Peace Brigades International and Protective Accompaniment

Pat Coy

Professor of Political Science at Kent State University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: Can you give me a brief overview of your work?

A: Well, my work is in a couple of different tracks. I think of it that way. One piece of it has to do with my research and work with Peace Brigades International, which is an international non-governmental organization. It has pioneered the tactic of international, non-violent, protective accompaniment. They are working in situations of very high political violence with political opportunities available, especially to groups that are challenging the status quo or are highly strained/constricted. For various reasons these groups or individuals are under threat by the state itself or by para-military groups associated by the state, which the state may sponsor in order to have plausible deniability. They may, in fact, be under threat by other challenging groups that don't approve of the tactic that the group or individual was taking. This technique that Peace Brigades has pioneered builds off of the work of Amnesty International.

Early in the 1960's Amnesty International discovered that if citizens were to write letters on behalf of threatened individuals or imprisoned individuals that these letters were the symbolic representation of the concern of the international community for the health or the human rights of this individual who has unjustly been imprisoned. Peace Brigades took that idea, which Amnesty International found to be highly effective, in terms of protecting the rights of political prisoners. They took it a step further and said that if letters worked, what would happen if we took individuals and put them on the ground in situations of intractable-protractive conflict where the political opportunities of challenging groups was highly constricted. The international volunteers should walk along side the threatened individuals. The work began in Central America in the early 1980's. It was built off the work of Witness for Peace, which is an organization that sends North American volunteers to Nicaragua. There they tried to forestall a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua at that time.

What has been discovered in the practice of this international accompaniment is that the presence of internationals appears to have some deterrent effect on the people who are thinking about attacking, imprisoning, killing, or having political activists disappear. The idea is that even if the deterrents were to fail, the political costs for the perpetrator are raised significantly because the international community is there to witness, publicize, and to bring international pressure on the perpetrators. Even if the deterrents fails the next time that that organization or state thinks about attacking a challenging group or individual, they will realize that the political costs are going to be even higher than they were before; that is the theory it operates under. My work with Peace Brigades was in Sri Lanka in the context of a protracted, ethnic conflict that began in 1983.

When Peace Brigades went to Sri Lanka in 1989, they went there to protect the lawyers who were the last bastion of protection against the state. Sri Lanka had been under martial law. The lawyers, who began to file habeas corpus cases, which was the last thing they could do to try to protect people against the state, began to disappear. There were only a few lawyers left willing to do the work and Peace Brigades first went to Sri Lanka to protect these very courageous lawyers, who were filing habeas corpus cases and then disappearing, never to be heard from again. The organization was invited in to protect lawyers, originally, but it ended up also working with other challenging groups over a seven-year period. I worked with them in Sri Lanka in 1993 and 1994, and conducted a participant observation study of their work in Sri Lanka.

I also continued to do research on international accompaniment, which now has become quite popular. We see other organizations using it: Christian Peacemaker Teams, Project Accompaniment, and the International Solidarity Movement. These are groups that use a much more provocative, partisan approach to accompaniment than Peace Brigades does, and as a result, they have experienced direct attacks on their accompaniers. Peace Brigades is very careful to be non-partisan, to work with the diplomatic community, and to askew overt kinds of activities that demonstrate solidarity or partisanship with one side or another.

Q: So, for example, when you detailed the lawyers that was not in the name of the opposition but in the name of ...?

A: Human rights in general.

Q: Justice?

A: That's right.

Q: Versus someone who might go to the territories in the Middle East and call themselves a human shield and stand in front of a Palestinian house that is about to bulldozed. I mean how is that different?

A: How it's different is that some of the tactics used by the International Solidarity Movement and other groups would make it very difficult for them to, say, protect challenging groups who don't agree with their political agenda. For example, Peace Brigades will protect anyone in a country under threat, whether they are under threat from the right or the left. This is all provided that the person who is in threat is not a member of a violence-wielding organization or they have themselves used violence as part of their political work.

