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 this week – yawn.
So why should anyone be interested in this one? Well, as it happens, this peace agreement 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. 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.
Normally, peace agreements and ceasefires are managed or monitored by soldiers, who come complete with guns and tanks and helicopters, and the message that sends out to the combatants and to the civilians who are most affected is that military might, violence and force is what solves problems, whether the problem is war or the problem is peace.
But Nonviolent Peaceforce has not just been ‘monitoring’
And what about the belligerents?
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.
Dr Timmon Wallis, Executive Director, Nonviolent Peaceforce
This is an abbreviated version of an article originally published in the independent online magazine www.opendemocracy.net