Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Intervention Reflection

Interventions, whether developmental or medical, are often presented in militaristic language, in which a foreign third-party forcefully enters the scene to right a wrong. Even when the intentions are supposedly peaceful, this framework only exacerbates the pre-existing conflict. However, some version of intervention is sometimes necessary, and is much more effective when conducted by those familiar with the context of conflict, which necessitates time and proximity. Professionalizing intervention would seem to foster neither, because it more rigidly establishes the role of the intervener as an outsider, and usually a transient one at that. Certainly outsiders can and do play a vital role, but outsiders must be intimate with a place in order to intervene respectfully and appropriately, and foreign specialization does not often encourage either one.

A classmate and I had a fascinating conversation regarding John Paul Lederach’s intervention in the Oka crisis. This case study provided fertile space in which to discuss and wrestle with the ethics of intervention. My friend wondered if Lederach’s decision to refuse participation in strategies of violence was an ethical decision, because he believes Lederach is not a stakeholder in this situation and, as a privileged outsider, should present a diversity of tactics to his clients. My friend is wary of solely ideological assumptions of violence and peace which do not attempt to understand their contextual emergence. I am sympathetic to this suspicion, and I agree that Lederach is definitely not a major stakeholder like the First Nation groups are: Lederach’s life is not woven into the texture of those events and thus has the ability to leave at any moment. However, I also think that once Lederach ruptures the sphere of influence by arriving in that place, he cannot now pretend like he is disinterested. His introduction into the ecosystem of conflict not only changes his organismal interactions within it, but his introduction also transforms the ecosystem itself; in this way, he has a stake simply because he is now present. Once we know and have witnessed we are called by the event to respond, whether in action or feigned ignorance.

I understand the point my friend made about presenting a diversity of tactics. However, I think Lederach did allow this to happen in a way. He did not encourage the First Nation groups to give up violent resistance, instead simply opting not to assist in strategizing. This is a valid decision considering his skillset, which does not include strategic planning for violent revolution. Furthermore, polite silence is not the same thing as solidarity; I’m not convinced by imperialistic intervention or by sterile objectivity. Allies should be able to offer insights, advice, and experience, which are all embedded in valuations of the world. Ultimately, the intervener should leave the final decision to the people whose lives are irrevocably intertwined in the context, even if the intervener disagrees with the ultimate decision. But the intervener, as an ally, also has the responsibility to voice concern and to make suggestions. Could Lederach have participated in strategizing for violent resistance by assuming an advocacy role for nonviolent direct action? My friend’s important concern is that renouncing violent revolution often leads to denouncing any form of revolution, effectively shutting the door on both. In the Oka crisis, the First Nation groups’ desire was reclamation of ancestral land, while the government’s only purpose was to dissolve tension. In a way, by not strategizing perhaps Lederach subsidized the government’s aims by ending the confrontation: the government’s goals were met while the First Nation groups were silenced. At this point, he could have played the role of both activist and translator-guide (process design and facilitation).

I empathize with some violent liberation movements, including the second Palestinian intifada. First World activists and peacebuilders run the risk of looking down our condescending noses at the actions of the oppressed without ethnographic studies of what caused such actions. However, phenomenologically, militarized strategies of liberation almost always reproduce the cycle which they sought to overthrow, because they are dependent on the same worldviewing and the same resources (eg. international arms trade) in order to resist empire. The result is more deaths and another repressive regime. As black lesbian feminist poet Audre Lorde said, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine transformation” (Lorde & Clarke, 2007, p. 112-3). For instance, the first Palestinian intifada was predominantly a concerted and mobilized nonviolent revolution, and it paved the way for the Oslo Peace Accords. However, in the aftermath of Oslo’s failure, the second violent intifada began in which suicide bombings drastically increased. Now, the situation on the ground is far worse than it was ten years ago with a massive concrete wall, intensified movement restrictions, and accelerated settlement construction. Because of this, I think the ends and the means must be as commensurate as possible.

Speakin of which, are the roles of activist and carrier-catalyst incommensurate? For instance, could Lederach have negotiated with the government while also siding himself with the First Nation groups? As an intervener, I should not allocate legitimacy completely to one side. I do allocate legitimacy in some instances more to one side than the other, but sole legitimacy would blind me to the suffering and experience of the other, thus reproducing a cycle of violence. By taking sides without allocating sole legitimacy, Lederach could have still functioned as a carrier-catalyst (negotiation) and a bridge builder (trust building) in order to understand what the government was and was not willing to concede to the First Nation groups. As a conduit (active listening and deep communication), Lederach would also have filled the role of the seer (conflict analysis and diagnosis) for the First Nation groups by explaining how far the government would go. The resistance groups could then have made their decision how to respond. If the government’s main aim was to dissolve tension with no intention of compromising, such information would be vital to the strategies of the First Nation groups. As a carrier-catalyst and conduit, Lederach could have then communicated clearly to the government how far the First Nation groups were willing to go in response. As an outsider with such potential connections, Lederach could have enacted multiple parts. The insights gained from these connections could be relayed to the side which the intervener has taken, thus strengthening their position and possible responses.

In such a situation, however, peacebuilders must guard against thinking they can become completely one with the oppressed. There may be some exceptions to this rule, because conversion can happen even while we recognize irreducible differences. In my experience, I have seen “the oppressed” welcome the outsider into their own midst as one of them, as an “other” who is now part of them. Lederach did not have enough time to do so in this situation, which could be part of the problem. As the situation stood, Lederach seemed to have two choices: either represent the First Nations or access them to government. I think some situations could arise in which the first choice is the more appropriate, but in this particular situation Lederach’s mission might have been more successful if he more proactively attempted to connect the First Nation groups to the powers that be so that their legitimate demands could be heard. The government’s willingness (or lack thereof) to cooperate could have been articulated to the First Nation groups; as a conduit and a carrier-catalyst, Lederach could have filled this vital niche. As a seer, I think it would have been appropriate for him to predict what might occur if the current violent resistance escalated, especially considering the superior force and resources of the government.

If presented with a similar scenario, I don’t know what decisions I would have made. My experiences in nonviolent intervention were ad hoc, rooted in the crisis of the moment and the obligation to respond. We had no time to plan or to train, and the important roles of conflict intervention were messily inhabited as we broke bread around a table under the specter of military night raids. At times, this is the only possible response: the willingness to place our political bodies in the midst of the body politic.


Lorde, A. & Clarke, C (ed.). (2007). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Berkeley: Crossing Press.

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