Global Policy Forum

Civilian Peacekeeping

Nonuniformed civilians have a critical role to play in reducing violence and creating a safe environment in conflict zones. "Civilian peacekeepers" can apply moral, political, legal, economic and social pressures, which can influence armed individuals and commanders and prevent violence. Although the field of civilian peacekeeping is still young, there is ample evidence that it can work effectively. Yet the UN remains wedded to military peace operations despite mounting costs and questionable effectiveness.




By Tim Wallis

Oxford Encyclopedia of Peace
January 2010



Written by NP Executive Director Tim Wallis, this article on Civilian Peacekeeping is an entry in the The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace (Editor in Chief: Nigel Young / ISBN13: 9780195334685 & ISBN10: 019533468X / Jan 2010)

In the literature of peace research, the concept of "peacekeeping" describes one of three complementary strategies for tackling violent conflict (Galtung, 1969). Peacekeeping is aimed at reducing the overt violence of the parties involved, while peacemaking is aimed at bringing the parties together to reach an agreement, and peacebuilding is the attempt to tackle the root causes of the conflict. Over the years these terms have come into common usage but with a variety of meanings attached to them. Because of its association with the large-scale peacekeeping operations of the United Nations, peacekeeping is generally understood as a form of military intervention involving troops sent into a conflict area by the UN or some other official body to stop the fighting and restore order. International police forces rather than military forces are increasingly being used to "keep the peace" in places like Bosnia and Kosovo, but nonuniformed civilians have also been playing a critical role in reducing violence and creating a safe environment for peacemaking and peacebuilding activities to take place in such situations. "Civilian peacekeeping" is a generic term used to describe those activities.

Neither military nor civilian peacekeepers can "stop wars" just by standing in the middle of the battlefield and separating the two parties, like a teacher breaking up a fight on the school playground. Effective peacekeeping involves a range of complementary activities that build relationships with all sides, increase the confidence of those caught in the middle to stand up to the violence, strengthen existing mechanisms and structures for handling the violence, and ultimately use certain forms of pressure and "force" to prevent or deter further violence when all else fails. Military peacekeepers have an array of armaments and military structures behind them to provide that pressure of last resort, and, in certain circumstances, those may be the only tools that will have an effect on the perpetrators of violence. However, civilian peacekeepers also have an array of tools available to them for applying pressure, and in some cases these can be even more effective than military might.

Strategies for Reducing Violence. The types of pressure that civilians can apply to prevent or deter violence include moral pressures, political pressures, legal pressures, economic pressures, and social pressures. Moral pressures are sometimes based on the authority of significant local or international religious leaders but also on common humanitarian values that may be shared by the perpetrators of violence. Political pressures may involve exclusion from certain international bodies, damage to one's international status or status within one's own community, or missing out on other significant developments, such as elections, negotiations, or plebiscites. Legal pressures include the possibility of being tried and convicted for war crimes at the Hague, as well as the threat of imprisonment in one's own country. Economic pressures include the threat of UN sanctions, withdrawal of economic support from diasporas and supporters abroad, collapse of tourist revenue, denial of certain trade rights or budget support, or foreign investment or development aid. Social pressures include ostracism and collapse of support from family, friends, and communities or peer pressures-positive social reinforcements to engage in less violent activities, etc.

These pressures can be far more significant than is readily apparent in a society dominated by the use of military force and punitive sanctions to solve intractable problems. There is ample evidence that such pressures can affect the behavior of individual armed actors as well as the decisions and strategies taken by commanders and political leaders in war situations. The effectiveness of civilian peacekeeping to actually reduce levels of violence, however, may lie less in the forms of pressure that can be directly applied to the situation than in the implied combination of threats represented simply by the presence of international civilians in a potentially violent situation. Perpetrators of violence, atrocities, or human rights abuses generally do not want to be seen or caught in the act or identified, for any or all of the reasons listed above. This concept of a "physical presence which can deter violence and change behavior" underlies military peacekeeping as well and explains why the impact of UN troops has little to do with the quality of their firepower and much more to do with the fact that they fly UN flags and wear blue helmets and are seen as outsiders representing the international community.

