The vast majority of casualties in armed conflict are civilians. This continues to raise significant challenges in international and national approaches to the Protection of Civilians (PoC). Protection, however, is not only about external approaches, but also civilian approaches to their own self-protection. Civilians have adopted diverse survival strategies towards armed actors, including non-engagement (flight, silence), non-violent engagement (negotiation, paying taxes and tolls) and more violent forms of engagement (forming civil defence militias and armed vigilante groups). Civilians have also promoted protection against abuse and violence through collective protest and direct communication with armed groups.
Community self-protection initiatives can include a range of activities to counter, mitigate, deter or avoid threats to their lives and safety. In Colombia, the Association of Peasant Workers of the Carare (ATCC) was formed to prevent armed militias and military forces from carrying out extra-judicial killings. Community-based militias among Nuer groups in South Sudan have demonstrated adherence to ethical restraints and socially defined moral codes in their interactions with civilians due to strong social control mechanisms around violence. In northern Uganda civilians adopted neutrality towards and avoidance and accommodation of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) when it was an active belligerent.
In particular, unarmed civilian protection (UCP) approaches have gained traction in restraining civilian targeting by armed actors. UCP is an umbrella term to describe the practice of civilians protecting other civilians in situations of imminent, ongoing or recent violent conflict. It involves both formally trained international and national civilians protecting local civilians, as well as local civilians informally protecting each other and extending protection to internationals, as well as non-local civilians. As a practice, UCP has roots in Mahatma Gandhi’s Shanti Sena or peace army, which engaged in non-violent civil resistance to end British colonialism in the Indian sub-continent. Julian, R. and Schweitzer, C. (2015) ‘The origins and development of unarmed civilian peacekeeping’ Peace Review: a journal of social justice 27(1): 1 – 8 (https://doi.org/10.1080/10402659.2015.1000181). The key principles of UCP involve non-violence, the primacy of local actors, impartiality and neutrality. UCP builds on key methodologies around relationship-building, proactive engagement through protective accompaniment, inter-positioning between warring parties and protective presence. It offers a model based on non-violent engagement through monitoring ceasefires, rumour control and early warning and early response (EWER).
There is a growing body of evidence that non-violent, unarmed strategies can be more effective in protecting civilians than armed or militarised strategies. Ibid; Wallace, Security without weapons; Julian and Gasser, ‘Soldiers, civilians and peacekeeping’; Schweitzer, C. 2021. Unarmed Civilian Protection: Protecting People in Crisis and War Zones without violence. 29 March. Online at https://rethinkingsecurity.org.uk/2021/03/29/unarmed-civilian-protection/(accessed 12 July 2022). A number of NGOs, including Peace Brigades International (PBI), Nonviolent Peace Force (NP), Christian Peacemaker Teams, Meta Peace Team and Peace Watch Switzerland, have fielded unarmed civilian peacekeepers in conflict zones in the Philippines, Colombia, Palestine and South Sudan. NP in particular has been driving UCP mainstreaming through the design and delivery of bespoke training courses such as ‘Strengthening Civilian Capacities to Protect Civilians’, run by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). These efforts have seen the UCP community of practice expand from seven organisations working in five countries and regions in 1990 to 42 in 42 conflicts around the world. Oldenhuis et al., ‘Unarmed civilian protection’, p. 5. For a history of UCP by various CSOs, see Venturi, ‘Mainstreaming UCP’, pp. 62-63. Recognition of the importance of unarmed strategies is reflected in the Report of the Independent High-level Panel on United Nations Peace Operations (2015). The United Nations (UN) has in response adopted some UCP activities by deploying observers and unarmed military officers in the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Julian, R. The transformative impact, pp.99–111; Vela, V.G. 2021. MINUSMA and the militarization of UN peacekeeping. International Peacekeeping, 28(5), 838-863. https://doi.org/10.1080/13533312.2021.1951610.
