I've been following the conflict in Mindanao more closely in the last few years because there are international accompaniers there with the Nonviolent Peaceforce. That team is particularly interesting because they have played an official role in the peace process in a way that accompaniers never have before.
Here is the announcement the Peaceforce posted explaining the peace agreement and their role:
Philippines Peace Agreement – Why This One is Different*
Peace Agreements are a dime a dozen these days. With an average of 25 wars going on around the world at any given time, there are peace agreements about to be signed almost every other week. No wonder the world ceases to take much interest anymore! Another Peace Agreement is signed in the Philippines yesterday – yawn.
Over half of the world’s peace agreements are broken within a few years anyway, that’s the official record. Remember that historic peace pact between the Israelis and the Palestinians – see how long that one lasted! And you may not even have noticed that just a few years before the Sri Lankan military destroyed the last remains of the Tamil Tigers on the battlefield, the two parties had also signed a comprehensive peace agreement, brokered by the Norwegians.
Sadly, this is the case for so many of the peace agreements that make it onto paper. And some don’t even get that far – the last peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro guerrillas was quashed by a Supreme Court decision in 2008 just moments before the two parties were about to sign the document.
So now we have a new peace agreement in the Philippines. Why should we be interested and why should we expect this one to last or to be any different from all the others? Well, as it happens, this one is different, and may just foreshadow a whole new era in peace agreements, not just for the Philippines, but for the rest of the world.
When the last peace agreement failed and the ceasefire broke down on the southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines in 2008, fighting broke out across the island, there were some particularly nasty massacres and over 600,000 people were displaced from their homes. But there was one new element in the equation that had not been there before: the presence of international unarmed civil society observers from a little-known group called the Nonviolent Peaceforce.
These Nonviolent Peaceforce observers had been quietly working away on the island, building relationships with both sides of the conflict, establishing their credentials as a neutral, independent, impartial actor willing to help both parties to find solutions to practical problems they faced on the ground – like how to avoid unnecessary bloodshed without appearing to be weak or to be seen to be backing down; how to ensure safe passage for civilians caught in the crossfire without losing ground militarily; how to maintain contact with the ‘enemy’ and avoid misunderstandings while at the same waging a war against them; how to put out feelers for a ceasefire without appearing to give in…
Nonviolent Peaceforce helped both sides of this war to be more civilised and more respectful of civilians and as a result, when a ceasefire was finally agreed, both sides asked Nonviolent Peaceforce to play an official role in the ceasefire mechanism that would hold both sides to their commitments and obligations under the ceasefire. It is not that unusual for two sides to appoint an intermediary to monitor a ceasefire. Often the UN plays that role, other times another country or set of countries will be invited to do it. But never before in the history of war has a non-governmental organisation made up of unarmed civilians from civil society been asked to play a role quite like this. This was – and is – historic, and is why the peace agreement just signed in the Philippines is also historic.
There have been many other innovations associated with this particular peace agreement, and they all deserve attention because this is a new way of making peace in the 21st century. As well as using a non-governmental organisation to help monitor the ceasefire on the ground, the parties to this conflict also agreed to have non-governmental organisations supporting the negotiations in Kuala Lumpur, as part of the ‘International Contact Group’1. This is unprecedented for a peace process like this. And on the ground, local organisations were also given official status in support of the ceasefire monitoring and protection of civilians2. Other countries have of course played an important role, but the really significant innovation has been having unarmed, international civilian ‘peacekeepers’ on the ground monitoring a ceasefire. Why?
