Huibert Oldenhuis – Nonviolent Peaceforce – interview with Meditation Magazine

  • Advertisment

  • Introduction

    Kevin Ellerton: We’re really challenging how people think about safety and security from a nonviolent angle. That’s where the philosophy of nonviolence comes to fruition. We’re really thinking about interdependence. I’m not trying to be safe from you by eliminating you or isolating you, which is a traditional paradigm of false protection. I either eliminate you so that you’re not a threat to me, or I isolate you or myself so that we are far from each other, and in that sense, I am safe from you. It’s a limited strategy.

    What we’re looking at and working towards is being safe with each other by getting closer to you, even though you are scary and maybe you’ve done terrible things to me. Getting to know you, and you getting to know me, and me going in there without carrying any weapons and saying I am no threat to you. I am the one who’s disarming first. When I come to you with a sense of vulnerability, then there may be a chance that I can be safe with you. Of course, that is not so easy to do, but that’s ultimately the direction we’re heading in when talking about the philosophy of nonviolence.

    I’d like to introduce our audience to Huibert Oldenhuis, the global head of programming at Nonviolent Peaceforce. With over 20 years of experience in peacekeeping, Huibert has worked as an international observer and peace educational coordinator for Peace Brigades International in Indonesia, associate expert for the United Nations Regional Center for Peace and Disarmament in Nepal, and after joining Nonviolent Peaceforce in 2012, he has served as an international protection officer in South Sudan, head of mission and program manager in Myanmar, and now serves as the global head of programming for Nonviolent Peaceforce since 2021. A very long and impressive resume in keeping the peace in places all around the world. Thank you for being here with us today, Huibert.

    Huibert Oldenhuis: Thanks for having me, it’s a pleasure.

    Overview of Nonviolent Peaceforce

    Kevin Ellerton: As you know, we are currently organizing the peace issue of Meditation Magazine, focusing on nonviolent means for achieving peace in the world. Peace in the world is obviously a big goal, and we take it bit by bit and step by step. Huibert, I’ve listened to some of your interviews and I know that you’re very focused on doing what you can where you are. I know that Nonviolent Peaceforce has a very tactical approach to bringing safety to civilians and peace in whatever regions are needed at the moment. I want to have a conversation with you today that spans the philosophy of nonviolence, Nonviolent Peaceforce’s philosophy, and also tactics, effectiveness, and where these things can be applied and how they can be applied in a safe way.

    Philosophy of Nonviolence

    First, I’d just like to ask you a broad question about the philosophy of Nonviolent Peaceforce. Is nonviolence mainly about effectiveness, or is it about morality, or is it about something else?

    Huibert Oldenhuis: Yeah, it’s a good question. I would say it may start as effectiveness. I don’t think our staff has a moral obligation to assume a principal stance of embodying nonviolence in their lives. But as a staff member of Nonviolent Peaceforce, you obviously need to make a commitment to nonviolence during the duration of your contract. That is on the job, but also it’s a 24/7 thing. You can’t, especially living in a conflict-affected community, drop your nonviolence in the evening and get involved in fistfights and then go back to your work the next day. So there is definitely a commitment to nonviolence that adheres to all staff.

    I think the founders of NP definitely had a lot of deep conviction about nonviolence, and I think for staff there are deeper and deeper layers of nonviolence that can be accessed. Nonviolence for Nonviolent Peaceforce is more than just the absence of weapons. We really feel that nonviolence is not the opposite of violence, but it’s an antidote. It’s more than not having weapons. The more our staff embodies that in their work, the more effective they are in doing that, even though it may initially come from a pure strategic conviction of civilians not having guns.

    When we come into a place of conflict, you have a culture of violence. Thinking that you can use violent means in order to get to a nonviolent society is a bit of an illusion. So in that sense, what we’re trying to bring in is a different way of thinking. When it comes to safety and security, which is really our bread and butter when it comes to Nonviolent Peaceforce, we’re not an organization that focuses on civil disobedience or civil resistance, which is a part of nonviolence that most people are more familiar with. We’re really sticking to the application of nonviolence in the context of safety and security.

