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Imagining a nonviolent response in Sierra Leone

The world community’s lack of imagination as to how to respond when nations deteriorate into chaos is nowhere more clear today than in Sierra Leone, where an eight-year-long civil war is once again spawning a now-familiar cycle of refugees and mass killings.

Though it’s hard to know these days what might shock the conscience of the world, the levels of brutality in this conflict are beyond horrific. Troops loyal to one rebel leader routinely chop off the hands or arms of civilians they suspect of supporting an opponent as the country’s president. Wielding machetes and axes, these butchers operate under the slogan “no hand, no more vote.”

Lest this seem a form of specifically African savagery, it should be noted that severing the limbs of critics was a technique pioneered by the Belgians decades ago to administer the Congo.

In part, the killing goes on because the major powers aren’t interested. Buried in a May 10 article in The New York Times was this line from a Clinton administration official: “What is the United States’ national interest in Sierra Leone? There aren’t any, other than humanitarian interests.” The best the United States has mustered is an offer to airlift peacekeeping troops from someplace else into the combat zone.

The British, whose colony Sierra Leone was until 1961, have likewise sent in troops to extricate their citizens, but have declined to get involved in the conflict itself. A U.N. peacekeeping force is poorly organized and inadequately maintained.

Troops from neighboring African nations, especially Nigeria, might be able to restore order, but for how long? Eventually a scramble would be on for control of Sierra Leone’s lucrative diamond resources, which could easily ignite a new and more dangerous form of regional conflict, as is unfolding today in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire).

The problem, of course, is that any application of military force to stop the bloodshed will be seen to advantage one side, one nation or interest group, at the expense of another; and thus the seeds of new violence are sown.

What is the road not taken in this situation? Perhaps it is time to renew a proposal first floated during the Kosovo crisis in a paper by longtime peace activist Karl Meyer (NCR, June 18, 1999).

In the case of conflict such as that engulfing Sierra Leone, Meyer’s plan called on the U.N. Security Council to identify the conditions for a just settlement. The secretary general would then assemble a “nonviolent army ... led by influential and persuasive figures in the world community.” These figures might include religious leaders such as Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, retired presidents Jimmy Carter and Mikhail Gorbachev, or civil rights veterans such as John Lewis and Andrew Young. This “nonviolent brigade” would put itself between the combatants, physically, and then open negotiations based on the Security Council principles.

The idea is that the moral and political prestige of these leaders, combined with the intense global scrutiny their presence would create, would impel all parties to a nonviolent solution. Because that solution will not have been brokered down the barrel of a gun, it will not be interpreted as a victory for the United States, Nigeria or any other nation.

Advocates of Realpolitik might see such a plan as fanciful. But as Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit said during the Kosovo crisis, “We’ve been conditioned to think of violence as realistic and pacifism as naïve, even though evidence to the contrary is all around us.”

Gumbleton, who said he would be willing to take part in such a nonviolent brigade, acknowledged the potential cost of such an effort. “Of course it involves a risk to your own life,” he said. “We ask military people to lay their lives on the line, and we must be willing to make the same commitment.”

It is impossible to predict whether such a nonviolent strategy might work in Sierra Leone. It is distressing, however, that in all the situation rooms and think tanks where alternatives are explored, this one doesn’t get a hearing.

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2000