Carla Suarez on the State of Civilian Protection

OpenCanada's interview with Carla Suarez, co-coordiator of the Surviving Violence workshop.
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November 27, 2012
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OpenCanada interviewed Carla Suarez, doctoral candidate at Dalhousie University in political science and co-coordiator of the Surviving Violence workshop, on the ideas behind the workshop, and the study of civilian protection. 

What was the goal of the workshop?

The goal of the workshop was to take stock of the current state of the idea of civilian protection. One of the main things we wanted to do was to look at the protection of civilians from a different perspective. Instead of going through the many limitations and recounting the many failures of the international community, in particular humanitarian and peacekeeping actors, we wanted to look at what civilians ­­– individuals in their own communities­­ – do to protect themselves when violence breaks out.

We felt that this particular aspect of civilian protection has been largely neglected by both scholars and practicioners.. Our goal was not to explore what is typically considered civilian protection – external actors coming in and providing assistance to those that are being affected by violence.

Civilian protection is not defined in the same way by all disciplines: In international relations and political science we refer to it as civilian protection, but when you talk to people from social work, they refer to resilience, and when you talk to anthropologists, they often refer to social navigation through violence. So, we felt that there were other scholars or practitioners interested in the same idea, but struggling to connect because of the number of different terms being applied.

The main goal of the workshop was to bring people from all of those different perspectives together. We wanted individuals who have focused on different case studies to talk about their work –particularly the relationship or the interplay between local and international strategies – and to compare different theoretical and methodological approaches.

Were you successful?

First, let me tell you how the idea for the workshop developed. I was doing a reading course with David Black, my supervisor, and this project came about as a bit of a silent protest. I had been writing term paper after term paper and finally said to him, “No more! I don’t want to do another term paper!” and he said, “Why don’t you do a workshop proposal?” So I did, and it was successful – we got funding, and then it grew and expanded way beyond our expectations.

The goal was to generate a critical dialogue about civilian self-protection, and in this we were successful. There is now a small, growing community of individuals who are all interested in better understanding civilian protection (or resilience, or resistance – whatever term you want to use) and adopting it from the bottom up.

Did you feel you got a nice mixture of people approaching it from the theoretical perspective and people on the practitioners’ side?

It was more academic than practitioner-based, although we did have individuals that I would consider to be key practitioners in this area. Our focus was on clarifying questions like, “What is civilian protection? What do we mean by this term? How do we study this? What can we do about it?”

Was there progress made in terms of consensus on a definition?

I think there was progress in the sense that we all left the workshop thinking about civilian protection more critically. I think this is a good place to have arrived at. I do not think you have to have consensus by the end of a workshop – I would rather have triggered a lot of things in peoples’ minds for them to reflect upon as they approach their future work.

Has civilian protection ever been criticized as just another way of shifting the burden of protection onto local populations and away from the international community?

I could foresee that critique being made, but I have not heard it yet. Civilian self-protection does not suggest that the international community stop trying to help, it just tries to broaden how we think about the resources available to individuals and communities during violence, and how they use them.

It also sounds like a long-term approach. Is there a case study you can describe where these strategies were put in place?

I am most familiar with northern Uganda, where I worked in 2005.

Even when I first worked in northern Uganda, I was very impressed by the level of organization of the communities. One example is the “night commuters” – the children and youth that, at the height of the violence, would walk for miles every night from the displacement camps where their families were living to a nearby town, usually Gulu, in order to seek shelter from nighttime rebel abductions.

This was a process they implemented on their own to protect themselves. The international community eventually noticed this and started to provide short-term shelter for them in the evenings.

This is a good example of how the international community can support individuals in their efforts to protect themselves on the ground.

What other regions of the world have researchers focused on most?

There is quite a bit of work being done in Columbia on “peace communities”. These are communities that negotiate with different Columbian armed groups in order to retain neutrality. It is very impressive that they have been able to safeguard their communities using a neutrality strategy. Essentially, it is based on their being trusted by the armed groups to verify that no civilians in the community are collaborating with any of those groups. There is also work being done in other parts of South America, as well as in the Sudan.

If you were to write a proposal for Phase 2 of this project, how might you change the structure or aims?

There is a lot to think about in terms of planning Phase 2. I would definitely want to get more practitioners involved. Also, there was an evening component to this year’s workshop where we explored the role of the arts in resistance. Everyone in the workshop liked that component very much, and we learned a lot from it. I would definitely want to expand our focus on the role of the arts in a follow-up workshop – there is a lot there that is underexplored.

Also in the series

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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.
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Politicizing Protection

Christina Clark-Kazak on how young Congolese refugees in Uganda protect themselves.
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Resistence and Suffering

Eliana Suarez on how a group of Peruvian women survived that country's political violence.