Academic's research considers unarmed approaches to keeping the peace

Dr Rachel Julian
Dr Rachel Julian

An academic in Yorkshire is studying how civilians around the world can protect themselves without the need to resort to military aggression. Laura Drysdale reports.

Armed men point guns towards civilian peacemakers during a raid on a village in conflict-ravaged South Sudan.

What ensues is not a clash of violence, but one of tenacious calmness.

The peacemakers, unarmed, stand their ground, firmly refusing to let the group pass and in turn protecting women and children in a camp behind them.

Eventually the aggressors retreat. No civilians are shot, all remain safe and peace is restored.

It is just one example of civilians proving they can defend themselves from violence without the need for military aggression, according to Yorkshire academic Dr Rachel Julian.

Dr Julian, a researcher in Peace Studies at Leeds Beckett University, has looked at the use of Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping (UCP) around the world, collecting evidence to suggest that trained civilians, without weapons, are effective in protecting their communities.

She said: “This approach to peacekeeping, using nonviolence, challenges a widely held view that when there is violence, we need soldiers or threats of violence in response.”

Dr Julian first got involved in peace work during her teenage and university years.

But it was a visit to Sri Lanka where people were being hurt in conflict, while she worked for the Nonviolent Peaceforce in the mid-2000s, that sparked her desire to learn more about how civilians can defend themselves, when she saw unarmed peacekeeping in action.

Just by talking to each other, conflicting groups were able to see that violence was harming all of them and each actually wanted to live in peace.

She told The Yorkshire Post: “It was difficult to explain to people who fund [peacekeeping] the impact of this community level work.

“I thought that somebody should find out why we should do this.”

Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping sees non-governmental organisations, such as Nonviolent Peaceforce and Peace Brigades International, train either members of communities affected by onflict, or international civilians who move to live in those communities, to protect themselves and their villagers without using violence and help implement peace.

Dr Julian explains: “It is the strong community relationships and local knowledge that enables this protection to be effective.”

South Sudan, where Dr Julian has found that 1,900 women trained in unarmed protection are helping to reduce retaliatory violence, rape and abuse of children, is just one nation where the method is being implemented.

Describing visits to Myanmar in 2016 and 2017, Dr Julian said civilian protectors were in place in Kachin State, where civilians risked being threatened with abduction in conflict between the government and ethnic groups.

The protectors there work with armed groups to ensure they stick to an agreement to remain in different locations.

Dr Julian explained: “If they can see tension and levels of violence arising, they might well get the villagers and help them to escape so that they are safer.

“And when people are detained, [the protectors] will go up to the barracks of the armed groups and demand that those people are returned to their communities.”

She recalls another example of unarmed protection work in Mindanao, in the Philippines, in which unarmed civilians managed to halt the movements of two armed groups.

“They contacted the commanders and the armed actors all returned to their barracks and the people in the villages were safe. They didn’t have to flee,” she said.

“The daily impact is saving lives, making sure people aren’t displaced from their homes and are able to live more safely.”

Dr Julian’s research has seen her invited to present internationally on conflict resolution mechanisms and just last month she spoke at a United Nations global civilian protection event in New York about the need for unarmed approaches.

She hopes to see these incorporated into how the international community responds to violence.

She said: “By demonstrating how it works in practice, and the direct impact on people’s lives, this evidence will inform policies and practices that directly improve the protection of civilians.”


Raised by parents who were involved in campaigning for social justice, Dr Julian was involved in political and peace movements from an early age.

Her teenage years in the 1980s saw her take part in social activism and peace campaigns and at university got involved with the Yorkshire Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, where she later took up her first job in 1997.

In 2002 she then joined the Nonviolent Peaceforce, a role which saw her visit Sri Lanka to see Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping in action. Struck by the benefits of what she saw, she then turned to academia to research and present evidence of its success.