Protecting and encouraging endangered human rights activists through the presence of international volunteers

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Peace Brigades International (PBI) sends international observers to accompany human rights activists who are threatened by their government or paramilitary organizations.

PBI was one of the first organizations to develop the idea of international protective accompaniment beginning in the mid-1980s. Since then, PBI has sent hundreds of volunteers to locations around the world, including Colombia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Guatemala, Haiti and El Salvador. Protective accompaniment has three simultaneous and mutually reinforcing impacts. The international presence protects threatened activists by raising the stakes of any attacks against them. It encourages civil society activism by allowing threatened organizations more space and confidence to operate and by building links of solidarity within the international community. Finally, it strengthens the international movement for peace and human rights by giving accompaniment volunteers a powerful first-hand experience.

Accompaniment volunteers work in a variety of capacities depending on the needs of their placement country. Some accompany threatened activists 24 hours a day. For others the presence is more sporadic. Sometimes volunteers spend all day on the premises of an office of a threatened organization. Other times they live in threatened rural villages in conflict zones. No matter their placement, the role of the accompaniment volunteer is to demonstrate that there will be an international response, whether diplomatic or economic, to whatever violence the volunteer witnesses. In this way, the volunteers act as a deterrent.

PBI depends on a well-connected network of phones to transmit information about human rights abuses. Accompaniment volunteers have satellite phones with which they can alert other members of the organization about any attack or rights violation. They also have the numbers of local police and military commanders, diplomatic allies and other authorities. Because of this network, PBI volunteers can alert the international community to a problematic situation within seconds. In some cases, this has led to an international response and pressure on a country to react even while a paramilitary group was still carrying out attacks or harassment.

PBI has had a high rate of success with its international protective accompaniment program. In two decades, not a single activist receiving one-on-one PBI accompaniment has been killed. In only two situations has a deadly attack occurred against a community while PBI sustained a presence there. Not a single PBI volunteer has been killed. Activists receiving protection from PBI’s volunteers report a higher level of safety and confidence in their abilities, allowing them to carry out advocacy that they would otherwise have hesitated to do. Accompaniment volunteers themselves find the experience to be life changing and are often inspired to continue their activism upon their return to their home country.

Nevertheless, international protective accompaniment is not straightforward and requires significant preparation. Volunteers must go through an intensive participatory training program including role-play and other exercises. They must demonstrate a commitment to nonviolence and human rights, a capacity for intensive political analysis, an understanding of their destination country, cautious judgment, patience, the ability to work under stress and other characteristics.

Likewise, the countries in which protective accompaniment is carried out must be carefully chosen. There must be a clear source of threat to the activist population. Volunteers must be aware of how sensitive a regime is to international pressure, and the organization must be conscious of whether or not it has the capacity to exercise the necessary amount of pressure should a violent situation occur. Finally, accompaniment volunteers must work hard to gain the trust of the local activists and not overestimate their own power to prevent violent situations. If all of these factors are taken into account, international protective accompaniment can be a valuable tool to prevent human rights abuses.

For more information on this tactic, read our in-depth case study.

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What we can learn from this tactic: 

This tactic builds on the universal reality that we are all subject to moral and political pressure. National leaders don’t want bad press. Low-level killers don’t want a witness watching their dirty work. Everyone prefers anonymity in their crimes, and no one wants witnesses. By putting an international witness right in the face of the perpetrators, and simultaneously placing external pressure on the leaders, the attacks are deterred. Meanwhile, by showing threatened activists that international solidarity extends to the point of taking risks right at their side, they are emboldened and strengthened in their courageous work.

Accompaniment has since been used as a tactic in other situations where people are in physical danger and perpetrators of abuse are likely to be swayed by international opinion. Other groups using this tactic include the Nonviolent Peaceforce in Sri Lanka, Christian Peacemaker Teams in the West Bank, the National Organization in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel, the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Colombia, the Centro Fray Bartolome de Las Casas in Mexico, and others.

These dynamics can be used in other settings as well. The symbolic power of church workers or journalists, for instance, often has a protective or calming influence in situations of tension and violence, because perpetrators don’t want to be seen misbehaving in such a presence. In Haiti, Partners in Health employs community health workers called accompagnateurs who make daily visits to HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis patients, which, in addition to providing medical and emotional support, show members of the community that they need not fear casual contact with people who have the illness. Here again, the symbol and physical presence of a committed third party carries a moral and social weight that can change behavior.