A Minnesota-based nonprofit that sends civilian peacekeepers to global hot spots, has been nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize.

Nonviolent Peaceforce was nominated by the American Friends Service Committee, which said unarmed civilian protection is an important method for reducing violence in war-torn areas and for protecting citizens — especially women and children.

“Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Nonviolent Peaceforce would highlight and strengthen their work and the work of other similar organizations, at a time when worldwide tensions seem to be at a boiling point, and their work is vital and relevant,” the committee wrote in its nominating letter.

The Peace Prize won’t be awarded until October, and several hundred nominations likely were received by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. But Peaceforce leaders say they are thrilled that their “courageous peacekeepers” and everyone supporting them have a moment in the spotlight.

“We were deeply moved by the recognition,” said Tiffany Easthom, a field director who oversaw Peaceforce work in South Sudan and now in Syria.

“Our work is so intense, so all consuming,” she said. “This was a moment to lift our heads and take stock of where we are.”

With headquarters in Brussels and an office in St. Paul, Peaceforce field teams are currently deployed in the Philippines, South Sudan, Myanmar and the Middle East. The organization was created in 2002 by Minnesotan Mel Duncan and David Hartsough, a Quaker leader from California.

Its paid, unarmed peacekeepers come from 25 countries, from all regions of the globe, said Duncan. Peaceforce workers typically are invited by organizations within the country, he said.

The group’s work takes many forms.

In South Sudan, Peaceforce workers accompany women and children collecting firewood so they do not have to be concerned about getting raped.

In the Philippines and Myanmar, they worked to maintain cease fire agreements and promote grass roots peace initiatives.

In Sri Lanka and South Sudan, the Peaceforce helped prevent children from being recruited by local militant groups — and to return home the children already recruited, she said.

The group’s most recent work is in Syria, where it is collaborating with 60 local nonprofits, said Easthom, who said she’s been impressed by the humanitarian work quietly undertaken there.

“They [Syrian civilians] have been running medical clinics, distributing food, acting as medical first responders, “ Easthom said. They’ve even patched up electricity and water services after buildings have been destroyed.

Training of Syrian peacekeepers begins this month, she said.

Meanwhile, Duncan is spending considerable time at the United Nations in New York, where he is encouraging the U.N. to work more closely with unarmed civilian protection and to scale up their presence in conflict zones.

The Peaceforce is also exploring working in Ukraine, he said, and on the refugee trail from ­Turkey to the Balkans.

Duncan acknowledges that the Peaceforce can’t halt the world’s violence. But he is convinced that properly trained civilian peacekeepers have an important role to play — and that the world would benefit from more of them.

“Often when there is violence, we are presented with the option of sitting back and doing nothing — or sending in the bombers and troops,” said Duncan. “There are other options. Civilian peacekeepers is one of them.”

 

Jean Hopfensperger

hopfen@startribune.com

612 673-4511