Peace Review 8.-4 (1996), 555-561

The Citizen Intervenor

Paul Wehr


In the wake of the Somalian, Rwandan and Bosnian crises, and on the brink of the Burundi conflict, we should consider not whether the outside world should intervene to moderate civil violence in such cases, but how it should do so. Governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOS) quite simply must expand the world's capacity to protect civilians from violence, whether internal or external.

Military institutions, whose past interventions have usually been aggressive, now sometimes seek socially useful and ethically justifiable missions. There is certainly a role for them, interposing themselves to prevent armed conflict, as they currently do in Bosnia. U.N. and regional peacekeeping forces are muddling through similar missions in Liberia and Haiti.

For several reasons, however, humanitarian military intervention undermines Fits good intentions in practice. First, military forces are popularly perceived more as the perpetrators rather than the deterrents of violence against civilians. Bosnia, Chechnya, and Rwanda are only the most recent contemporary historical instances that come to mind.

Second, the success of armed intervention, regardless of intentions, depends primarily on the threat or actual use of force. Such methods coerce rather than persuade. In the longer run, they produce fear and instability rather than security and stability. Even with the most favorable conditions and benevolent intentions, armed humanitarian intervention can only succeed in the short term. With time, the temptation to use greater force overcomes caution, as indigenous resistance to the external presence inevitably escalates.

Third, the inexorable trend toward more remote and destructive weapons further removes military forces from the caution, nuance and sensitivity so necessary for a successful humanitarian intervention. Given the limits imposed by the naturc and purpose of military institutions, their role in humanitarian intcrvcntions must necessarily be a limited one.

Of course, non-military intervention also exists. Diplomacy provides an example, although it is more often used in conjunction with threats to use military force. Another example is the humanitarian relief agency, which usually works independent of military force. When it does associate too closely with the military, its effectiveness quickly diminishes, as we saw with U.N. involvement in Somalia and Bosnia.

Can we develop other, more effective forms of non-military humanitarian intervention? Arguably, yes. Private citizens represent an untapped resource for effective humanitarian intervention. Their disciplined and structured participation could supplement and enhance the established agents of inter-vention. Actually, the tradition of the citizen intervenor (CI) in human history is a long and notable one; thus, we need not start from scratch. That tradition has already produced an organizational base around the world that could be better mobilized to reduce violence across national boundaries in the 21st century.

For nearly two centuries, peace activists have assumed that "peace is too important to be left to the experts." Citizen efforts to advise those experts can be traced back at least to William Penn's prototypical charter for a European peace zone, a document he modestly shared with heads of state in the 17th century. The tradition of civilian intervention as peacemakers grew substantially in the 19th century. Elihu Burritt's life-long campaign for an international peace regime included his extended residence in Western Europe capitals as a citizen lobbyist. Such early interventions were often welcomed by governments.

By the 20th century, lay peacemakers found their efforts less well received. Heads of government usually dismissed them out of hand. Jane Addams and her coworkers in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom labored mightily to deter World War I. But as citizen intervenors they were rebuffed, even vilified for meddling in "affairs of state." They were women, bad enough. They were ordinary citizens, worse yet. Woodrow Wilson found them annoying, to say the least, and Theodore Roosevelt thought them "dangerous."

Since World War II, direct intervention across national borders by NGOs and individuals to relieve suffering and deter violence has grown significantly. Post-war reconstruction and work camp programs such as those of the Quaker and Mennonite service organizations were models for later governmental programs like the Peace Corps, the Scandinavian development agencies and the French "cooperants." My own experience as a Quaker "intervenor" in such a program during the Algerian Revolution marked me greatly, setting me firmly on a life path of conflict scholarship and peace action.

