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Head of nonviolent peaceforce talks conflict resolution

Nonviolent Peaceforce

The Nonviolent Peaceforce is a global civilian protection force that works to protect people living in the heart of conflict.

The peaceforce has roughly 300 people stationed around the world every year, everywhere from South Sudan, Myanmar, and recently here in the U.S. at Standing Rock.

Tiffany Easthom is the Executive Director of the Nonviolent Peaceforce and visited the Midland chapter of the peaceforce on May 15th.

Ben: What kind of conflicts and what kind of unrest do you say “we can help civilians out?”

Tiffany: So what we do is protection work and it works along what we call the whole spectrum of conflict. So we can work in the early stages and that’s ideally where we want to be, we want to be on the prevention side of things. So when things are escalating, when tensions are mounting, if we can get in and start working on de-escalating tensions and helping communities pull back from entering into conflict, we can do that.

Ben: What in your eyes are some of the success stories of this work?

Tiffany: Sure. We do a lot of direct protection work in areas where there is a lot of heavy violence, where there is active fighting and utilizing the relationships that we have with the local actors, particularly the armed actors. I’ll give you an example we were working in the South Sudan with a group of women who were farming a collective farm. They happened to be in an area where there was a heavy military installment. The military was not from their community, they’d been sent from another location and they were aggressing on the women. They were sexually harassing at them at best but they were really sexually assaulting them. The women had stopped farming the farm because it was too dangerous.

So we set up an accompaniment and patrol schedule where we would be with the women when they were in the farming areas and we went very painfully and painstakingly to the military, to the police, to the United Nations peacekeepers who did not know this was going on and weren’t moving. Requested support so we had enough coverage over the hours of the day and into the evening so they could be there long enough to do the work they were doing. They were able to go from reporting 20-30 sexual assaults a month to zero as soon as we started doing this.

They were able to go from reporting 20-30 sexual assaults a month to zero as soon as we started doing this.

Ben: Tell me about the work that was done at Standing Rock.

Tiffany: The community at Standing Rock suggested that an international presence would be helpful for them. We thought okay that’s a clear fit for us. We sent in an assessment team and at the time of the assessment the front line was really hot. At one point our assessment team called me from the road and they said they had stopped counting at 50 personnel carriers. Both of them had worked in South Sudan with me and they said ‘this looks just like South Sudan we can’t believe this is America.”

So it was a big change and we thought okay this is what we know how to do we know how to work a front line. But what was really clear really quickly was that the tension that was felt at the front line had just permeated everything and it was unbelievably polarized. Our team on the ground was led by our two most experienced people who have worked for us for ten years all over the world and they said it was the most polarized, most partisan environment they had ever stepped into.

It took them a long time to find a space to work in. They formed a couple of groups, they formed a group that’s focused on mediation and dialoguing and they’re trying to keep the momentum going and they formed another group where they wanted to be able to provide protective accompaniment. So people who still feel insecure or in case things flare up, tensions are there. Our full time team just pulled out, they had been there for over four months. And we have a colleague who is going back and forth, she is there right now actually, figuring out what further technical support we can provide them.

Ben: So on that: partisanship in the communities how did you work to de-escalate that and what kind of advice would you give to people?

We securitize every problem that comes up and then we try to militarize the response.

Tiffany: Well I think.. Two key things. Through the work that we do what we are really trying to challenge is a real unfortunate global norm, and we see this through policy and funding, that the only way to protect people from people with guns is putting in more people with guns. And it is literally, and I can tell you this with ten years of experience of being on the front lines in some of the most dangerous countries in the world, insanity. All that does is escalate. Once you send people in with weapons they are not seen as neutral they are seen as a political actor. We securitize every problem that comes up and then we try to militarize the response. You see that across the world and it is just… we’ve never had a stronger need in contemporary history for unarmed civilian protection strategies. There are more people displaced from their homes than there have been since WWII. People have run, 1 in 122 people in 2015 ran from their home in order to save their own lives. So we’re just not doing a good enough job. The norm that is our go to methodology of sending in the armed actors is just not working.