|ISSUE 59 SPRING 2009
more than a t-shirt:
PBI currently carries out accompaniment in Colombia, Guatemala, Indonesia, Mexico and Nepal. For more information see www.peacebrigades.org. The UK country group organises three orientation weekends each year for anybody interested in learning more. See the website for more details.
See also: Bring in the Blue Helmets
The idea of unarmed citizens intervening to prevent violence in conflict zones might seem fanciful, idealistic, even foolhardy. Yet, this is exactly what Peace Brigades International (PBI) has been doing since 1981. Stuart Bowman explains how PBI's highly professional approach protects people working for human rights around the world.
Imagine for a moment that you are a lawyer in Papua, the remote province in the east of Indonesia. Turn the central heating up if that helps. You have just received a call from a small village several hours away. A father is desperate. He says that his son has been bundled into the back of a van by masked, armed men and driven away. He suspects the Army have done this and wants you to help.
You want to help. You feel strongly that lawyers can challenge this kind of human rights abuse. But this could be dangerous. You will have to travel through remote areas with numerous military checkpoints and possibly confront a local military commander when you get there. Other lawyers have been threatened in similar cases and the country's leading human rights activist was assassinated a couple of years ago. You yourself are being closely watched by the authorities. You're scared. What do you do?
Well, one option is to ask Peace Brigades International volunteers to accompany you on the trip and maybe also spend time with you at your office and home, visibly demonstrating an international concern for your work. And this is exactly what many human rights activists around the world have been doing for almost 30 years.
PBI volunteers accompany lawyers, trade union activists, women's groups, survivors of torture, indigenous groups and humanitarian organisations. They may be high profile figures but they are equally as likely to be grassroots activists working in remote areas, far from the public eye. What they all have in common is that they are working in some way for human rights using nonviolent tactics.
Here's what people who have been accompanied say about the impact of our work.
So why does this work? How is it that unarmed civilians can deter acts of violence from ruthless armed actors in some of the most dangerous places in the world?
It is remarkable that not a single one of our volunteer has been killed or seriously injured, nor has anyone while they were being accompanied. PBI has worked in countries with extremely high levels of violence such as Colombia, Indonesia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Sri Lanka and Haiti.
Accompaniment of this kind is based upon a simple idea: that perpetrators of these killings generally don't want the rest of the world to know about it, let alone witness it. PBI uses this idea to alter the balance between the costs and benefits of human rights abuses in order to prevent them from happening.
In most cases, states commit human rights abuses for a reason. They perceive that abuses will bring them benefits, for example, silencing opposition or preventing embarrassing legal cases. In many countries the police and military are complicit in these acts. The particular individuals involved may benefit through promotion or involvement in corruption.
However, human rights abuses also bring some potential costs. The individual abuser may be brought to justice. The international community may protest and current allies might withdraw foreign aid or trade agreements.
The presence of a PBI team in a country acts to increase these potential costs and deter acts of violence. Crucially, volunteers on the ground are the visible embodiment of a powerful international political network. The organisation's 15 country groups in Europe, North America and Australasia all maintain local networks of politically influential supporters who are interested in defending and promoting human rights. In each country where accompaniment happens, the teams also build up a support network among foreign embassies and the UN.
Should volunteers become concerned about threats to an organisation they accompany, they will alert members of the network who, in turn, express their concerns to the government concerned so that any further threats or acts of violence are deterred.
The aim, however, is to prevent violence from occurring in the first place rather than react once it has happened. For the method to work smoothly, it is vital for all of the civilian and military authorities to understand PBI's role and mission. So, volunteers meet frequently with local and national authorities to explain this, emphasising that they are not simply idealistic intruders but are members of an influential organisation with high profile support.
This rather abstract theory of deterrence is made real in very different ways. A low ranking soldier at a remote military post may not have a sophisticated understanding of international relations. But when they receive a fax telling them that PBI will be accompanying a troublesome lawyer in their area tomorrow they invariably decide it is probably best not to harass the lawyer in front of foreigners.
Of course, there are limitations to this work. This method of deterrence can only be effective where the state is sensitive to international pressure and where state officials perceive that PBI's network could really harm their interests. There are certainly states around the world where such presence would make very little difference either because the country is a ‘failed state’ such as Somalia or Afghanistan or where the state is largely indifferent to international pressure, such as North Korea or China.
In addition, PBI is less likely to deter non-state actors such as guerrilla groups, drug cartels, and businesses. However, certain non-state actors do value their international reputation or may simply perceive that PBI's network could mean trouble for them.
The calculation of whether our presence is likely to be an effective deterrent is one that teams wrestle with on a day-to-day basis. That teams consistently make accurate judgements, actually deter violence while keeping themselves safe is a testament to the organisation's professionalism and skill.
This work isn't for everyone. Volunteers typically spend 12-18 months on a team having gone through a rigorous recruitment and selection process including an intensive residential training lasting anything from 7-12 days. Teams need people skilled in political analysis who can communicate in the local language. As important is the ability to work alongside other people in often stressful circumstances. It doesn't require a particular background. In the team in which I worked, there were people who had worked as telephone engineers, dancers and researchers as well as someone who had worked on human rights in the UN.
What all volunteers tend to have though is a strong commitment to standing up for human rights in some of the places where they are most threatened. As Hans Ulrich Krause, a German volunteer, put it "There are two privileges attached to a foreign passport in a conflict area. You can use it to board the next flight out of trouble. Or you can use it as a tool to help protect human rights".