    Effectiveness of Nonviolence

    Kevin Ellerton: What you’re talking about is very much about effectiveness, but there is also almost a spiritual component to it. When you’re talking about being safe with each other rather than from each other, there’s a real deep beauty in that—a spiritual beauty of togetherness rather than separateness. With Meditation Magazine, we are constantly exploring this coming to unity rather than a sense of separation. I believe that when I was talking to the executive director of NP, she recommended you because you have your own mindfulness or meditation practice. Is that right? Do you have a mindfulness and meditation practice, and if so, how do you feel that connects with this work?

    Huibert Oldenhuis: For me, it’s an incredible combination. I started with meditation at the beginning of my career because I heard myself doing trainings on nonviolent communication. I was like, am I doing this myself? Am I even believable if I talk about these things in areas where there’s conflict? Especially for a person who grows up in Europe without any kind of real conflict around, you cannot be believable. That was a bit of a crisis for myself, and I felt I needed to go in and at least look at the conflicts in my own mind. We all have our conflicts, and it’s just a question of digging deeper. That brought me to meditation and spiritual practice.

    The deeper I go into that, the more it reveals itself, and the more I see the parallels between doing inner peacebuilding work with the demons within my own mind. The more I deal with my own fears, whatever they are, the more I can get a sense of how people are dealing with fears from an armed actor or a perpetrator of violence. It’s maybe a very poor reflection of that, but I feel that the more I can do my own work, the more believable I am when I talk about nonviolence. We’re talking about nonviolence to people whose families have been killed by armed forces, so it is quite something to talk about nonviolence in that sense.

    My spiritual practice is a constant aid to my practice of unarmed civilian protection, and also vice versa. The practice of doing this work is also challenging. Can you go deeper into this? Can you practice what you preach? Can you really see someone who is a human rights violator or perpetrator of violence as redeemable? Can you see the tragic expression of unmet needs that drive this person to violence? When I’m working with my own hang-ups and demons in a meditation practice and see how difficult it is to change, to take certain habits that I have and get rid of them or become more loving, kind, and compassionate—even though I have received all the love in the world and it’s still so difficult for me—that sort of really helps me when I’m in a context of violence where people have been steeped in violence. Everyone around them is encouraging them to be violent and to express hatred. Naturally, compassion comes forth from that, and that helps me to do my work better.

    Kevin Ellerton: Thank you. That’s a very deep answer about how meditation can show you the dark parts of your own self and how this can give you compassion for other people. That is a very powerful aspect to it. I also see another aspect to the meditation interfacing with the nonviolent peace work that you’re doing, where meditation connects you with the oneness of existence or the unity of the universe. The interbeing, if we use Thich Nhat Hanh’s words, the interdependence. When you were talking about being safe with each other rather than from each other, it gave me that feeling of connectedness, oneness, unity.

    Do you feel a connection between your own meditation practice and how that feels with connection, unity, interdependence, interbeing, and also with the nonviolent peace work? Do you feel a connection or a synchrony there?

    Huibert Oldenhuis: Absolutely. The deeper I go into my spiritual practice, the more I go deeper into the interdependence and impermanence of nature, and the more I see that as a reality. Seeing that, applying nonviolence through Nonviolent Peaceforce and seeing how the paradigm of force protection and violence is, in my opinion, a violation or a moving away from the way the world is. The reality is one of interdependence. In that sense, nonviolence becomes an alignment to the nature of reality, whereas violence becomes an infraction of that and goes against the grain.

    For me, our work on nonviolence becomes more meaningful in that sense. The deeper we go into the practice of unarmed protection and the relational aspect—because force protection is really using weapons and relying on force to separate, to isolate. Unarmed civilian protection using nonviolence is a recognition of the interdependence, like I said before. It is deeply relational, seeing the interdependence of those relationships within a community connected to armed actors. Some people are fighting

    by day and at night they pass through a village and are part of an armed group. It’s very messy and interconnected in that sense.

    You see the relational aspects of safety and security. It’s not like we’re in a mechanistic paradigm, thinking we can go into a community, fix something, take it out, and leave the community unchanged. That’s how the violent paradigm takes place. You see it in prisons, where we take criminal elements from society and isolate them as if society is some sort of clockwork and not an organism constantly changing. What I like in transitional justice or transformative justice is the notion that crime is a fault of the whole society. It’s the responsibility of the whole organism of this interdependent connection that has produced a crime, and it’s a problem for all of us. So the idea is not “get out of here” but “get in here.”