Usually such civilian initiatives have had official blessing but occasionally, as when U.S. Quakers delivered evenhanded humanitarian aid to both North Vietnam and South Vietnam in the 1960s, they have met governmental condemnation and punishment. Gradually, citizens in organizations such as Amnesty International, Medecins sans Frontieres, and Sister Cities International have assumed a major responsibility for reducing violence across national borders. As we move into a new century, there's a solid tradition, and at least some governmental acceptance, for the civilian's right and responsibility to intervene.

That tradition expanded in the 1980s, from an explosive growth in citizens claiming the right to participate in transnational humanitarian intervention. Two movements in particular-nuclear pacifism and Central American solidarity produced some important citizen experiments. A Women's Walk for Nuclear Disarmament moved for months through Northern European nations, meeting many citizens and government leaders. In the Americas, numerous caravans with humanitarian aid went from North America to El Salvador and Nicaragua despite harassment from hostile governments along the way. .

Witness for Peace and Peace Brigades International developed the practice of protective presence. Their multinational teams would live, work and travel with Central Americans at risk-human rights activists, coffee harvesters, border villagers. The simple presence of foreigners-particularly U.S. Americans-was thought to be a deterrent to armed attack.

Some communities intervened through city twinning. Boulder, Colorado, for example, linked with Dushanbe in the Soviet Union and Jalapa in Nicaragua. Reciprocal visitations and cultural exchanges have developed from those projects that have outlived both the Cold War and the Contra War. An elementary school in Jalapa and a Tadjikistani tea house in Boulder are lasting monuments to that citizen intervention.

The Carter Center initiatives provide another, unusual example of citizen Tdiplomacy. Jimmy Carter is, of course, a citizen with special status and experience. Still, his intervention as a private mediator in international crises in Haiti, Bosnia, Nicaragua, and North Korea has produced ambivalence and sometimes hostility among professional diplomats. Nevertheless, Carter's efforts have promoted the cause of direct private citizen involvement in transnational peacemaking.

Further developments have come in the last few years. First, regional and local leaders from areas of great tension are being trained in conflict moderation methods, and linked together through interorganizational networks. Londonbased International Alert, for example, has developed a crisis management network, linking regionally with groups like the Coordinating Committee for Conflict Resolution Training in Europe. Other networks have grown out of university programs, at Uppsala and George Mason, for example, and have trained scores of young professionals from the developing world in conflict management. Likewise, the Global Commission to Fund the U.N. has pressured the Security Council to form Anticipatory Risk-Mitigation Peace-Building Contingents, which would provide an "in-place, on-call network of professionals already engaged in [trust-building, reconstruction, conflict resolution, risk mitigation and confidence building] activities in many countries." They would be a resource for the peace-building function the U.N. peacekeeping forces cannot perform.

The peace team movement has also been active in the 1990s, training citizens with religious and humanitarian motivations in crisis settings. According to Elise Boulding, it includes faith-based groups-the Quakers, the Mennonites, the Swedish Life and Peace Institute, the World Council of Churches-and secular organizations, in a network of about 50 groups. In recent years, exploratory peace teams have been sent to crisis zones in Bosnia, Haiti, and the Persian Gulf, revealing both the potential and the barriers of private intervention.

A related outgrowth has been the increasing demand by NGOs for more citizen participation in the U.N. This has included proposals for a people's counterpart of the General Assembly, which would also sponsor parallel intervention efforts in the field.

Citizen intervention against war and violence also has an academic track. Peace and conflict study and research have deepened the conviction that knowledgeable citizens can learn to reduce violence in our conflicts. Scholars know a lot about peace and justice activism, about moderating conflict, and about nonviolent action for self-defense and social change. The development of the International Peace Research Association, and peace and conflict sections in social science organizations, suggest an increasing institutionalization of these perspectives. A parallel growth has occurred in conflict management and dispute resolution as professions. And alternative (to the courts) dispute resolution has become a growth industry in the U.S.

The tradition of private citizen intervention has broadened in scope and deepened in conviction. It began as humble advice to government. Then it became the insistence on a citizen's right to be included "at the table." Subsequently it became massive intervention to alter the government's violenceproducing policies. Finally, it has become a training and direct involvement initiative, officially acknowledged as part of global peacemaking.