For example, during the Contra war in Nicaragua in the 1980s, attacks on border villages would cease whenever a delegation of citizens from the United States was in the area. At Israeli checkpoints on the West Bank, treatment of Palestinians has been markedly more civilized when journalists or foreign peace activists have been present. Such responses cannot, of course, be guaranteed, but these examples illustrate the power civilians may have in such situations just by "being there" and representing the outside world.

Protective accompaniment is a more specific peacekeeping tool developed by Peace Brigades International in the 1980s and now used by a number of other organizations working in Latin America and other parts of the world. This involves being with individuals (human rights activists, for example) or groups who are under threat of violent attack for up to twenty-four hours a day. It relies upon the various forms of pressure described above to dissuade the attackers from carrying out their threat. This has proved highly effective in those countries where it has been tried, although it can also be dangerous to assume it will work in situations where the perpetrators of violence are not so susceptible to such pressures or may even find the internationals a more attractive target than the locals they are accompanying.

Official Civilian Peacekeeping. The UN employs growing numbers of civilians (including UN volunteers) on its "multidimensional" peacekeeping operations, and they are sometimes described as civilian peacekeepers, although they include support staff, translators, drivers, and logistics people as well as protection officers, human rights officers, ceasefire monitors, and others working in a more peacekeeping-related capacity. The UN remains firmly wedded to the military component of its peace operations, however, despite the mounting costs and debatable effectiveness of deploying uniformed troops in certain situations.

Smaller-scale observer missions and ceasefire monitoring teams have always been largely unarmed and have included not just retired military officers but other civilians coming from a more diplomatic background. Since international observer missions have no military forces to back them up, the deterrent value of such missions (as well as of the more classical peacekeeping operations that did not have a mandate to use force) comes very simply from the fact that they are internationals and have some authority through their association with the UN (or some other authority), rather than from the fact that they are military per se or have military muscle behind them to force the parties to comply when persuasion fails. In such situations it is clear that (nonuniformed) civilians can play just as valuable a role as do serving military officers or police.

Although the European Union (EU) has also deployed military peacekeepers in support of UN and African Union (AU) missions, its own peace operations to date have been predominantly civilian ones. These have been composed largely of police but have also included civilian observers, border monitors, and other civilian personnel with expertise in areas such as rule of law, human rights, disarmament, democratization, and security sector reform. "Civilian crisis management" is the overarching term being increasingly used in EU parlance to describe these activities, but a case can be made to include them within the concept of civilian peacekeeping since they involve efforts to reduce violence, reestablish the rule of law and create (or re-create) mechanisms for managing ongoing conflict less violently.

The same rationale can be applied to activities described as "postconflict stabilization" by the U.S. State Department and increasingly by governments in Canada, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. These involve the recruitment, training, and deployment of civilian personnel to "backstop" ongoing military operations such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. While those military operations can be described as "peacekeeping" only in the broadest sense of the term, the civilian components of those missions, including, for instance, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan, are more directly engaged in violence prevention and reduction than in fighting the ongoing "war on terror," even if the rationale for their deployment is to provide an "exit strategy" for eventual withdrawal of military forces.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)  currently has more than 1,000 international field staff and 2,000 local staff on eighteen purely civilian missions (including police) throughout Eastern Europe and central Asia. These are engaged in monitoring and promotion of human rights, elections, democratization and rule of law as well as basic monitoring of violence, borders and military activity. The largest civilian peacekeeping operation to date was the OSCE's Kosovo Verification Mission, which was responsible for monitoring the withdrawal of Serbian troops and the return of Kosovan refugees to their homes in 1998-99. More than 1,200 civilian verifiers from across Europe and North America were involved in that mission before it was aborted by the NATO bombing campaign.