    Kevin Ellerton: What you’re talking about is creating this interdependence and almost a kindred spirit, love, brotherhood type of thing within these communities that you’re going into. Rather than trying to keep them apart, you’re putting them together, bringing them in rather than pushing them out. To some people, it can sound like this hippie-dippy thing, like “peace and love, we’re going to make everyone brothers and hold hands.” It can sound like that, but the truth is it sounds like that would lead to a much more stable peace. When you bring people together rather than separating them, they’re not going to crash back together at some point. They may crash back together as soon as the gap is breached, the security is breached, and there’s war or violence again. When you bring them together, there’s no more gap to be crashed. There’s no more security to be breached. Everything is actually healed rather than just a Band-Aid. It’s actually a cure.

    One of the conflicts I’ve been exploring very deeply recently in our interviews is the Israel-Palestine conflict. Personally, as somebody of Jewish heritage, it’s something very close to my heart. To imagine, rather than separated peoples being secure from each other and afraid of each other, to imagine the peoples of that region being brothers and friends, to imagine that kind of peace in that region almost brings tears to my eyes. If I was doing a breathwork meditation, I would be crying about that right now. I want to get more into specifics later in terms of resolving conflicts. Right now, I’m thinking about the tactics you guys use on the ground for Nonviolent Peaceforce. Again, one of those kind of hippie-dippy things where it’s like, “Oh, hippies like to go and play in the field with flowers.” But you guys are going into war zones and putting down weapons in the face of people with actual weapons. You’re facing things that most people, even military people, would be afraid to face. It takes a lot of courage to do that.

    How do you go into these war zones and places where there are people with weapons that may sometimes be aimed at you or people around you? How do you go into these with no weapons and do things to de-escalate the conflicts while keeping yourselves and civilians around you safe?

    Tactics and Security Measures

    Huibert Oldenhuis: Yeah, I think that’s a good question. Just to downplay the aspect of courage, we’re not going out and wandering off into a conflict zone waving a peace banner. We talked about very elevated ideals, and these are paired with very practical and pragmatic choices. It comes from a very deep analysis of what’s going on the ground, first of all, and really being aware of what you can do and what you cannot do.

    For us, what is also very important when it comes to tactics and methods are the principles behind it. For example, our nonpartisanship: we’re not taking sides for this group or that group. We’re not getting involved in solutions or advocating for specific solutions like, “This party should be tried and this other party is at fault and this should happen.” We refrain from that kind of finger-pointing. There is good work in human rights advocacy that really puts the finger where it hurts and shows teeth towards perpetrators, calling them out, but that’s not our business. We are really there to focus on safety and security.

    Our nonpartisanship, our principle of not taking sides, our nonviolence, and our transparency—we’re very transparent about who we are and what we’re doing. We want people to know where we’re going and what we’re doing. We don’t want to be caught by surprise. We’re really focusing on what the communities do and how we can support them. They are the ones who often lead; they are the ones making decisions, and we’re creating that space. We’re really staying within our lane and knowing what that lane is.

    A very practical example is the issue of crossfire situations. We’ve encountered that a lot in Myanmar and the Philippines. Before, we built relationships with actors on both sides. They know who we are and what we’re doing. Because of that relationship, we may be able to call upon them when there is a firefight and there are farmers caught in the crossfire, wrong time, wrong place. There have been instances where we have called upon both sides, saying, “Can you stop shooting for half an hour because there are farmers there, one person got shot and needs to go to a hospital, can we get that person out?” In some cases, we have been able to do that, or local groups we work with have been able to do that. Why? Because they know us or the local group, and they know that we’re not interfering with their conflict. We’re not there to say, “You should stop fighting.” We’re not there to document human rights violations or point fingers. We’re really staying in our lane, saying, “Our business here is to get that person out and to a hospital.” In many instances, sure, there’s targeted violence where armed groups specifically target civilians. They may want to starve them or use rape as a weapon of war—that’s a little bit different. But there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit where violence is avoidable, and we start there. Then, as our power increases and our relationships grow stronger, we may touch on more sensitive issues.

