Mejjati is of Scottish Moroccan origin. She has a First Class Honours B.A in Drama and Theatre Arts from Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh and has also studied permaculture, herbal medicine and unified physics. She has lived in several countries including Morocco, Egypt, Australia and Peru, where she worked, amongst other things, as an adventure tour guide and an English teacher. She currently writes, translates and edits as well as hosting science workshops for children.
Nadia has long been involved in the environmental movement with organisations such as the Transition Network, 350.org and more recently Humanity Rising, with the intention of participating in the acceleration of human evolution towards a more caring, sustainable and peaceful world.