Other civilian missions have been established on an ad hoc basis: for instance, the Bougainville Peace Monitoring Group, the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission; the International Monitoring Team in Mindanao, and the Aceh Monitoring Mission-all official civilian missions, although not directly under the auspices of the United Nations.

Civilian Peacekeeping by Civil Society. There has been a proliferation of civil society organizations engaged in peacekeeping activities since the launch of Peace Brigades International (PBI)  in 1981. Growing out of earlier projects, it was the pioneering work of PBI in Guatemala during the early 1980s that demonstrated how effective this work could be and set the scene for other organizations to follow. During the 1980s and 1990s, Witness for Peace, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Balkan Peace Team, Cry for Justice (in Haiti) and the International Service for Peace in Chiapas (SIPAZ) brought larger and larger numbers of Europeans and North Americans face to face with the realities of conflict and began to have a significant impact on the ability of local groups to function and organize in those regions. In 1994, the Ecumenical Monitoring Programme for South Africa (EMPSA) brought more than 400 people to South Africa to help monitor and prevent violence before and during the first postapartheid elections in that country.

Since the second Palestinian intifada began in 2001, many hundreds of people have gone to be part of the international presence there through organizations such as the International Solidarity Movement, Grassroots Initiative for the Protection of the Palestinians (GIPP), United Civilians for Peace, the Women's International Peace Service for Palestine, and the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).

The most comprehensive attempt to evaluate best practice and lessons learned in civilian peacekeeping to date was commissioned by Peaceworkers (USA) in 1999. This two-year research project looked at mandates, strategies, infrastructure, field relationships, personnel issues, training, recruitment, funding, and political support behind the civilian peacekeeping efforts of fifty-seven civil society initiatives between 1914 and 2001. It also looked at a number of larger-scale civilian or predominantly civilian missions of the UN, OSCE, and other official bodies.

Out of this research effort grew a global initiative of over ninety organizations from forty-seven countries to build the capacity for larger-scale civilian peacekeeping interventions by civil society. The Nonviolent Peaceforce was officially launched in India in 2002 and is now running field projects in Sri Lanka and the Philippines, with further developments on the way.

The field of civilian peacekeeping is still young, and the many governmental and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) engaged in this work do not yet see themselves as part of a common field with a common identity and vocabulary. Some NGOs describe their work as "unarmed bodyguards" or "human shields," while others talk about "witnessing," being "monitors," or providing a "presence." Still others talk about "civilian protection," "accompaniment," or "confidence building." Since they are all engaged in attempts to stop or deter violence, however, we may be justified in using the generic "civilian peacekeeping" term to describe them.


Galtung, Johan. "Conflict as a Way of Life" in Hugo Freeman (ed) Progress in Mental Health. London: Churchill, 1969.

Mahony, Liam. Proactive Presence: Field Strategies for Civilian Protection. Geneva: Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2006.

Mahony, Liam, and Luis Enrique Eguren. Unarmed Bodyguards: International Accompaniment for the Protection of Human Rights. West Hartford, Conn.: Kumarian Press, 1997.

Schirch, Lisa. Civilian Peacekeeping: Preventing Violence and Making Space for Democracy. Uppsala, Sweden: Life & Peace Institute, 2006.

Schweitzer, Christine, Donna Howard, Mareike Junge, Corey Levine, Carl Stieren and Tim Wallis, Nonviolent Peaceforce Feasibility Study. St. Paul, Minn.: Nonviolent Peaceforce, 2001.

Wallis, Tim, and Claudia Samayoa. "Civilian Peacekeepers: Creating a Safe Environment for Peacebuilding." In People Building Peace II. Utrecht: European Centre for Conflict Prevention, 2004.

Weber, Thomas, and Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan. Nonviolent Intervention Across Borders: A Recurrent Vision. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 2000.

Dr Timmon Wallis, independent scholar


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