    In the issue of crossfire, those armed groups don’t necessarily want to shoot civilians. It gets back to them, and they are accused by the communities. They don’t want to display that image. The fact that we can get that person out is very much appreciated by both sides. Our security is linked to our behavior, our precision, our analysis, our relationship, and acceptance of those armed groups. If we do not have that acceptance, it’s a different story. If we have a lot of acceptance from those groups, we may even be able to go further, saying, “You are recruiting children in your armed groups. What about that? Can we talk about that? This is not in accordance with international human law.” If we have that relationship, we may weigh in more, but that really depends on our level of acceptance and what the context looks like.

    Kevin Ellerton: Your security depends on your relationships with the combatants. They know you, know you’re there for a good reason, and they’re accepting and sometimes even happy that you’re there. That’s what ensures your security.

    Huibert Oldenhuis: Sure, but they may not always be happy that we are there, or one side may not be happy that we’re there. We have to be careful and see how far we can tread. In some instances, we may not be accepted by one side and have to step back and work more with communities on self-protection. There may be instances where groups are outlawed by the government, making it illegal to engage with them. Our acceptance depends on government permits and visas. We may not be able to engage with an armed group like that. There are still ways to engage with their constituencies and show what we’re doing, but sometimes we focus on enhancing the self-protection of communities rather than having a more proactive response that engages with perpetrators or armed groups.

    Kevin Ellerton: How do you keep yourselves safe in situations where perpetrators or armed actors are attacking and not recognizing you or wanting you to be there? How do you keep yourselves safe while doing that type of work, and how do you keep civilians safe?

    Huibert Oldenhuis: That’s a very difficult dilemma. We often tell our staff that you can only get shot one time. We don’t want to risk our lives and be reckless. We’re very careful about going into specific places, and there might be places where we simply cannot go or cannot yet go. We have to pull back, as heartbreaking as that sometimes is for staff who have done so much work on it. Sometimes we have to take a step back, and that’s just the reality of it. In Ukraine right now, our teams are there amid heavy attacks, and there’s no way of stopping that. There are very careful security management strategies where we calculate whether we want to go to a specific area today because there’s a high alert. If we really need to go, how many people is it essential to go in? For how long can we stay there? We have protective gear in Ukraine, and we did a lot of getting protective gear for local communities who went into the front lines to get people evacuated from areas. In those circumstances, we just have to do a lot of analysis, making sure that we have the protection we need. Sometimes that means we can’t do it today.

    Aspiration to Resolve Conflicts

    Kevin Ellerton: You mentioned ensuring security rather than trying to resolve conflicts by pointing fingers. However, you talked about nonviolence as something that can resolve conflicts through security together rather than from each other. Do you have any aspiration to help resolve conflicts? Have any conflicts you’ve seen been resolved at least in part or in whole through these means of nonviolence?

    Huibert Oldenhuis: Most of these are examples of more local conflicts rather than overarching national or regional-level conflicts. For example, in South Sudan, there were inter-communal conflicts, cyclical revenge killings, and so forth. Our teams brought communities together. We’re not necessarily trained mediators; our focus is on safety and security. At some point, if those communities are open to it, we find a local mediator willing to mediate between different communities. Sometimes these mediators themselves feel unsafe to go there. We may do the security assessment for them, provide protective accompaniment, and bring them there. We may have preparatory conversations with both sides. When the mediation event takes place, we hold a visible presence in that space, saying, “We’re not here to solve the issue, but to hold the space.”

    People think of mediation as one point in time, sitting at the table or around a tree. That’s just the point where we’re there and not doing very much. But then there’s an agreement between the two groups or communities. Our role is to follow up, monitor the implementation, and make sure it holds. In South Sudan, a month later, two youths killed someone or stole cattle, and the whole conflict was back. Over nine months, we brought the communities together about 20 times before the conflict stopped. Sometimes it’s years later, and it may erupt again. We see a sense of resolution working from a perspective of safety and security toward longer-term resolution.

    Those examples are more on a local level rather than the big conflicts in the news.

    Applicability on a Larger Scale

    Kevin Ellerton: It sounds like the smaller the conflict, the easier it is to resolve with these means. The larger it is, the harder it is to resolve with these means. What you’re doing is holding space, allowing people to be there together, bringing an energy of peace rather than conflict to the conversation, and allowing them to resolve things for themselves. Can this be implemented on a large scale in world conflicts like Ukraine, Israel-Palestine, Yemen, Syria?

