How civilian observers could prevent a march towards war in Ukraine.

How civilian observers could prevent a march towards war.

It appears, from the scenes on television of soldiers marching into Crimea, discussions about a buildup of troops and the increasingly polarised way in which the different actors in Ukraine, Crimea, and Russia are portrayed, that a violent conflict and war is on the cards.

Obama’s call for observers to be sent to the region is welcome because we know from peace research by Jean Paul Lederach that in reality most people living their daily lives want to live peacefully and we can imagine they are united by a fear of widespread military action. Civilian observers are a step towards a peaceful resolution.

A march towards war, the deployment of troops, and the massive loss that such a violent response to this conflict would bring is by no means an inevitable consequence of the current situation because we know that many options remain open to end this conflict peacefully. Trained civilian observers, or nonviolent peacekeepers, deployed across the region can play a crucial role in reducing fear and de-escalating the many interrelated conflicts which make up the big picture. They can report information, investigate rumours of violence and employ soft power to encourage mediation and negotiation across borders, in communities and feeding up to a national and international level.

It is clear that the situation is far more complex than can be portrayed in a 10 minute TV news bulletin or in a page of the newspaper. History, exclusion, cultures, inequality and ideological differences all play their role. The suggestion that the blunt tool of military action is likely to succeed in anything but further polarisation, loss of life and destruction of infrastructure must be challenged. It is no doubt that the arms manufacturers and dealers are already trying to persuade governments and decision makers that war is inevitable, but investment in the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), INGOs, and the UN, to enable them to get trained monitors and observers on the ground quickly would give us the chance to avoid a conflict which could easily escalate if we allow it to be led by military forces.

State led diplomatic efforts are backed up with an implied threat of military force (hard power) and add to the impression that violence is necessary component of the solution to the conflict, but a multi-track or citizen diplomatic response uses soft, or persuasive, power widening options for a peaceful resolution.
We know that a resolution to the conflict can only be achieved directly by the parties involved through negotiating together. At this stage the priority should be maintaining and strengthening the lines of communications between all the parties involved, including the government level, civil society actors, religious leaders, business federations and academics. It is unhelpful for external actors to make statements which drive parties further apart (by demonising or excluding a relevant party), imply that they have a solution in mind or act as if they are getting ready for military action.

What could be done by civilian observers?
Civilian peacekeepers or observers can help those who are marginalised and excluded to have their voices heard and open channels of communication which would help to resolve the conflict peacefully. By visiting communities across Ukraine, collecting real information, identifying and supporting those who are working for peace, and reassuring those are fearful and excluded they can ensure popular support is mobilised for a peaceful resolution and not support military action. By bringing conflict resolution skills, expertise and strategic planning to decision makers they can open the options (if no government advisors understand how conflict resolution can be carried out from a strategic and operational perspective, then they can’t easily take that option).
Unarmed civilian peacekeeping is a tried and tested method in areas affected by violence, but it must be accompanied by acceptance from the parties to the conflict and access to a range of local and national actors who will eventually work through a network together.

Let’s not march blindly, thinking military action is inevitable before the conflict resolvers have worked together, built networks, relationships and trust. Peace should be the expected result, not war.

Dr. Rachel Julian lectures in Peace Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University and has been discussing the crisis this week with peace and development students. You can find out more about studying peace studies from her by emailing


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