Ep. 011:  Mel Duncan

Show Notes

  • Mel Duncan works with Nonviolent Peaceforce
  • Founding Director and Director for advocacy and outreach
  • Named by Utne Reader as one of the 50 visionaries changing the world
“I am a regular human being who has had an opportunity to work with other regular human beings and together we have been able to do extraordinary things. People listening to this podcast also have the ability to do extraordinary things with the gifts that they have.”

What is the work?

  • Nonviolent Peaceforce sends trained unarmed civilan protectors (UCPs) to areas of violent conflict to provide protection to civilians who are under threat because of violent conflict and to work with grassroots people to prevent further violence
  • 90% of the casualties of war today are civilians, a reversal from 100 years ago in WWI
  • Women are strategically targeted for violence
  • Gender-based violence includes intentional gang rape to subdue and terrorize, this is strategic and planned
  • It injures one person, but also spreads domination and fear among the entire group

Who are the people who are unarmed civilian protectors?

  • 50-60% come from the host country, the other 40-50% come from throughout the world
  • 200 people on the ground in South Sudan
  • There are no issues with recruitment, plenty of people are willing and interested in doing the work
  • The UCPs receive board, lodging, transportation, insurance and stipend which
  • People usually work for about 2 years
  • It is difficult, challenging work in remote environments, amid violence and unstable circumstances

In the Sudan

  • There are protection of civilian zones (POC zones)
  • The women have to leave the zones to collect firewood
  • The percentage of women who suffer from gender-based violence is high
  • If 2-4 of our UCPs accompany groups of 20 to 30 women, the women are left alone
  • We communicate with all the armed groups, they know who we are and what we are doing “If we sneak up on someone in the field, we are not doing our job.”
  • UCPs are clearly identified with logos and uniforms
  • They know that there is an international group that are the eyes, the ears and the conscious of the international world.
  • UCPs are the third side (Bill Yuri’s book)
“People are hesitant to do these kinds of horrible acts in front of other people. If we can shine attention and light on the situation the horrible deeds are less likely to happen.”
  • Women, when supported and properly trained are willing to stand up and be empowered
  • We have teams of women peacekeepers who work within their local area to quell violence and to provide support to other women, including in areas of rampant domestic violence
  • They also work with other women on the subject of keeping girls in school
  • At least a dozen women peacekeeping teams are deployed in the South Sudan
  • What do you teach people in the face of terrifying violence that helps to empower them?
  • There are ten different methods of unarmed civilian protection that have been shown to work
  • One method is accompaniment: including one-on-one unarmed bodyguards for people who are under direct threat because of the work they do, whether they are journalists or human rights defenders; these people have a multiplier effect, so they are targeted
  • One-on-one protection expands their ability to do their work and their confidence

Are you seen as neutral?

  • We are totally non-partisan in the work that we do, in terms of protecting noncombatants who are under threat because of violent conflict
  • We make it our business to keep channels of communication open between the groups involved in conflict
  • For example, in the Mindanao region of the Philippines, the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front both requested that Nonviolent Peace Force handle the civilian protection component of their 2009 cease fire
  • For four years, Nonviolent Peaceforce had teams deployed across the region that were monitoring, reporting, and intervening
  • We are not professional mediators
  • We do a lot of mediating because we are in remote situations
  • E.g. a conflict in South Sudan between cattle herding and farming groups: people were displaced, houses and a hospital were burned
  • The agreement set up new routes for cattle herders
  • Implementing this agreement required 115 interventions at the local level, but also meant that violent conflict was avoided and that a displaced population could return to their homes
  • Another methodology is ‘interpositioning’ to place ourselves between two conflicting parties in order to protect civilians or to provide a buffer, we only do this after we have been in communication with both parties

Do your people get hurt?

  • After more than 12 years in the field we have only had 4 conflict-related injuries, we are not martyrs
  • Life is precious to us, including our lives, we have a very strict security protocol, we are trained in ways to mitigate risks and if people don’t follow protocol they are sent home

How did you come to this work?

  • I came to this after a Sufi came to me, at the University of Creation Spirituality, where I was taking a course, and told me that my role was to enter the heart of my enemy
  • I began to work from a basis of unity rather than a basis of duality
  • When the student is ready, the teacher appears
  • This led me to Plum Village and Thich Nhat Hanh
  • We are no longer at a place in history where we can afford to take sides.
  • In 1990s I wrote a reflection on nonviolent civilian protection
  • Nonviolent unarmed protection of civilians was not a vision that originated with me, it is a recurring vision, for example, Ghandi had been working on his idea for a peace army when he was killed
  • There are (at least) 12 international NGOs that do this kind of work
  • Peace Brigades International; Cure Violence; The World Council of Churches Ecumenical Accompaniment Project; Christian Peacemaker Teams
  • Unarmed civilian protection is an emerging methodology

Limits and potential

  • It does not work in every violent conflict we have 24 criteria that we apply and there are situations where we cannot
  • There is no approach that will work in every situation, no cure-all
  • According to UNHCR, over 60 million have been displaced because of violent conflict.
  • When it comes to violent conflict, Nonviolent Peaceforce are the fiscal conservatives, but we don’t sell it because it is cheap, we sell it because it is effective
  • Our ability to protect is based on relationships
  • Our local partners, whom we are protecting are often protecting us
  • In Spring 2016, we will be offering an online learning course that will be offered by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR)
  • There will be a link to this course on the Nonviolent Peaceforce website
  • This will be a methodology that will be scaled up as part of the UN’s strategy for protecting civilians
  • Unarmed civilian protection brings together the concept of peacekeeping with the concept of strategic nonviolence
  • The most important thing is that unarmed civilian protection is a way to spark the moral imagination to create alternatives between the two polarities of armed response or do nothing
“This work is an antidote to despair, when I read through the newspapers I have an overwhelming sense of responsibility and knowing that I have the opportunity to be involved in a new story, keeps me from being part of the despair that anyone who pays attention, skates on the edge of everyday”

Case Study: Unarmed Civilian Protection

Unarmed civilian protection (UCP) provides direct protection to civilians under threat as well as serves as an important complement to armed peacekeeping and development because it has the potential to directly and positively impact women, both as subjects of protection and as actors for protection. UCP protects vulnerable women in violent situations. It gives them capacity and agency as trained civilian protectors (over 40% of unarmed civilian protectors are women) to lessen tension, protect civilians, resolve conflicts and work for peace in their own communities in a sustainable and non-militaristic way.


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