In context of the Sri Lanka conflict, Peace Brigades accompanied both members of the Tamil community, members of the Sinhalese community, and at different times even accompanied police. The police had been brought to court for activities the state wanted to punish them for. I don't see the International Solidarity Movement engaging in that kind of across the board accompaniment, which is not to say their work isn't good; I think it's wonderful work. Clearly what we see, especially in Palestine, the work is effective enough that they now appear to be targeted by the Israelis' military [Israeli Defense Force].

Q: Is there a moment in your work that you can think of that has been particularly inspiring to you?

A: Yeah. With my work with Peace Brigades, two examples come to mind. One was in 1993 when Peace Brigades accompanied a fellow named Selva Kumar. Kumar had been a Tamil, political activist and he worked with the EPDP [Eelam's People's Democratic Party], a Tamil challenging political group that had been associated with the right-winged Sinhalese government. The EPDP was in opposition to the Tamil Tigers and they were cooperating with the dominant majority Sinhalese government. Kumar had worked with the EPDP, thought better of it, and had withdrawn. Upon his withdrawal, he was kidnapped by his former colleagues, held and tortured.

Eventually he was released after a couple of weeks period following some international pressure. Kumar continued to be threatened by the Eelam People's Democratic Party, EPDP. He filed a case against the Sri Lankan government for his capture, which although it was done by the EPDP, the charge was that it was done by the cooperation of the government. He got one of the leading human rights lawyers to take his case and continued to be under threat. Peace Brigades accompanied Kumar for many months. They provided 24-hour accompaniments. Volunteers would live with his family, go wherever he went, sometimes when the threat was perceived to be less they would accompany him only when he went out into public. I interviewed the lawyer who took his case who was a legal scholar at Colombo University. He thought that the Kumar case was historic and a landmark case in Sri Lanka because it was the first time that they were able to make the connection in court between the Sri Lankan government and the cooperating, para-military, political groups that the government used to have a plausible deniability. They said, "We're not doing what the EPDP is doing. We didn't capture Kumar, the EPDP did."

What Kumar's case did was to take that challenge to the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, and say, "No, that is not the case. The case is that you are standing behind the EPDP; even directing it." It's really the government who is ultimately responsible for the violation of, what in Sri Lanka are called, fundamental human rights. It's not clear that Kumar would have been able to continue the case or been willing to continue the case without this international accompaniment. In fact, despite the accompaniment, he eventually took asylum in Sweden and left the country. The case went forward and made this connection. I spent quite a lot of time with him and his family. Peace Brigades also facilitated his application for political asylum in Sweden because of their connection to the Swedish Embassy. That was an example of protecting one individual whose own personal case may not originally appear to be that important. He was a political activist who decided that he couldn't do it anymore, and then withdrew; yet the case had historic, political and legal consequences for the entire country.

I think another example would be in 1994 during the Parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka. What happened there was that the run up to the elections were extremely violent. There were over two dozen murders and political disappearances. A group of very brave Sri Lankan activists from Civil Society said, "This election was nonetheless important and we refuse to be cowed into non-participation. We refuse to let this violence our election." They have a very strong democratic tradition in Sri Lanka. They decided to try to mount a citizen's based monitoring effort. It was important to them that it be run by Sri Lankans and that the monitors themselves be Sri Lankan, but they didn't feel they could do it without international support. They worked with Peace Brigades International, the British Refugee Council, the International Lawyers Human Rights Committee, International Lawyers for Human Rights, and put together a group of internationals to accompany the monitors so the locals, the Sri Lankans themselves, from lots of political stretch were actually mounting the monitoring effort in response before, Internationals accompanied them to all the polling stations in the week before the election and the week after in their work to set up the monitoring effort.

That was really quite an inspiring moment because it spoke about the attempt to reclaim the democratic process in Sri Lanka from political violence. I can remember interviewing one of the activists in the central part of the country and the line that he used I later used this in an article I published the title was, "Going where we otherwise would not have gone." His line was, "This international accompaniment allowed us to go where we otherwise would not have dared to go," to monitor their own democratic impulse. That was also a very inspiring moment in campaign...