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Last Updated: 01/26/2004
Building Respect for the Sheriff
Timothy A. McElwee

Even in pursuit of the most laudable purposes, the use of military force exacerbates rather than transforms conflict, and perpetuates the cycle of violence and injustice. This is true in compelling cases as well, such as efforts to thwart gross violations of human rights, or for other humanitarian purposes.


Chances are, no matter what our cultural upbringing, we can all easily call to mind scenes from the “Old West” in the United States.  Depictions of cowboys rounding-up cattle on the open range, fights in small town saloons, and of sheriffs trying to maintain civil order serve as the focal points of many of the movies or television shows that provide us with these images.  In many such stories, chaos reigned and violence dominated life in the small town before the sheriff came to town.  One important though seldom appreciated aspect of these accounts is that once the town leaders—often including the “outlaws” as well as the “up-standing citizens”—consented to comply with the rule of law, life improved for the citizens of the town.  That is, once the sheriff (who was sometimes known as the “justice of the peace”) was accepted as the legitimate civil authority, the village progressed in a more peaceful manner and with greater justice for everyone involved.


Of course, civil order in such towns was not always maintained in a consistent and equitable manner.  Every societal institution, whether on the domestic or the international level, is staffed by fallible and corruptible human beings.  At times, the civil authority of an Old West village succumbed to dishonest or unlawful behavior.  On occasion laws that were perceived as biased were forced upon the populace without the full consent of the citizenry.  Sometimes legal disputes were not settled in a timely fashion, nor in a manner that was considered fair and impartial.  In some instances, families or groups of families manipulated village life through undue power and influence.  Despite these obvious shortcomings, what has been called a “culture of compliance”1 was eventually established in the small towns and villages of the Old West and it became possible for the citizens to enforce the norms of peace and justice.  In short, they learned to settle disputes through nonviolent and juridical means.  For centuries, scholars and international theorists have pondered what it might take for civil order, and with it the concomitant attainment of peace with justice, to be created within the global community.  While this metaphor is not entirely applicable to the world stage, there are many pertinent applications of domestic legal instruments to international institutions.  Indeed, more than four decades ago, renowned political theorist Inis Claude urged what he referred to as the “domestication of international relations.”  I believe that the global community would benefit to a much greater extent than the small towns of the Old West if international leaders were to collectively transcend their hesitations and embrace a global peace system based in part on nonmilitary means of enforcing the peace.  This is a formidable challenge because, for reasons far too numerous to recount in this brief essay, nation-states are much more reluctant than the citizens of the prototypical Old West town to entrust their national security to a central authority such as the UN Security Council. 


This attitude prevails despite the low utility and high cost of military force as a means of resolving international disputes.  Accounts of devastating military losses, even by world superpowers such as the U.S. in Vietnam, and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, fill our history books.  Although many are reluctant to do so, we must face the harsh reality that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington illustrate the profound limitations of defining security in strictly military terms.  As was clearly evidenced on September 11, although the United States remains the indisputable global military superpower, it remains extremely vulnerable to devastating attacks from those with vastly inferior military resources and sophistication.  The current U.S.-led war against Iraq has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives, and has cost billions of dollars that could have been used to meet the most pressing human needs.  Worse, from the perspective of many international observers, the world and the United States in particular have grown decidedly less secure following the initial offensive assault and the current military occupation of Iraq.  Rather than thwarting further terrorist attacks—ostensibly one of the overriding goals of the U.S. administration in waging the war against Iraq—the use of overwhelming military prowess has incited further hatred of the U.S. and has flamed the fire of hostility among those who feel victimized by a unilateralist U.S. foreign policy.  The pursuit of a global American empire, maintained by military dominance, plays directly into the hands of terrorists seeking recruits to wage war against what is perceived as U.S. imperialism.  Some scholars have argued that terrorist motivations revolve around the perceived threat to one’s culture, identity or dignity.  Individuals may disagree as to the legitimacy of this or other hypotheses regarding the possible causes of terrorism, but it is clear that none of these possible terrorist motivations can be addressed—and certainly not resolved—through the use of military force. They can be addressed, and the root cause of the conflict much more likely transformed, through nonviolent, diplomatic, and judicial processes.


