International Accompaniment for Human Rights 101


by Andrew Miller, Peace Brigades International Colombia Project volunteer

In the last 15 years or so, international accompaniment has emerged as an effective mechanism for protecting political and civil rights in various hot-spots around the world. Since its founding in 1981, Peace Brigades International has pioneered the strategy in countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, Haiti, Sri Lanka, and Colombia, with nascent projects in East Timor and Mexico. Other human rights groups such as Witness for Peace, Global Exchange, the Guatemala Accompaniment Project, among others, have developed similar approaches. The underlying idea is fairly straightforward: state agents or state-related actors which habitually violate human rights are less likely to do so in the presence of international observers. Why? Well, most governments are concerned about their international image in regards to human rights. Rights violations and other anti-democratic practices can make securing external support--be it diplomatic, military, economic, or financial--more difficult. Many human rights groups use reports, urgent action networks, campaigns, media work, lobbying, and other tactics to pressure on both specific violations and general human rights practices. An international presence virtually guarantees the "threat" of such action in the event that political violence is carried out.

Reading about various strategies adopted during the civil rights struggle in the United States, one sees several interesting precursors. The Freedom Rides of 1961 are one example. Interstate busing had been desegregated in the United States, according to federal law, since the 1950s. Southern states, however, still had racist laws on the books requiring that Afro-Americans sit in the back and whites in the front. Racially mixed groups of civil rights activists decided to challenge the status quo, employing tactics of non-violent direct action. Starting in the north, they rode buses southward, breaking the seating rule and using each other's facilities, such as bathrooms and drinking fountains, at bus stations. The reaction was extreme: buses were bombed and the freedom riders faced violent mobs at many stops. Using the media and direct contact, they appealed to the federal authorities for intervention. Another example is Freedom Summer of 1964, in which hundreds of white, northern college students joined black activists in registering southern Afro-Americans to vote. "Mississippi Burning" is a Hollywoodized version of events following the assassination of three civil rights workers at the outset of the summer. These are but two examples of innumerable cases where northern whites "accompanied" southern activists, helping bring about a national media and political attention which would eventually change the nature of rights within the United States.

Current-day Colombia is obviously different from Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s. Some of the human rights dynamics, however, are very similar. Small portions of the society have maintained control, both politically and economically, to the detriment of the majority. The official authorities, civilian and military, are deeply implicated in the use of political violence (i.e. human rights violations) to maintain the status quo. One primary mechanism of repression is paramilitary groups (the KKK in the US south, the so-called "peasant self-defense groups" in Colombia) which maintain close ties to the aforementioned authorities. At the same time, the elites and authorities who act on their behalf are ultimately susceptible to external pressure from more "enlightened" entities, the federal government in the United States in the case of the civil rights struggle, and the international community in the case of Colombia.

How does Peace Brigades implement its methodology in the Colombian context? The physical presence is obviously a primary component. We have approved petitions for accompaniment of domestic human rights groups in Bogotá, Barrancabermeja, the Urabá region, and Medellín. These include Justicia y Paz, Minga, Asfaddes, the Colectivo de Abogados "José Alvear Restrepo" (Lawyers' Collective), the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners (CSPP), the Instituto Popular de Capacitación (IPC), and others. Additionally, we accompany various displaced populations in Urabá, including the San José de Apartadó Peace Community. In practical terms, this means we carry out regular visits to the offices of these groups or the community, and we accompany threatened individuals such as community leaders or the particular human rights defenders on trips and missions, to meetings, and the like.

Presence alone, however, is not enough to guarantee protection. The methodology demands that as broad an array of actors as possible know who we are, what we do, and exactly who we are accompanying, where, and when. This is articulated to all relevant legal authorities on all levels as we conduct what we call "public relations". These meetings, carried out regularly with each authority, are equally important if we are talking to the local military commander or if we are meeting with his superiors in the Ministry of Defense. Before each individual accompaniment, we fax out "letters of advisory" in which we inform embassies, the local police and military, and national political offices, among others, of our specific activities.

Given that our presence is an implicit threat of action in the case of human rights violations, an integral part of our effectiveness is the ability to mobilize national and international opinion. PBI's Colombia Project therefore has invested considerable energy developing a sophisticated support network. Instead of mobilizing a massive network of grassroots supporters who can flood offices with letters, the idea is to activate individuals or offices which, in the eyes of the Colombian government and military, have "weight" or particular influence. This translates into embassies, parliamentary and congressional offices, United Nations agencies, international human rights groups, among others, who can express concern for a given situation when necessary. We activate our network on rare occasions, only when the people we accompany are threatened or attacked. Fortunately, PBI has never received a direct threat during our five-year history in Colombia.

It is worth mentioning that, unlike most human rights groups, Peace Brigades International refrains from denouncing violations, publishing reports, or taking positions on policy questions. We leave these activities to the groups we accompany. Recognizing that our status as internationals might offer us an edge in terms of access to useful populations or individuals, the possible short-term benefits are outweighed by the fact that such activities are not compatible, for reasons of security, with having observers on the ground. We also don't want to convert ourselves into the spokespersons of the Colombians who are really carrying out the important work.

As anyone familiar with recent events in Colombia knows, being an international human rights worker does not offer 100% protection. In early March members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) murdered three US indigenous rights activists, Ingrid Washinawatok, Lahe`ena`a Gay, and Terence Freitas. More recently, Iñigo Eguiluz Ellería, a Spanish activist delivering humanitarian supplies in the Chocó, was killed in a boat attack carried out by paramilitaries (see article in this issue). No matter the possible dangers we face, however, our commitment is renewed daily knowing that the Colombian human rights defenders we accompany do their work at a risk many times greater.

For more information about Peace Brigades International please visit our web page at or contact the PBI-USA National Group offices: 1904 Franklin St. #505 Oakland, CA 94612 (510) 663-2362 (tel. and fax) {}.



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