Protective Accompaniment in Intractable Conflicts


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: What role do you see organizations like Peace Brigades playing in intractable conflicts?

A: I think that the primary role is this notion of viable political space for civil society to do what it does in democratic politics. The whole notion is to try to expand what is conceived to be safe or more safe political space for individual activists or for organizations. The degree that the political space can be expanded is also important for the primary actors who are actually responsible for solving the conflict, who are the locals themselves, as opposed to the outside interveners who have the safety to do their work. Sometimes it is only the perception of safety, they may be inaccurate in their perception of danger, but the danger may not be that high but their perception is that it is. This has a chilling effect on what they are willing to do in terms of their being a conflict intervener and reclaiming the democratic processes in their own protracted conflict. It does not matter whether their political analysis is correct because the perception is that the threat is that high and I need help, support, I am not willing to act without it. In the absence of the international support, in the absence of the international communities concern for this they may not be a functional actor in the conflict resolution process, so that is why it is critically important because it provides more opportunity for the principles in the conflict themselves both to solve it, to moderate it, and to document it.

All the work that third-siders do, or are supposed to do within their own conflicts, and of course in situations of extreme violence and political occupation, like in the occupied territories of Palestine and elsewhere. The tactic serves a little different function it is not so much the creation of political space, but the attempt to protect basic human life processes: the right to have a home, the right to food and clean water, and fundamental safety in the like. It is much more difficult for this tactic to work where there is overt military violence in a war zone. It seems to have a greater effect in situations of high political violence, but not overt military campaigns. For example in Sri Lanka, the Peace Brigades did not work in the North where the Tamils and the Tamil Tigers were fighting the government. It worked in the cities throughout the countries where challenging groups where trying to do there part to try to solve the ethnic conflict, but were under threat for their activities.

Q: So, there are some limitations and it sounds like there is a scope of intent ranging from very basic survival, all the way to fairly sophisticated political action as a consequence of your presence.

A: Yes, that is a good way to put it. There are times when you are sleeping in the bed of an activist who is under threat when there is a suspicion that they're going to come tonight to drag him out of the bed. There is one person sleeping at the door way and another international observer sleeping in the bed of the activist and the activist is sleeping in the inside room, so if they come they are going to have to go through two of us, but still they do not have him and that may be enough to turn them away. It is that level of personal protection but also these other levels of trying to expand political space.

We used to go to the Na Gambo United Peoples Organization in Na Gambo, a fishing town on the east coast of Sri Lanka just north of Colombo. Many of Nupo's activists went into exile because so many of them were disappearing, they went into exile in the Philippines and came back when there was a bit of a political opening. PBI went and provided accompaniment to the organization and that meant going and taking the public bus to Na Gambo instead of a taxi, getting off outside the city, walking all the way through the city, being very visible as an international, with a bright yellow bib on, camera and the like, then walking to the headquarters and sitting on the porch all day. You wanted as many people as possible to see that, yes, you were there that day and so you may be there everyday, you may be there with a schedule that changes so people are not quite sure when the internationals might not be there. It might mean accompanying them to a demonstration or particular event.

We accompanied the Free Media Movement, which is a group of journalists that said we have to challenge state policy in terms of violation of fundamental human rights in Sri Lanka. They began to write about it the human rights violations of the government and then the journalists themselves came under threat. The Peace Brigade provided various levels of accompaniment to individual journalists, to the FMM, and then to their demonstrations that they called and held. It is both the protection of the individual, the protection of the organizations' operating space, in terms of their head quarters, and then also the protection of particular civic acts like demonstrations, it really runs the gamut.