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Globally the notion that the protection of civilians requires military force is still widely accepted and practiced.PhD scholar Felicity Gray challenges that notion through her research, which explores the possibilities and limitations of nonviolent alternatives for protecting civilians.
“The focus on force means that conversations around how best to respond to threats to civilian populations are narrowed.” Felicity explains.
“This has resulted in comparatively minimal investments being made in understanding other approaches to protecting civilians from violence, particularly those that deliberately eschew force, and which are predicated on nonviolence.
“My research therefore focuses on how unarmed civilian protection – a form of nonviolent practice for protecting civilians in armed conflict – works.”
But how can you protect people without a gun? To answer this question, Felicity spent 18 months interviewing protection personnel, and conducting research in conflict zones, observing how unarmed civilian protection groups actually operate.
“My field work entailed interviewing key people and observing unarmed civilian protection in action in places like Myanmar and South Sudan” she explains.
“South Sudan is a central case in my thesis, and I spent three months there shadowing unarmed civilian protection teams who work in the context of the civil war, learning about the work they do and the challenges they face in such a volatile context.”
Juba Protection of Civilians site. Image by Felicity Gray
Over the course of that time, Felicity conducted 140 interviews, and collated over 200,000 words of field notes. This process did not come without its own unique set of challenges.
“Access to conflict affected locations can be a challenge. For good reasons, it can be difficult to get to and conduct research in places like Northern Shan State in Myanmar, or South Sudan.
“These can be challenging and insecure contexts, and you have to make sure that the people associated with your research, and yourself as a researcher, are aware of those risks and are carefully thinking through strategies to manage it.”
Felicity says that her relationships at RegNet and in the locations where she conducted her field work, played a critical role in managing the difficulties she encountered throughout the process.
“My field work in Myanmar and South Sudan would not have been possible without building strong relationships with people in these locations.
“I really relied on having strong relationships with key people and organisations, especially the INGO Nonviolent Peaceforce, who were generous with logistical support for the project.
“Once in these locations, my relationships with respondents were critical to understanding the context that I was working in and managing security concerns, as well as gaining access to other community members.
“Over time I also became friends with many of the people I worked with, and I learned a lot from conversations over dinner or on long drives on difficult roads to more remote communities. A big highlight of my PhD research has been making these connections with people and listening and learning about the challenging work they do. I don’t think I’ve ever had a period in my life where I’ve been able to connect with so many clever, hard-working, generous individuals.”
“From the outset my supervisor John Braithwaite, has also been incredibly supportive of the research, a fountain of tactical hints about how to approach different research respondents, how to be discerning about what they share with you, and how to navigate challenging research experiences in the field.
“He (and Valerie Braithwaite, they tend to come as a pair) have also been a source of support to me in difficult personal circumstances, for which I am very grateful. That’s not to say that John and I don’t butt heads – we are both quite strong willed and there have been some spicy theoretical debates recently! But these debates push me to be a better scholar, and I am always grateful that John invests so much time and effort into ensuring my work is as incisive as possible.”
“RegNet is a great place to be a PhD student.” Felicity concludes.
“My political commitments were an important part of why I chose to study at RegNet. The school is explicitly committed to principles of social justice, sustainability and human wellbeing. It was very important to me to be in an environment where those values are taken seriously, and where my colleagues see their work as an opportunity to have a positive impact.
Having returned to Australia, Felicity is about to start the next part of her research.
“Now, I’m beginning to dip my toes into data analysis and writing – a daunting task, given the volume”.
“After I’ve completed my dissertation, I’d like to be able to take the research and share it with the individuals and communities that generously shared their expertise. Hopefully, this work will generate some insights that can make their work even stronger.”
Felicity Gray’s professional career started in politics where she worked for four years. She worked her way up to a senior adviser position, focusing on parliamentary business and foreign affairs policy, while working full time she completed a Masters in humanitarian action at ANU.