or more than a decade now, international actors (governmental, inter-governmental, and humanitarian) have worked to advance civilian protection in contexts of armed conflict. Distinct but related agendas concerning protection of civilians (POC) and the responsibility to protect (R2P) have been institutionalized through international debates and resolutions, and through peace operation practices in such diverse settings as Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia. Canada was instrumental in advancing both agendas, and Canadians continue to be prominent in their study and practice.
Despite these promising normative advances, however, the practical results of these international efforts remain limited and ambiguous. Indeed, as international actors struggle with inadequate resources, uncertain mandates, and insufficient understanding of local actors and contexts, attention has increasingly been focused on local, community-based civilian protection strategies and practices that are often the most creative and reliable ways of surviving, physically, emotionally, and socially.
Practitioners and scholars alike have developed a new appreciation for the extraordinary capacities of diverse groups and communities to navigate through violence. Yet, these local capacities remain inadequately studied and understood. In particular, we still know too little about similarities and differences among civilian self-protection strategies in diverse regional contexts, about how different “ways of knowing” can help us explain these practices, and about how local and international efforts relate to and affect each other, or may even contradict each other.
It was these crucial knowledge gaps, and the policy failings that flow from them, that prompted us to organize an international workshop at the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, Dalhousie University, on “Surviving Violence: Comparative Perspectives.” Organized in collaboration with the Dalhousie-based Resilience Research Centre and Roméo Dallaire’s Child Soldiers Initiative, the goal of this workshop was to build a cross-regional and thematic understanding of the forms of civilian protection and survival in situations of violent conflict and their aftermath, and how these efforts are (mis)understood and (dis)connected from international efforts.
Bringing together scholars, practitioners, and survivors of armed conflict, the workshop reviewed competing theories and methods for the study of civilian protection, with particular emphasis on the relationship between local and international efforts. Participants brought deep understanding of the nature and challenges of civilian and community survival in such diverse and troubled settings as Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Haiti, northern Uganda, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Syria, and South Africa. An evening reception was also held featuring an art exhibition, spoken-word performance, poetry readings, and presentations highlighting the role of the arts in fostering resilience and resistance during mass violence. The public event attracted students, community members, activists, and artists from Halifax and beyond.
The contributions in this OpenCanada.org series reflect a small sample of the rich insights and diverse experiences that were explored in the workshop. As Nils Carstensen notes in his contribution, civilian self-protection will never be sufficient on its own to provide sustainable security for vulnerable communities. Yet, the cases discussed here also make clear that in most situations, local and civilian efforts have proven far more reliable than internationally sponsored and delivered ones. There is a need to build mutual understanding between the groups providing these different forms of protection, and for international actors, in particular, to develop a much stronger appreciation for the creativity, determination, diversity, and accomplishments of local forms of survival.
– David Black with Carla Suarez
David Black is Director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies and Lester B. Pearson Professor of International Development Studies at Dalhousie University.
Carla Suarez is a Trudeau Scholar in the Political Science department at Dalhousie University.
Agents of Change
Evelyn Amony was held by the LRA for 11 and a half years. Here she tells the story of her captivity and her life afterward. Written with Tamara Shaya.
Rebuilding Lives in Uganda
An interview with Ketty Anyeko, about her work helping young women who were abducted by the LRA reintegrate into society.
Survival in the Everyday of Armed Violence
Carla Suarez on the strategies civilians use to protect themselves when faced with violence.
Local Protection / Global Protection
Nils Carstensen on how communities working to protect themselves view outside organizations.
Christina Clark-Kazak on how young Congolese refugees in Uganda protect themselves.
The State of Civilian Protection
An interview with Carla Suarez, co-coordiator of the Surviving Violence workshop, about the aims and successes of the workshop.
Resistance and Suffering
Eliana Suarez on how a group of Peruvian women survived that country’s political violence.