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Josef Korbel School of International Studies

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Activist Stresses Effectiveness of Unarmed Civilian Protection During First Denver Dialogues on Peace and Security

By Brent Forgues, MA Candidate, Global Finance, Trade, and Economic Integration  

DENVER—Nov. 19, 2014—Humanity has been conditioned to perceive violence as its god, said a leading peace activist Wednesday evening.

Mel Duncan, the founding executive director of Nonviolent Peaceforce, a civilian peacekeeping organization engaged in resolving conflict around the world, said that the continued use of violence as a last resort perpetuates the myth that unarmed civilian protection does not work.

“Nonviolence fails once, and it’s dismissed. Violence fails over eternity, and it’s constantly turned to once again,” he said, citing a famous quote in defense of nonviolent action.

Duncan spoke with Erica Chenoweth, an associate professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, as part of the first Denver Dialogues on Peace and Security hosted by the Sie Cheou-Kang Center for International Security. The series is meant to create a public dialogue among academic and policy authorities regarding how to resolve conflict peacefully around the globe and is part of a project funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

“The main goal…is to spark your moral imaginations,” Duncan said. “When someone tells you there’s no other choice but bombing, sending in the drones, sending in the missiles, that’s the time to engage your moral imaginations and say, ‘Wait a minute. What are the other options?’”

Duncan outlined how his organization employs peaceful strategies in order to achieve conflict resolution in war-torn parts of the world. Accompanying vulnerable civilians in dangerous situations, providing an international presence that deters violence, and positioning itself between combatant groups, are a few of the ways that Duncan said Nonviolent Peaceforce strives for peace in places ranging from Guatemala to South Sudan. 

Civilians have reported that they felt safer where the organization was present, as well as demonstrated a greater overall awareness of the peace process; however, Duncan said successes such as these rarely make headlines.

Chenoweth, who is also an associate senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, later commented that skeptics of unarmed civilian protection are quick to point out when noncombatants are killed in spite of employing nonviolent action. “Yet, if they go out and have 36 people who are guerrilla fighters killed in the streets, they’ll just say, ‘Well, we just need more and better violence in order to avoid that,’” she said.

“So it could be that we just need more and better nonviolent action, and it might work better.”

Following the dialogue’s conclusion, Jonathan Pinckney, a PhD student at the Josef Korbel School, said he was really inspired by the work Duncan and others like him perform.

Although there are extreme cases around the world, such as the current circumstances in Syria and Iraq, Pinckney said it’s important for people not to lose sight of the many other places where civilian unarmed protection can be effective.

“What this kind of work shows, is that in a lot of situations like this, the power of presence and witness can be really, really transformative.”