Nonviolent Peaceforce director stepping down…but not out


“I’m often credited as one of the founders, which is sort of like someone being credited with founding soap.”

That’s what Mel Duncan said while reflecting on his role as the founder and executive director of Nonviolent Peaceforce. After launching Nonviolent Peaceforce in a spare bedroom in his Saint Paul home and watching it grow over the past six years into a highly respected peacekeeping organization, Duncan is getting ready to turn over the reins to a new executive director.

Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) is an international, nongovernmental organization providing unarmed peacekeeping forces to areas throughout the world. By invitation, trained peacekeepers work with local groups –called “member organizations”—to protect human rights and deter violence.

Quickly outgrowing Duncan’s spare room, NP now is located in an old building near Loring Park in Minneapolis. They have also expanded globally, with offices in three other locations—Belgium, Philippines, and Sri Lanka. However, NP’s success did not surprise Duncan. “We expected it to grow bigger, faster,” said Duncan. “Our reach should always exceed our grasp.”

According to Duncan, NP’s roots trace back, in part, to Gandhi’s work in developing a Shanti Sena (or peace army). In the 1980s, several organizations adopted this concept and established peace teams to help civilians in violent regions of Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Philippines and South Africa. In the United States, other groups used peacekeeping strategies to defuse tension between Native Americans and whites regarding tribal fishing rights in Northern New York and Northern Wisconsin. These events formed the foundation of nonviolent Peaceforce.

“There were so many different things that went into Nonviolent Peaceforce that, at a particular moment, we were able to focus the resources on growing the scale, the scope, the professionalism and the international character of civilian unarmed peacekeeping,” said Duncan.

Today, NP has peacekeepers from 22 countries, each enriching the program with their own cultures and perspectives. Peacekeepers commit to two years; in return, NP pays for all training as well as covers lodging, food, medical care and other expenses. NP also provides each peacekeeper with an $800 monthly stipend. Duncan believes any compensation NP gives the peacekeepers is the least they could do. NP sends peacekeepers to some of the most violent regions of the world armed only with the NP vest and hat. “They put their lives in danger,” said Duncan.

On a recent trip to Mindanao in the southern Philippines, Duncan noticed the violence had escalated to the point where rebel forces had taken over several communities and the armed forces were shelling civilian communities. He watched his unarmed peacekeepers help get civilians out of the crossfire. After they thought everyone was safe, the peacekeepers learned one family’s paraplegic grandmother was still trapped behind the fighting. “Our peacekeepers were able to get a temporary lull in the fighting and go back across the lines to get grandma.”

Without NP, Duncan realizes the struggles of many innocent people trapped in war-torn regions might go unknown. “In the most violent places in the world today, there are creative and courageous peace-builders and, more often than not, that work is being done by women. What these women told us time and time again is isolation kills. If there is no consequence to their deaths they’re much more likely to be disappeared.”

For this reason, Duncan knows that in addition to protecting human rights and deterring violence, NP plays a vital role in creating a space for the local peace-builders to do their job without fear. “No one can really make anyone else’s peace for them,” said Duncan. “That’s the job of local, directly affected people.”

Duncan believes their ground operation is critical to provide direct assistance to people in need. However, he also wants government leaders to understand they can resolve conflicts without military force. “You can come in with guns and armed personnel carriers and dominate people but you’re not sowing the seeds for democracy.”

In June, Duncan and several other NP members participated in a United Nations briefing for members of the Security Council to help them better understand the importance of unarmed civilian peacekeeping. Their hope is one day the UN will establish a similar program. Future UN meetings are expected; however, Duncan does not anticipate any immediate action. “With the UN, you track progress in terms of millimeters…it’ll be a while.”

Duncan helped NP grow into a highly respected organization that is endorsed by nine Nobel Peace Laureates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Now, as NP strives to reach higher goals, Duncan recognizes it is time for new leadership. NP’s governing council is currently winding down an international search for a new executive director; Duncan expects a new executive director will join the staff by year’s end.

With the change in directors also comes a change in operations. The new director will operate from their Brussels office. Duncan; however, expects to continue working in the Minneapolis office, focusing on external relations, special projects and fundraising. “Fifty percent of our funds come from donations in the U.S., so that will still be done out of here.”

Although he soon will no longer be the executive director, Duncan sees the change as good for NP’s continued growth. He believes NP would benefit from someone with more large-scale management skills. “I’m a start-up guy,” said Duncan. “The organization has outgrown me…a good organizer knows when to step aside.”

As Duncan prepares to hand over operations to the new director, he is encouraged by the changes he sees occurring throughout the world thanks to the work of Nonviolent Peaceforce. It repeatedly demonstrates that with properly trained peacekeepers working to resolve conflicts, nonviolence works.

“Communities have within themselves the ability to heal themselves,” said Duncan. “It’s just sometimes there is such external trauma that they need support and intervention to heal. We get them back to that place where they can heal themselves.”

Deb Pleasants worked as a probation officer for 15 years prior to becoming a stay-at-home-mom. In addition to caring for her son, she is a freelance writer and citizen journalist. She resides in St. Paul with her family.