Violence begets violence – we all know that. We may not always think of it or want to accept it, but every child who has ever scrapped on the playground, every parent who has ever dealt with an unruly teenager, every teacher, every social worker, every police officer has seen the effects of using force or violence on someone else. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It’s basic physics! In the field of human affairs, the reaction may not always be equal or opposite (often the reaction is much worse than the action, as in the case of terrorist atrocities committed to avenge some petty grievance), but it is as surely a law of life as it is a law of physics that if you use violence against someone or some group of people, you will sooner or later get violence thrown back at you. It is a lesson not just from science but also from art, as portrayed so consistently in Shakespeare’s plays, for instance…
So when peace agreements and ceasefires are managed or monitored by soldiers, UN or otherwise, who come complete with guns and tanks and helicopters, what is the message that sends out to the combatants and to the civilians who are most affected? Surely the deployment of soldiers, even for ‘peace’, simply reinforces the age-old assumption that military might, violence and force is what solves problems, whether the problem is war or the problem is peace.
No wonder so many peace agreements don’t last! No wonder so many ceasefires break down! How can we even begin to challenge the war mentality and change the way people try to handle their problems when we simply send in more military personnel to deal with a problem caused by two militaries fighting each other? Nonviolent Peaceforce throws a new dimension into this mix which totally confounds this way of thinking and turns it on its head. Actually, says NP, you are safer in a warzone as a civilian than you are as a soldier. Actually, you are more able to protect innocent civilians as a civilian than you are as a military officer. Actually, you are more likely to help reduce violence – to break the cycle of violence – by intervening as an unarmed civilian than by intervening with military force.
This is ground-breaking stuff, and it has been going on largely unnoticed but with huge success in the Philippines for these past two years. And it is what has made possible a peace agreement which has the real possibility of standing the test of time and giving the people of this war-torn island what they most want and deserve – a true and lasting peace.
And the reason it is so critical to the peace agreement which has just been signed is that peace at the negotiating table is only ever possible when there is real peace on the ground. Most ceasefires are broken the day they are agreed, and they continue to be broken every day because both sides are continually testing the other, reigning in their forces only enough to get the best deal they can at the negotiating table and if they don’t get it, are ready to go back to fighting until they do. More traditional ceasefire monitors know all this and they know that their job is merely to keep the belligerents at bay long enough to give the negotiations a fighting chance – never to actually address the problems and flashpoints and incidents and violations that are going on by both sides. That is not how the game has been played – until now.
Nonviolent Peaceforce has not just been ‘monitoring’ the ceasefire in Mindanao. NP teams have been out there every day actually ‘peacekeeping’ in the true sense of that word: addressing concrete problems on the ground, de-escalating tensions, getting both sides to back off, preventing displacement and disruption of normal life, helping people get used to real peace and encouraging them to expect it! This is the new dynamic at play in this new peace agreement. The people of Mindanao have already had two years of peace and they will not accept anything less at this point. They – the ordinary civilians, the people who bear the brunt of war when it happens – demand peace, and the belligerents now have to give it to them.
And what about the belligerents? Maybe they have also been somewhat affected by the ‘civilising’ presence of these unarmed civilian peacekeepers. They have been treated throughout this conflict with dignity and respect by the Nonviolent Peaceforce. They have been helped to see that is in their own interest to treat the civilians caught up in this conflict also with dignity and respect. And they have been helped to do the right thing when it comes to respecting the ceasefire and the norms of international humanitarian law and the accepted laws of war.
Nonviolent Peaceforce has not turned soldiers into pacifists, and has no ambition to do so, but it has helped to make sure that no soldier who believes he or she is fighting for a cause, whether it’s the defence of one’s country or the right to self-determination, forgets that he or she is also responsible for how that fight is fought and how, in particular, non-combatant civilians - especially women and children – are treated. If they are now more likely to be treated with dignity and respect and their rights and lives protected from the abuses and violations of war, then this really is a very important peace agreement and a turning point in the history of war.
For full text of speeches by the President of the Republic of the Philippines and Chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front on the occasion of signing the peace agreement on 15th October 2012:
Speech of President Aquino during the signing of the GPH MILF framework agreement
Speech of the Chairman of the MILF during the signing of the framework agreement on the Bangsamoro
Dr. Timmon Wallis, Executive Director, Nonviolent Peaceforce
This article was originally published in the independent online magazine www.opendemocracy.net