Now, the citizen intervenor (CI) (to reduce violence) is one who: lobbies government on foreign policies such as arms sales; invests capital with informed social responsibility; trains in conflict moderation techniques; uses nonviolent action to thwart violence; and participates in domestic and transnational peace team missions.

How can we promote greater citizen intervention to confront violence? First, we can take advantage of a growing citizen inclination worldwide to challenge institutional policies and structures. Grassroots citizen action is indeed alive and very well. A global organizational infrastructure to promote intervention against violence and injustice might already be said to exist.

Second, we now have a substantial conflict knowledge pool available to the Cl. The concepts and methods of conflict moderation are becoming simpler, are being translated into world languages and disseminated through citizen travel and electronic exchange: the emerging peacemaking discourse will touch people at all levels of society. An Internet conflict resolution course and exchange seminar we are developing at the Universltv of Colorado (with U.S. Institute of Peace support) will help promote this initiative.

A growing pool of older persons in affluent nations now have the time, money, inclination and life experience to be trained and deployed as intervenors. And younger persons increasingly have families who will "stake" them in violence intervention missions. They may work in their home communities or alternate locales with transnational involvement. Organizations like Pangaea are responding to the increased demand for personal and peacemaker development.

While others might call these initiatives wild dreaming, they stem from well-grounded speculation about the new possibilities for citizen intervention. Certainly, some global forces might discourage such initiatives. First, political, commercial and technological interests are now arming the world at a frightening rate: this may simply overwhelm nonmilitary intervention. The anti-personnel mine and the Pentagon's proposed arsenal ship, for example, are two diabolical, relatively cheap devices that further distance human perpetrators from the consequences of their violent acts, rendering them more difficult to deter.

Second, political and bureaucratic interests may resist private civilian intrusions into their preserve, even if ways were found to complement rather than complicate the crisis work of peacemaking professionals. To confront this resistance, citizen intervenors-among other things-would have to speak, at least minimally, the local language, and be sensitive to local peacemaking constraints.

Third, we neither fully understand nor can we fully predict the dynamics of external intervention. Neutrals intervening for humanitarian purposes may be regarded suspiciously in the "target" society, and may even be taken hostage. They may be ill-uscd by one side or another to demonstrate commitment or ruthlessness. Still, humanitarian organizations have accepted such risks for decades; their experience could continue to guide future citizen interventions. Ideally, organizational teams could be devised with coordinated in-country and intervening counterparts. City twinning, for example, might provide a structure for such violence reduction partnerships, not unlike NATO's logistical "forward positioning."

Most problematic would likely be the relationship of the CI to armed peacekeeping forces. If those forces were not perceived as completely neutral, civilian intervenors would also be tainted, as has occurred recently in Bosnia. Probably only by totally disconnecting the two will the CIs be viewed as neutral and non-threatening. At the very least, their missions would have to be distinct, and a special relationship would have to be established to permit independent, effective interaction.

Despite the obstacles, countervailing conditions and institutions are now also providing greater support for direct citizen intervention in violence-ridden situations around the globe. They include expanding networks of conflict management, nonviolence and peace-building NGOS; a growing number of violence-attentive citizens; more research and teaching on violence reduction; and improved transnational electronic communications, permitting new forms of exchange and intervention.

The physical intervention of private citizens in high-risk areas of tension will likely increase only gradually. Both the would-be intervenors and the target societies must be protected. Rigorous training, apprenticeship and qualifying exams for such involvement may be necessary. Perhaps prior experience in violence reduction in one's own country should be a prerequisite for participation abroad.

Besides preparation, we need clearly defined missions. A simple presence of intervenors, supporting themselves and doing things communities need done, might be one approach. The Shanti Sena, of the Gandhian movement in India, provides such a model. The brigadista coffee pickers in Nicaragua provide another.