Even in pursuit of the most laudable purposes, the use of military force exacerbates rather than transforms conflict, and perpetuates the cycle of violence and injustice.  This is true in compelling cases as well, such as efforts to thwart gross violations of human rights, or for other humanitarian purposes.  As Robert Johansen has observed:  

The need to employ military instruments for humanitarian intervention is almost always a sign of international failure to deal with fundamental causes of poverty, prejudice, and inequity. Military means would normally be unnecessary if other instruments were fully utilized in a timely fashion.2

Because nation states are reluctant to place their confidence in, and adequately fund and support multilateral, nonmilitary means of transforming international conflicts, the UN Security Council is unable to fulfill its Charter mandate and maintain peace and security within the global community.  In the process, we all lose.  The international community is in need of other means of peacefully resolving deadly conflicts.  An old aphorism suggests:  “If the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, all of your problems start looking like nails.”  We need many more tools in our collective toolbox if we are to successful address urgent international concerns such as global terrorism and wars of aggression such as we have witness in the U.S.-led war against Iraq.  Former U.S. United Nations Ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, once remarked, “We do not envision a world without conflict; we do envision a world without war. This inevitably requires an alternative security system for dealing with human conflict.”  The global community also needs to place more confidence in effective means of addressing violations of human rights, including war crimes, through impartial international institutions such as the International Criminal Court. 

Although nonmilitary, yet coercive, means of law enforcement hold great promise for promoting international conflict transformation,3 very little research and even fewer financial resources have been committed to its pursuit by the world community.  According the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) the world spent $839 billion in 2001 in pursuit of military solutions to national and international conflict.  If only a fraction of the financial resources currently devoted to military expenditures were committed instead to nonmilitary enforcement actions, the global community would benefit greatly from the effective use of these new tools of conflict transformation.  Such a shift in resource allocations, and the successful application of nonmilitary enforcement actions, would also generate a concomitant increase in international confidence that conflict can be nonviolently and effectively transformed.


One of the more promising such mechanism is what has variously been referred to as a United Nations “rapid deployment force,” or a “permanent UN police force.”  Here it is useful to distinguish between the pursuit of peace and justice through police action and military action.  A concise delineation of these critical points of distinction is provided in a brief report which I co-authored several years ago entitled Nonviolence and Humanitarian Intervention.  The paper distinguishes between police and military action as follows:

1)      Law enforcement, in intent, avoids killing rather than seeking it, as is the case with military combat.

2)      Law enforcement focuses upon individuals suspected of guilt; military combat dehumanizes an enemy people and does not distinguish between the innocent and the guilty.

3)      Law enforcement, when just, seeks to protect, without prejudice, individual rights and interests for the benefit of the whole; military action usually protects special (national) interests.

4)      Domestic police operate, ideally, under clearly defined laws made and agreed to by the community, to which all parties, including officers, are subject; war, in spite of [instruments such as] the Geneva Conventions, is essentially lawless.

5)      Police roles may include community service functions such as linking people with help and offering mediation in conflict, such as family interventions; military action has no such aim.4

A substantial body of literature exists on the topic of a permanent UN police force.5  It has particularly commanded interest among Canadian and European policy analysts regarding its potential application in situations of international hostility.  It is possible to only briefly allude to its potential here.  But I do so to commend its potential to further study, and as a means of illustrating the promise of nonmilitary enforcement mechanisms.  Johansen has provided a concise summary of the significant advantages afforded through a permanent UN civilian police force.  He writes: 

Because it would be dedicated to UN causes, such a force could be specially trained in a way ad hoc forces cannot be. Within the force, specialized units could be highly trained for different missions (e.g., unarmed monitoring, patrolling with executive or enforcement authority, tension-diffusion and crowd control, police training, investigating, witness protection, accompaniment, or arresting indicted war criminals). Its command structure could function more dependably because it would be an integrated force not drawn from national contingents. It could be more rapidly deployed because it would be a standing force, ready at all times, not an ad hoc force to be created after a conflict erupts and moves into stages in which police enforcement becomes far more difficult. Deployment would be more dependable because the decision about whether to deploy would not be held up by national political reluctance to call for deployment that would obligate their own nationals to be placed at risk.6 