    Huibert Oldenhuis: I think it comes back to embodying nonviolence and believing in it, knowing it works. Holding that space becomes different rather than seeing people as irredeemable. The presence influences how you hold that space and lean into discomfort, like every meditator dealing with discomfort. In conversations with local community members and the military, they were shouting, feeling intimidated. The sense of inferiority snapped back. When we debriefed, our staff felt uncomfortable. Some community members felt uncomfortable but also felt it was good because they went through it. Holding that space means letting it be uncomfortable and not fixing everything.

    Regarding larger conflicts, it’s easy to discard nonviolence in bigger conflicts. We often get into the conversation of nonviolence not working in the case of Hitler. It’s a zero-sum game. I want to stay out of that black-and-white conversation. We need to try, even if it starts small. Nonviolence is initially counterintuitive and requires creativity. It’s a bit of a martial art, not living up to our best expectations but to the level of our training. If we’re not investing in training, we won’t manifest it when the time comes. Nonviolence is the middle way between flight and fight. It may not always be applicable now, but it’s easy to discard. We need to build that muscle memory and train ourselves for when conflicts erupt.

    Kevin Ellerton: You mentioned not getting involved in conversations of violence to fix big conflicts like Hitler. It’s something we explore in the peace issue, centered in nonviolence. People always bring up Hitler as an example, saying nonviolence wouldn’t have stopped the Nazis. They argue there’s a need for violence in some situations. ChatGPT, a super-intelligent AI, responded by saying we need to think about things in a nuanced way, applying nonviolence where it can be applied but keeping in mind that it may not always work. Spiritual leaders have a strong confidence that nonviolence can always work. Do you have that confidence, or do you think some situations require other means?

    Huibert Oldenhuis: I think nonviolence can always be applied. There have been groups applying nonviolence in Ukraine and research on nonviolence within jihadi contexts. I’m always surprised by that. I struggle with this question a lot. It’s good for us to struggle. If we’re not sold on it, we have a duty to explore further. There is a place for nonviolence, and we need to explore that space always. However, we may need to rely on force protection if we’re unprepared. Sometimes Nonviolent Peaceforce relies on evacuation by UN helicopters. I don’t want to be too idealistic. I think the Dalai Lama said something about wielding weapons with nonviolence training, using force like a parent leading a child away from danger, with compassion. It’s difficult to do with militaries, but accountability can be an act of love. We need to find a combination of force protection with nonviolence. Using force or violence brings us further from a nonviolent society. It’s toxic to use a weapon. If we want a nonviolent society, Gandhi was right about the ends and means. Using force may be a solution now, but we must step back and use force without vengeance, with precision. It’s hard because we always say a little force now, then back to nonviolence, but that point is imaginary. It’s not a clear answer, and I keep struggling with it.

    Kevin Ellerton: It’s a hard question. We may not resolve it by the time we print the magazine. Maybe it’s unanswerable. We have to keep fighting with it, not opt out or go all-in on force. We need to keep having this conversation and find the least harmful ways possible. I liked your example of using force with nonviolence training. The “how” matters if there’s a necessary military response. Military responses can look different and create different effects. You mentioned people applying nonviolent strategies in Ukraine and jihadi contexts. These are examples of ideological conflicts. How do you implement nonviolence in those circumstances?

    Implementing Nonviolence in Ideological Conflicts

    Huibert Oldenhuis: Everyone is reliant on something and someone. Jihadis and those firmly believing in violence depend on people around them, means, and wealth. In the case of jihadis, it’s often communities influencing those actors. Mothers and community members point them to their responsibilities, holding them up to their ideas of protecting communities. That’s powerful. In our work, local groups engage with armed groups, pointing out when they go astray. They hold them accountable to their promises of protection. This can be very powerful.

    There are also ways of applying pressure. In Nonviolent Peaceforce’s work, we accompany human rights defenders to investigations, informing police related to the targeting. This puts pressure on them. Armed groups may want a clean record to become peacekeepers, or they want to be seen doing the right thing. They don’t want to go to court. There are strings to pull that put pressure on those committed to violence. It may not work everywhere, but there are ways of applying pressure, sometimes subtly, on people. Armed groups may not want to go to battle but feel they need to. Our behavior, precision, analysis, relationships, and acceptance protect us. If we don’t have acceptance, it’s a different story. Acceptance from both sides allows us to go further.

