How Unarmed Peace Efforts Can Save Lives and Diffuse Conflict Even in War Zones
How Unarmed Peace Efforts Can Save Lives and Diffuse Conflict Even in War Zones
By Robert Koehler /

"I think if we had a gun we would have been shot immediately.”

This is as good a place to start as any, at the logical limits of violent self-defense. The speaker is Andres Gutierrez of Nonviolent Peaceforce, a nonprofit organization that has engaged in peacekeeping work in troubled regions of the world for the last decade. Gutierrez, the organization’s team leader in South Sudan, along with colleague Derek Oakley, got caught in the chaos last April when the city of Bor was attacked, with armed men overrunning the perimeter of a U.N. base where thousands of civilians had sought protection. The two took shelter inside a mud hut.

More than 60 people were killed in the ethnic massacre, but Gutierrez and Oakley, the unarmed peacekeepers, kept that total from being higher. Four women and nine children were inside the hut as well.

As noted on the Nonviolent Peaceforce website: “On three separate occasions men with guns came and ordered the peacekeepers out so they could kill the women and kids. The peacekeepers refused, holding up their (Nonviolent Peaceforce) IDs and saying they were unarmed, there to protect civilians and would not leave. After the third time the armed men left. The people were saved.”

The armed men gave up; thirteen people, plus the two peacekeepers, are still alive. This calls for a moment of awe. This calls for reverence and, most of all, remembrance.

Mel Duncan, a cofounder of Nonviolent Peaceforce, brought the incident to my attention because I had lamented last week that “the popular imagination doesn’t even entertain the possibility” that there are effective, nonlethal forms of keeping order in a community or on the planet. Safety, as proscribed by Hollywood and the media — the vast public-relations industry of the military-industrial complex — requires good guys with guns (and bombs) continually blowing evil to Kingdom Come. It doesn’t matter that this is an obscene oversimplification of the real world, that violence generally expands the scope of human misery and comes back to haunt the perpetrator. We all harbor darkness in our souls, but we’re socially addicted to violence.

So how did the two unarmed peacekeepers save the lives of thirteen women and children? Intense training in nonviolent methods and strategy helped them keep their cool in a dangerous situation. If they’d been armed, as Gutierrez said, the attackers would have killed them without further thought.

But being unarmed doesn’t mean being disempowered. This is worth paying attention to. In South Sudan, unarmed, international peacekeepers have credibility. They stand above the local conflict, facilitating communication between the various sides but not taking sides themselves. In addition, Gutierrez and Oakley were in sync with one another and didn’t panic.

“We also had a humanitarian mandate,” Gutierrez said in an interview. Being unarmed “opens the doors to look for solutions. If we were armed peacekeepers, the solution is you shoot back. Because we were unarmed we could find other ways. (We knew) that the people who were attacking don’t want the blood of ex-pat humanitarians on their hands.”

They were, it seems to me, representatives of the collective human conscience, standing their ground against men with the AK-47s. Without their presence, that conscience would have been absent and the civilians in the mud hut would have been slaughtered, along with the other civilians who were killed in the attack.

This is worth deep consideration as we think about the human future. Perhaps such a courageous, unarmed stance will not work in all circumstances, but it worked here — and not because the two were “lucky.” It worked because brute, linear force and physical domination aren’t the only factors involved in creating safety. Life is far more complex than that. So is “evil.” Armed killers often have functioning consciences, which can be addressed.

Gutierrez and Oakley not only saved thirteen people’s lives, they also saved the gunmen from further violation of their consciences. This could mean they will be less likely to kill again.

Building real peace requires such effort, over and over and over. The military definition of peace is that it’s the uneasy lull between violence. Thus, only violence is inevitable. I don’t believe this. I believe there is a better definition of peace: that it is the creation of healthy souls, put together slowly, one courageous and loving action at a time.

We need to embrace such effort, socially, politically, financially. I mean this column to be such an embrace. I also believe that peacebuilding efforts are far more prevalent than we realize — and more prevalent, certainly, than the mainstream media notice and acknowledge.

Another response I received from last week’s column, which was about the Ferguson protests, the militarization of police departments nationwide and “the courage to disarm,” was from Eli McCarthy, who told me about an organization called the DC Peace Team, an unarmed civilian peacekeeping effort in the nation’s capital.

One of the team’s projects involved identifying neighborhoods in the city where conflicts are likely to erupt. Their website describes the team’s effort in Gallery Place, a booming downtown neighborhood full of stores, theaters and restaurants — and teenagers, whom the merchants see as a threat.

“Between the police, the security guards, and Metro transit police, the area bristles with uniforms,” the website notes. “At least some of the time, young people respond to the defensiveness and occasional hostility they encounter by pushing the limits or applauding those who do. Violent incidents between youth and police have occurred, iPhone and wallet snatchings are not uncommon, even with the police presence, and violent incidents continue.”

Peace Team members took it upon themselves to add a different sort of presence to the neighborhood: “We practiced proactive presence by talking with the merchants, guards, and police as well as young people, adult residents, and tourists. Our intention was to offer respect for our equal dignity, active compassionate listening, and conflict transformation skills to all the parties involved and to be seen as non-partisan with resources to provide.”

Creating peace requires this kind of effort — and I will continue to explore these efforts of ordinary citizens representing not “the state” or the limited interests of those in power, but a future that values everyone.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at or visit his website at

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How Unarmed Peace Efforts Can Save Lives and Diffuse Conflict Even in War Zones