Clearly, such a police force would not be a panacea. No doubt there would be instances in which a permanent UN civilian police unit was unable to achieve an effective reduction in hostilities or to create lasting peace out of the fires of a protracted conflict. Of course, similar limitations are also widely evident when attempting to construct peaceful relations through military action.  However, regarding the relative effectiveness of a permanent UN civilian police force, I am encouraged by the observations of Nobel Laureate John Polanyi who offers this helpful insight:


Fire departments and police forces do not always prevent fire or crime, yet they are now widely recognized as providing an essential service.7 

Similarly, a rapid reaction capability may confront conditions beyond its capacity to control. This should not call into question its potential value to the international community.  It is a civilized response to an urgent problem.  Such an international force further illustrates the applicability of domestic instruments of nonmilitary enforcement on the world stage.

To date, one of the most authoritative summaries of the requirements and implementation strategies needed to improve multilateral peace enforcement mechanisms is the Report of the Panel on UN Peace Operations.  Secretary-General Kofi Annan convened this distinguished panel in March 2000 “to undertake a thorough review of the United Nations peace and security activities, and to present a clear set of specific, concrete and practical recommendations to assist the United Nations in conducting such activities better in the future.”  The statement, often referred to as the “Brahimi Report,” (in reference to Lakhdar Brahimi, the former Algerian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Chair of the Panel) was disseminated on August 21, 2000.  Among the many pertinent recommendations provided by the report, the following two major findings are particularly instructive for the purposes of this essay:

1.) Military personnel:

(a) Member States should be encouraged, where appropriate, to enter into partnerships with one another, within the context of the United Nations Standby Arrangements System (UNSAS), to form several coherent brigade-size forces, with necessary enabling forces, ready for effective deployment within 30 days of the adoption of a Security Council resolution establishing a traditional peacekeeping operation and within 90 days for complex peacekeeping operations;

(b) The Secretary-General should be given the authority to formally canvass Member States participating in UNSAS regarding their willingness to contribute troops to a potential operation, once it appeared likely that a ceasefire accord or agreement envisaging an implementing role for the United Nations, might be reached;

(c) The Secretariat should, as a standard practice, send a team to confirm the preparedness of each potential troop contributor to meet the provisions of the memoranda of understanding on the requisite training and equipment requirements, prior to deployment; those that do not meet the requirements must not deploy;

(d) The Panel recommends that a revolving "on-call list" of about 100 military officers be created in UNSAS to be available on seven days’ notice to augment nuclei of DPKO planners with teams trained to create a mission headquarters for a new peacekeeping operation.

2.) Civilian police personnel:

(a) Member States are encouraged to each establish a national pool of civilian police officers that would be ready for deployment to United Nations peace operations on short notice, within the context of the United Nations Standby Arrangements System;

(b) Member States are encouraged to enter into regional training partnerships for civilian police in the respective national pools, to promote a common level of preparedness in accordance with guidelines, standard operating procedures and performance standards to be promulgated by the United Nations;

(c) Members States are encouraged to designate a single point of contact within their governmental structures for the provision of civilian police to United Nations peace operations;

(d) The Panel recommends that a revolving on-call list of about 100 police officers and related experts be created in UNSAS to be available on seven days’ notice with teams trained to create the civilian police component of a new peacekeeping operation, train incoming personnel and give the component greater coherence at an early date;

(e) The Panel recommends that parallel arrangements to recommendations (a), (b) and (c) above be established for judicial, penal, human rights and other relevant specialists, who with specialist civilian police will make up collegial "rule of law" teams.8