Other energy sources for the citizen intervenor movement also exist. First, it can draw from the wealth of intervention experience accumulated by humanitanan organizations since World War II. Relief, development and human rights groups should be tapped for that knowledge.

Second, we should view citizen intervention as multidimensional. Working to humanize a government's land mine and firearms policies, for example, constitutes-even if indirectly-intervention for violence reduction in Bosnia, Cambo-

dia, Angola, South Los Angeles, middle America, or in affluent Europe. Electronic communication can also help transnatioiialize such initiatives, promoting a kind of "intervention by idea." The modern is mightier than the sword. Peace and humanitarian organizations should learn from Amnesty International, which has refined citizen intervention with the pen, the cable and the computer. Current electronic advances should encourage the citizen activist to intervene everywhere.

Third, people could become more directly involved in group and national defense. The concepts of strategic nonviolence and nonmilitary defense have been evolving at least since 1960. Creating one's own defense rather than relying on -armed protection by others may well be a citizcn's most effective future security. In Western Europe, such thinking entered serious defense policy debates, notably in Germany, Scandinavia, and The Netherlands. Non-military and non-provocative defense preparations may be important components of national and regional defense in the future.

With the "clarity of hindsight," how might citizen intervention have made a Nvdifference, for example, in moderating the Bosnian civil war? With more developed citizen intervention in place, this scenario might have evolved: European, North American and other governments having economic, political and military leverage in the former Yugoslavia, would have done everything possible to slow down the breakup process, beginning by refusing to immediately recognize the independence of the Yugoslav republics. Citizen intervenors would have counselled caution against precipitous actions.

Such intervention would have permitted time for: wiser decisions; government and civilian intervention networks to mobilize to protect at-risk minorities; resident observers to deter war crimes; community exchange programs and jointly run relief centers to allay interethnic hostility; developing interethnic solidarity networks across geographical ethnic lines- and training in nonmilitary community defense.

The communication structure for this mobilization would have been partially in place through the earlier development of city-twinning programs, hot-response crisis management centers in the republics, and Internet peace action exchange groups. Yugoslav emigre volunteers from intervenor states might have been trained in multi-ethnic teams as negotiators, mediators, community organizers and other peacemaking roles.

By early 1992, a sufficient transnational and transrepublic civilian presence might have existed in Bosnia to weaken the pull of Croatian and Serbian nationalism, and their militarist proponents. That might well have permitted multi-ethnic Bosnian nationalism to withstand those centrifugal tendencies, as it very nearly did on its own.

The CIs of the future would be entrepreneurs. They would mobilize reTsources-knowledge, motivation, and personal and organizational funds-to intervene for violence reduction at different levels and in diverse settings. A global set of interconnected networks is now emerging to promote that intervention. Citizen intervenors will be limited only by their personal availability, motivation, and imagination.

In the 21st century we will see private citizens, individually and collectively, assume a more important role, working beside state diplomats, humanitarian relief professionals and military peacekeepers, as a force againt violence around the world. Citizen intervenors will intervene directly with their physical presence, and indirectly with their efforts to stem weapons proliferation and other policies that encourage state violence. With an exploding population straining its political, economic and natural resources, the future world will need to develop to the fullest its best potential for benign intervention.


Ackerman, Peter and Christopher Kruegler. 1994. Strategic Nonviolence. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Burrowes, Robert. 1996. The Strategv of Nonviolent Defense. Albany, NY: SUNY.

Downton, James Jr. and Paul Wehr. 1996. The Persistent Activist. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Gourley, Scott. 1996. "Arsenal Ship." Popular Mechanics (June).

Griffin-Nolan, Edward. 1991. Witnessfor Peace. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox.

Patfoort, Pat. 1995. Uprooting Violence. Freeport, ME: Cobblesmith.

 Paul Wehr tcaches Sociology at the University of Colorado, Boulder and is currently studying the determinants of long-term peace activism. Correspondence: Department of Sociology, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309, USA. Email: