Nonviolent Peacekeeping: Pursuing King’s Dream

A baby clasps the hand of a UN peacekeeper as he controls a crowd in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in January 2010

In his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, King boldly asserted that the core principles of nonviolent action ought to be the guiding force behind foreign policy. He passionately believed that relationships built on nonviolent principles would be essential to sustainable world peace.


But was King right?

Like Gandhi, King believed that if violence could be exerted in many directions, then its opposite force could be equally flexible. The nonviolent strategies that eventually led to the end of legalized racism in the United States were based on two principles: First, one can be against a problem, but not against the people causing it; Second, taking risks and suffering are more powerful forces than threat and punishment.

Thus, the principles of nonviolence are based upon the core belief that all parties merit respect.

Traditional conflict resolution strategies that depend on the threat of power simply don’t work. At best, such short-sighted strategies bring an uneasy, short-term peace. Inevitably, the proverbial band-aid gets ripped off, leaving a win/lose scab to fester and bleed into a perpetual cycle of violence. Wounds deepen rather than heal, and history waits and watches its own chilling repetition unfold.

King was right

The adoption of nonviolence as the guiding force behind foreign policy works. “Nonviolence,” as Gandhi said, “is the greatest force at the disposal of humanity.” In contrast to threat-dependent conflict resolution, nonviolence prioritizes building win/win relationships as the cornerstone of sustainable peace.

Strategic, disciplined nonviolence has brought about significant social change the world over. During the past quarter century, nonviolence has helped topple regimes and change oppressive conditions in Poland, Chile, the Philippines, South Africa, the Balkans and Ukraine. More than 3.6 billion people (more than half the world) now live in regimes significantly affected by some kind of nonviolent action.

What exactly is nonviolent peacekeeping?

In addition to changing the status quo, strategic nonviolence is also being applied to protecting civilians and providing peacekeeping in areas of violent conflict. It is a responsible approach to violent conflict, one firmly rooted in historical reality and emanating hope.

By hope, we do not mean sentimental fantasies. We mean hard-nosed hope based on concrete, effective action. These practices build on a strong legacy. Gandhi was headed to a meeting to develop the “Peace Army” when he was assassinated in 1948. Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the “Nonviolent Soldier of Islam,” organized a force of thousands of nonviolent warriors in the 1930s in areas that are now part of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Recent decades have seen huge strides in nonviolent peacekeeping. Far from being passive, nonviolent peacekeepers actively intervene in war, applying field-tested nonviolent strategies to save lives and create the space for sustainable peace.

These strategies were successfully used in a variety of places during the 1980s and ’90s including Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, the United States, Palestine and the Balkans.

Unarmed peacekeeping in action

Unarmed civilian peacekeeping focuses on field-tested nonviolent strategies including: Accompaniment of individuals and groups under threat; Interpositioning between violent actors and civilian populations; Monitoring of existing agreements and human rights; and Proactive Presence by international observers. Civilian peacekeepers also facilitate dialogue among local groups with a history of tension or violence.

Civilian peacekeepers address vulnerabilities of armed actors whether they are political, economic, legal, social or moral while protecting and supporting indigenous peacebuilding and human rights defense. Being unarmed, they present less provocation to conflicting parties than an armed soldier.

And we know nonviolence works…

At a cost far less than military peacekeeping, Nonviolent Peaceforce has trained and deployed unarmed professional civilian peacekeeping teams to violent conflict zones in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Guatemala and mostly recently to The Sudan.

Those peacekeepers have brought formerly hostile ethnic groups into direct dialogue for the first time; prevented displacement of communities; developed early-warning systems to address low-level conflict before it escalates to violence; accompanied human rights defenders, journalists and displaced persons under threat; and interpositioned to protect civilians caught in the military crossfire.

Martin Luther King, Jr. understood how nonviolent action could be applied to international relationships and recognized nonviolence as the only foundation upon which sustainable world peace could be built. Building on that foundation, unarmed civilian peacekeeping proves that though you can kill the dreamer, you cannot kill the dream.

Mel Duncan is the founding Director of Nonviolent Peaceforce and has been organizing and advocating nonviolently for peace, justice and the environment for more than 30 years. In July 2010, Duncan will receive the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship Peaceseeker of the Year Award.


Michael Nagler is Professor Emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC, Berkeley, where he founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program and the Metta Center for Nonviolence. He is the author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future.

Last modified: March 25, 2014 at 4:31 pm
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