In areas of conflict and oppression working for peace and human rights can be dangerous and even life threatening. To help ameliorate such situations, foreign activists can, under certain circumstances, provide an international presence that pressures oppressive governments not to crack down on local human rights workers. Two such international activists, Claudio Valls and Andrew Miller, recently visited the Foundation and spoke about their experience providing protective accompaniment in Colombia with Peace Brigades International (PBI).
Andrew, co-director of Peace Brigades International/USA, began the talk by giving an overview of PBI as an organization. PBI’s mission is to work to open a space in which conflicts can be addressed in a nonviolent way in regions where there is oppression and conflict. The organization currently has four active projects in Mexico, Guatemala, Indonesia and Colombia. PBI works only upon the request of local organizations working for human rights, social change and the development of civil society, and which use nonviolent means. PBI’s establishes its presence by placing volunteers in the area of conflict, who physically accompany local activists and network with the local officials and embassies. Andrew explained that the work of the volunteers on the ground is reinforced by an emergency response network maintained by PBI country groups around the world. These country groups network with their federal officials who can put pressure on the oppressive government not to harm the activists accompanied by PBI. The organizational structure of PBI is unique in that it works by consensual process and uses non-hierarchical structures.
Claudio, a Santa Barbara resident who previously worked at the Foundation, is currently volunteering with PBI on a one year stint in Colombia. Claudio gave the talk’s participants a feeling for what it is like for PBI volunteers in the field. “Sometimes we go into an area where the authorities have told us that we would have government protection, and it turns out the area is not even controlled by the military but by guerrillas,” he explained. This is dangerous because the guerilla and paramilitary groups that are active in Colombia are not susceptible to same kind of international pressure that the Colombian government is. PBI volunteers, such as Claudio, undergo a training and selection process that evaluates there language ability, their ability to work in a group and their ability to hold up in high pressure situations. According to Claudio there are certain “red flags” that volunteers look for that signal the need to alert their emergency response network. Such signs could include direct threats against the activists PBI is accompanying or public statements by the government criticizing the work of the activists.
Though it is difficult to gauge success in their work, Claudio and Andrew feel that PBI accompaniment has saved many lives. When PBI is fully successful it diffuses the threat to the local activists and allows them to continue their work. At other times, the accompaniment buys activists enough time to get out of the area where they have been threatened.
That PBI activists are able to use nonviolent means to protect local activists trying to work for a more just society is a formidable accomplishment. That those working with PBI struggle to take the international support given to repressive regimes and turn it into effective and restraining influence is a sign that they have a profound sense of responsibility to their international community.
For more information about PBI see their website athttp://www.peacebrigades.org