International Peace Initiatives

Nonviolent Intervention Across Bordersby Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan and Thomas Webber (Eds.)University of Hawaii Press. 369p $20, paperback original

The American activist and pacifist A. J. Muste once said, There is no way to peace; peace is the way. His maxim is pithy but enigmatic. What is the peaceful way, and how do you follow it when conflicts become armed and dangerous? Most of us simply don’t know. It is one of the tragedies of our collective consciousness that we are better versed at waging war, or enduring it, than nonviolently halting the bloodshed we all abhor.

Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, coordinator of Nonviolence International’s South-East Asian office, and Thomas Weber, Professor of Peace Studies and Politics at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, have co-edited an ambitious but practical work that could provide an antidote to our costly ignorance. The scholar and the activist have produced a field guide on the pioneering methods of unarmed peacekeeping, rich in references, example and insight. A brief history, a typology and the chronicles of 14 recent peace initiatives are included in this groundbreaking study of international nonviolent intervention. The book examines the legacy of attempted unarmed intervention across borders with a singular purpose: to discern the major lessons learned. Weber and Moser-Puangswuan conclude their unique research by offering a working model for unarmed peacekeeping.


The need for greater precision in peacekeeping is a persistent theme throughout this study, and an astute one. Wars rarely explode unannounced. Cracks and fissures in the political terrain precede and follow every bloody eruption. The trained peacekeeper, Weber and Moser-Puangsuwan believe, can mend or bridge broken ground, given the proper strategies.

In 1932, immediately after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, Dr. Maude Royden, a British pastor, former suffragist and longtime peace activist, issued a call for intervention: I would like now to enroll people who would be ready if war should break out to put their bodies unarmed between the contending forces in whatever way it be found possible. What was needed, Royden later explained, was an army of pacifists who should offer themselves to the League of Nations as the shock troops’ of peace. Although her plan received widespread publicity, Royden’s Peace Army never reached the streets of Shanghai. It was, Weber writes, a grand but doomed proposal. Nonetheless the idea of unarmed civilians intervening in war zones persisted, remained the recurrent vision for people of good will and inspired subsequent endeavors.

Without rejecting the possibility of a battle-ready, multinational peacekeeping force (perhaps best developed with the resources of the United Nations), Weber lobbies for a scaled down version of the peacekeeping vision, for the smaller, more precise actions that can do much to allay armed conflict. The most possible and the most appropriate nonviolent interventionary tasks, he writes, are in the realms of humanitarian assistance, witness, accompaniment and solidarity.

Some of these are classified in Robert Burrowes’s chapter, Cross-Border Nonviolent Intervention: A Typology. If nonviolence is, as Gandhi said, an experiment in truth, then Burrowes wants us to know our variables. His working definitions and categories (Burrowes identifies nine types of intervention) are used to catalogue the subsequent accounts of peace initiatives.

Accompaniment, a nonviolent strategy dating back to the early 1980’s, receives extensive coverage in this book. The American activist Ed Kinane’s unofficial report on a project in Haiti provides one of the most readable pieces in this category. Kinane’s conversational style, the scope of his reflections on this topic and his vividly described victories of lives saved from execution persuade and inspire.

In the autumn of 1993, just prior to the reinstatement of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Pax Christi/USA conceived Cry for Justice (CRJ)an initiative committed to providing international nonviolent accompaniment during Haiti’s difficult time of transition. Kinane had a three-month tour of duty on the impoverished and politically volatile island as a member of CRJ.

Accompaniment, he explains, means that individual volunteers, protected by their international status, escort or repeatedly visit vulnerable local people in order to defer violence against them. To get at the target, the death squad must get at the volunteer. Usually, fear of international repercussions dissuades the perpetrator from continuing to target the protected person.

For Kinane, accompaniment in Haiti meant maintaining a visible presence on the steep and muddy streets of St. Helene, a slum quivering under macoute violence. It meant escorting an activist priest who resurfaced to offer a public Mass after weeks of hiding. It meant, on two separate occasions, entering a FRAPH (a paramilitary group) compound to press successfully for the release of an abducted local person.

Not all of the initiatives included in this book can boast dramatic successes. Mir Sada, an experiment in large-scale nonviolent interpositioning during the Bosnian war, collapsed under fear and disastrous organizational problems. The strategy of nonviolent solidarity became all too concrete on one occasion for the Cambodian peace walk, the Dhammayietra, when two pilgrims were killed in crossfire between opposing armed forces. Nonetheless, the walk continues, and Moser-Puangsuwan, a veteran organizer of the Dhammayietra, still includes compassion and suffering in his toolbox for nonviolent political action.

Frankness permeates all the reports from the field. Failures are examined and uncertainties admitted. Pacifism, in this book, is not an argument but a praxis to be grappled with amid fears, suffering and hostilities. For the student of foreign policy (and that ought to include all of us), the publication of Nonviolent Intervention is timely. The book offers a crucial counterpoint to the current discussion on humanitarian intervention. Is this policy best implemented by the blue helmets of the U.N., the high-tech weaponry of NATO, or, as Weber and Moser-Puagsuwan propose, by those who literally believe that there is no way to peace; peace is the way?

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

In her new memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Senator Kamala D. Harris, Democrat of California, positions herself as an underdog, a savvy “top cop” and, most of all, Shyamala Gopalan’s daughter.

Brandon SanchezJanuary 18, 2019

The fascinating premise of Mary Gordon’s lovely little book On Thomas Merton is that, except for his extensive correspondence with Evelyn Waugh and Czeslaw Milosz, Thomas Merton was without literary peers who could perceptively judge, critique and improve his writing.

Ron HansenJanuary 18, 2019
Sagal knows what it is to run away from problems, to need to be needed, and how much can be achieved through stubborn persistence.
Emma Winters January 11, 2019
The simple lessons of Jean Vanier on humility and Christian love always bear repeating.
Colleen DulleJanuary 11, 2019