As the Panel Report persuasively argues, “force alone cannot create peace; it can only create the space in which peace may be built.”9  If the force employed is nonmilitary—or even more promising, multilateral and nonviolent in nature—the prospects for transforming international disputes and for creating enduring peace will be greatly enhanced.   Fundamentally, of course, it will do little good to create and support nonmilitary enforcement capabilities without a dramatic shift in thinking.  As long as traditional military means are considered the only reliable means of ensuring national security, i.e., the only effective “tools in the toolbox,” countless lives and massive amounts of the world’s resources will be squandered in pursuit of peace through war.  Although it is daunting to consider the challenge of such substantial change in thinking, it is helpful to recall that sweeping attitudinal change has taken place throughout human history.  Just as the widely accepted and pervasive system of slavery was eventually overcome, so the war system can also be abolished in place of nonmilitary, juridical means of conflict transformation.  Such change, of course, cannot take place quickly.  Yet every step in the direction of nonmilitary enforcement brings the world community closer to the promise of a global peace system.  As Johansen has suggested,

If governments reduce their capabilities to conduct offensive military operations and delegitimize the role of military power in international relations generally, the incentives and opportunities for external aggression will decline and the UN’s ability to deter and resist aggression will increase even without the creation of a large UN army.10

Indeed, the “domestication of international relations,” to which Inis Claude referred decades ago, is already taking root within the norms of the global community.  For example, heinous violations of human rights such as genocide are no longer countenanced on either the domestic or the international levels.

For centuries, scholars and international theorists have pondered what it might take for civil order, and with it the concomitant attainment of peace with justice, to be created within the global community.  Through broad support of institutions such as the International Criminal Court, and by advancing alternative means of conflict transformation such by means of a permanent United Nations police force, the world community can devise the means to settle even the most intractable international disputes through nonviolent and juridical means.   And despite the current reluctance of many international leaders to entrust their national security to a central authority such as the UN Security Council, as the global community grows more inter-dependent, it becomes increasingly attractive to embrace procedures and institutions that support the rule of law.  Each of these challenging yet important advancements will further enable the citizens of the world to make peace through peaceful means.






1 See Robert C. Johansen, “The Future of United Nations Peacekeeping and Enforcement: A Framework for Policymaking,” Global Governance 2 (1996), 304.

2 Robert C. Johansen, “Limits and Opportunities in Humanitarian Intervention,” in The Ethics and Politics of Humanitarian Intervention , by Stanley Hoffmann, et al (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996) 70.

3 I use the term conflict transformation intentionally in this piece. It is preferred over more common terms such as conflict resolution (which often implies that conflict is somehow “bad,” is short term, and can be permanently ended), and conflict management (which tends to objectify people and social groups and suggests that those caught-up in volatile conflicts can be controlled). For further elaboration of the term conflict transformation, see the writings of John Paul Lederach, e.g., his work, “Conflict Transformation: The Case for Peace Advocacy,” in NGO’s and Peacemaking: A Prospect for the Horn , ed. Menno Wiebe (Waterloo, Ont: Conrad Grebel College, 1989), or Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 1997), among other publications.

4 Church of the Brethren General Board (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1996), study committee members: Dale Aukerman, Kenneth Brown, Celia Cook-Huffman, Robert Johansen, Kimberly McDowell, and Timothy McElwee.

5 See, e.g., the excellent Canadian study, Towards a Rapid Reaction Capability for the United Nations (Ottowa: Government of Canada, 1995); Robert C. Johansen, Overlooked and Underutilized: International Enforcement by United Nations Civilian Police , unpublished manuscript presented at the International Studies Annual Convention, March 17–21, 1998; George Monbiot, “Who Guards the Guards?” in the December 10, 2002 edition of the Guardian . In addition, see HR 4453, The United Nations Rapid Deployment Police and Security Force Act of 2000 , a bill introduce in the U.S. House of Representatives

whose purpose was “to encourage the establishment of a United Nations Rapid Deployment Police and Security Force.”

6  Robert C. Johansen, Overlooked and Underutilized: International Enforcement by United Nations Civilian Police, unpublished paper presented at the International Studies Association Annual Convention, March 17-21, 1998, 14.

7 Quoted in Johansen, Overlooked and Underutilized: International Enforcement by United Nations Civilian Police, 15.

8  Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, August 21, 2000, Summary Recommendations.

9 Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, August 21, 2000, Executive Summary.

10  Robert C. Johansen, , “The Future of United Nations Peacekeeping and Enforcement: A Framework for Policymaking,” Global Governance 2 (1996), 310-11.

The author is Plowshares Associate Professor of Peace Studies at Manchester College (Indiana, USA)