Local adaptations of UCP include community watch teams composed of unarmed volunteers or community guards and declaring specific villages or areas as zones of peace, peace communities or weapons-free zones. While several examples exist, here I draw on the case of the Jos Stakeholders Centre for Peace (JSCP) in Plateau State in Nigeria. JSCP is a multistakeholder network comprising 39 representatives of communities and organisations in Jos North. It offers a collective impact model that has been used to build the capacity of people at the grassroots, and those in positions of local power and influence, to prevent conflict escalation and violence directed at civilians in the context of an ethnoreligious communal war. The approach draws on an innovative method of peacebuilding developed by CDA Collaborative Learning Projects (CDA), the Framework for Collective Impact in Peacebuilding. The framework, first published in 2017, was field-tested in partnership with Search for Common Ground in Jos. CDA provided technical support for the development of locally driven, multistakeholder collective impact networks targeting local-level conflicts. This approach brings together actors across different societal sectors to establish a locally led and locally owned ‘collaborative’, which works to develop and implement novel solutions to violence in Jos North.
Communal conflict creates insecure spaces marked by targeted violence and retaliatory attacks, endangering individuals and groups, displacing families and creating added burdens on relatives in safer locations. This in turn transforms neighbourhoods into communal hotspots and ‘no-go areas’ for minority groups. Traditionally, political mobilisation along ethnic and religious lines has characterised intergroup conflict in Jos. Pre-existing networks of vigilantes, thugs and gangs aligned with specific political actors or ethnic and religious leaders are readily mobilised into communal conflict. However, pockets of non-violence still exist. In Dadin Kowa, retaliatory attacks were stymied in 2010 through social control mechanisms that included the informal monitoring of community activities such as the movements of people during different times of the day. Youth were not permitted to leave their homes and unarmed youth patrol groups were set up to offer protection to communities. Communication networks were also established to control the spread of rumours that could incite communal violence.
Building on this community resilience framework, the JSCP, with funding from Tearfund Nigeria, has trained 30 community leaders and influencers as ‘Breaking the Border Ambassadors’ to advance community-based early warning and response, youth action and community cohesion initiatives. These ambassadors have engaged in dialogue in Rafin Pa and Bible Faithcommunities in Laranto in Jos North, to curb conflict escalation in communities affected by ethno-religious violence. Through meetings, dialogue and training in EWER, levels of violence between the Christian Bala Kazai community and the Muslim Angwan Damisa community were reduced. Through joint security patrols, non-violent citizens’ arrests and solidarity events such as interfaith meals and pooled community labour for maintaining roads and borders, communities have begun planning and implementing community security initiatives without external support. A recent spate of violence in Jos city in August 2021 did not have any spillover effects due to active information-sharing and patrols by Breaking the Border Ambassadors. Information collated from internal documents and evaluations shared by Search for Common Ground (SfCG) Nigeria, which launched the JSCP network initiative in 2017. The JSCP transitioned into a local entity from 2019.
A community security and security agency collaboration working group has used inter-group communication and trust-building between Christians and Muslims to manage conflict over the ancestral ownership of Tudun Wada town. In 2020, a town hall meeting involving security agencies and community stakeholders in Tudun Wada was organised to create collaborative mechanisms for information-sharing, and for reducing incidents of violent community justice in response to criminal acts. By establishing working relationships with formal security agencies – including the police, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, the State Security Service and Operation Rainbow (a local security initiative) The Operation Rainbow initiative is a local security collective that provides security intelligence to the Federal Government’s military task force, ‘Operation Safe Haven’ (OPSH), deployed to protect citizens of Plateau State. Operation Rainbow is drawn from residents of various communities in the 17 Local Government Areas of Plateau state and is recognised for having positively contributed to tackling security challenges in the state. – the effectiveness of EWER systems in Jos North has improved. The working group has also opened up new channels of communication with the formal security agencies.
Creating safe spaces for interaction has reduced the segregation of communities along religious lines. This allows for more equitable access to resources such as streams, markets and schools by both Christian and Muslims. It has encouraged unarmed citizen arrests and the safe handing over of offenders to the police. These developments represent a marked improvement over incidents of violent community measures against suspected criminals, which in the past triggered communal tensions or further polarisation. In recognition of the unarmed strategies for tackling communal conflicts used by the JSCP, the Nigerian police has formally commended the peacebuilding role of the JSCP network. Input from the former backbone coordinator of the JSCP network on behalf of Search for Common Ground based in Jos.
Sukanya Podder is a Reader in Post-War Reconstruction and Peacebuilding at King’s College London.