    Kevin Ellerton: It’s a difficult question. Maybe it’s arrogant to think we can resolve these questions, but we can explore them. Exploration is important to understand what we can do and should do. Maybe over centuries, our species will figure these things out.

    I have a couple more questions. One question is about interacting with our audience and community. Some push back against the idea of peace through nonpartisanship. They believe you should point fingers at aggressors or perpetrators. You mentioned a place for that. What is a good way for individuals not in the conflict to relate to these conflicts? Should we point fingers or foster mutual understanding?

    Approaching Conflict

    Huibert Oldenhuis: It depends on your outlook and strengths. I admired human rights defenders and civil resisters, but realized that’s not me. I’m more of a connector, peace builder, and bridge builder. There is great benefit in activism and decisively partisan people who hold those in power accountable. It’s important but not everyone has to do that. With polarization, people feel they have to take a stance. Leaning into complexity and standing in the middle is seen as cowardice. Individuals need to find out their way to contribute to a better society. Are you a connector, peace builder, activist, or humanitarian? Different skills and dispositions contribute in different ways.

    Kevin Ellerton: That’s a deep answer. Pointing fingers and taking sides can create polarization, expanding conflicts globally and intensifying them on the ground. It can be problematic but helpful in certain circumstances. For example, the Russia-Ukraine conflict seems one-sided, but in other conflicts like Israel-Palestine, it’s not so clear. There are valid feelings and reasons on both sides. Do you believe there are one-sided conflicts, or are all conflicts two-sided? How should that influence our approach—pointing fingers or bringing people together?

    Huibert Oldenhuis: Every conflict is two-sided, but not necessarily equally two-sided. There are always perspectives, even deluded ones. There’s always a gap in understanding the other’s humanity, interests, and needs. Some conflicts are clearly asymmetric, with a clear perpetrator. It may determine how you approach a conflict, but it’s about what you can do to contribute to resolution.

    Starting with the most hurt and insecure people, regardless of sides, helps. In asymmetric conflicts, those most affected are often on one side, but we don’t exclude targeted people on the other side. It may be a small percentage, but they’re equally welcome. It depends on your approach and perspective.

    Kevin Ellerton: My last question is about what individuals can do to help contribute to peace and reduce violence. We often feel powerless in the face of global conflicts. Is there anything we can do?

    Huibert Oldenhuis: It’s important to start where you are. We have an overload of information, and it feels like we can’t impact large issues. It’s overpowering and depressing. Local communities in conflict-affected areas often start with small actions. For example, in Myanmar, communities engaged with military actors for ceasefire work. Some felt unprepared, but they could hold victims’ hands after incidents. Starting there, they built confidence and did more. It’s about bringing back a sense of agency. What can you do where you are? How do you behave with the person next to you, on your street, in the supermarket?

    I recall a Buddhist prayer: “May I be loving, open, and aware in this moment. If I cannot, may I be kind. If not kind, non-judgmental. If not non-judgmental, may I not cause harm. If I can’t cause no harm, may I cause the least possible harm.” It’s a reminder that we have a choice to move closer to being loving and open. Sometimes we’re overwhelmed, but it’s about training that muscle memory and keeping at it. Meditation helps, and it’s a constant work in progress.

    Kevin Ellerton: Thank you, Huibert. Your words remind me of the story of the little girl throwing starfish back into the ocean. Someone says she can’t save them all, but she replies it mattered for that one. Starting where you are and being of peace, service, and kindness helps. While we may not stop a war, it helps those in front of us and creates ripple effects. The more people doing these acts, the more peaceful the world becomes. Thank you for joining us, Huibert Oldenhuis, the global head of programming for Nonviolent Peaceforce. This will be featured in the Meditation Magazine peace issue coming out in the summer. I’ll send you a copy. Thank you once again.

    Huibert Oldenhuis: Just email me where to send it. Thank you.

    Kevin Ellerton: Have a great day.

    Huibert Oldenhuis: You too. Bye.

  • Subscribe
    Notify of

    Inline Feedbacks
    View all comments