Protective Accompaniment

Patrick G. Coy

June 2003

"The accompaniment volunteers are a living bridge between the threatened activists and the outside world, and also between their own home communities and the reality of the global struggle for human rights. [They] experience a rare privilege of standing at the side of some of the world's most courageous and committed activists." -- Liam Mahony and Luis Enrique Eguren, in Unarmed Bodyguards: International Accompaniment for the Protection of Human Rights, Kumarian Press, 1997

Intractable conflicts often wear down civil resources and political and legal institutions to the point that these cease to function effectively. Media, social services, police, and court systems may become biased, overly partisan or cease serving the needs of the entire populace.

For example, in conflict situations local media often cannot be relied upon to provide accurate, unbiased information. They may favor one or another perspective or disputing party, they may have vested interests that impact their data collection and reporting, they may undergo governmental or self-censorship, or they simply may not have the material or human resources to cover the conflict and the possible human rights abuses associated with it. Police and military forces, mandated to protect all citizens, in fact may be employed to systematically repress the members of one or another party to the conflict. Judges and courts may turn a blind eye to both individual violations and to patterned abuses carried out by one conflict group against another.

This vacuum of service and delivery of accurate information, and protection and enforcement mechanisms creates a breeding ground for human rights abuses. An escalating dynamic of destruction and violence may emerge as human rights violators exploit this vacuum, taking advantage of the impunity from prosecution they perceive it offers them.

When political systems are unable to function on behalf of the entire populace, outsiders may be invited to step into the vacuum, performing the critical roles of observing and reporting on the conflict in general, and on human rights in particular. Some international observers take on the added role of attempting to deter human rights violations and thereby provide both symbolic and real protection to those whose rights are under threat.

To the extent that human rights crimes go unreported and unchallenged, both within and beyond the country, the perpetrators face comparatively fewer social, political, or legal costs for their transgressions. By sending in observers who report and challenge human rights abuses, the costs of these actions increases, and therefore, their prevalence may decrease. To increase effectiveness, observer interventions are best carried out by those who

  • are able to distribute information widely,
  • have multi-level contacts in the diplomatic and international-investor communities,
  • have access to policy makers in supporting societies, and
  • can help bring international pressure to bear on violators.

Such observer missions may have two critical, interrelated results.

  1. They may actually deter current and future violations. Insofar as perpetrators of human rights abuses perceive that their actions will not remain hidden and that they will suffer the political and economic costs of this publicity, they may alter their behavior, forgoing and avoiding rights violations.
  2. Second, this change in conflict behavior by potential violators may in turn increase the availability of safe political space for local social and political activists to operate, thereby strengthening civil society and increasing the capacity of other local actors to engage the conflict more constructively.

In many cases, the interrelated roles of witnessing, observing, reporting, and protecting are best performed by outside observers, or internationals who are citizens of other countries. Their foreign citizenship may provide an added layer of protection from harassment since violence or harm inflicted on internationals often results in increased costs compared to similar actions directed at local citizens. It also bolsters their image as impartial observers who are focused on promoting and protecting the rights of all the parties to the conflict.

Observer initiatives may be launched by intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) like the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, the Organization of American States, or the Arab League. Occasionally, one or two countries will be asked to send observer missions into an intractable conflict. More frequently, they are undertaken by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like the International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch, or by coalitions of NGOs like Project Accompaniment.

Intractable conflicts occur across multiple sectors and levels of society, and across distinct geographic regions. They may include widespread violations of the full range of human rights: civil, political, social, economic and cultural. Since observers can't be everywhere at once monitoring and protecting all human rights, priority must be given where needs are most critical and where witnessing may have the greatest effect. These priority needs shift as conditions change and as the expressed needs of aggrieved parties change, requiring a closely cooperative approach among the various observer agencies in the field and the local community.[1] Thus, witnessing, observing, reporting, and protecting take many forms on the ground; the nature and scope of the intervention depends in part on the expressed needs of the local populace.

What observer missions have in common is a reliance on various forms of

  • fact-finding,
  • note-taking,
  • photographing,
  • interviewing, and
  • first-person witnessing,

all of which lead to fast, reliable reporting to the outside world regarding conflict behaviors and human rights conditions.

Additional insights into protective accompaniment are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

International Protective Accompaniment

In the last 20 years, some NGOs have refined a particular aspect of the observer role that is based on interposition principles and is known as "international protective accompaniment." The foremost practitioners of protective accompaniment have been small teams of international observers from Peace Brigades International, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Witness for Peace, and related groups. These largely non-partisan initiatives enter a conflict upon the invitation of a local nonviolent organization that is working to secure human rights and conflict transformation, but that is perceived to be under considerable threat for those activities.

Multinational teams trained in nonviolence, interposition, and documentation skills, and supported by a well-developed international network, may provide at least five overlapping, mutually reinforcing forms of protective accompaniment.

  1. Individual escorts. When an individual local activist is perceived to be under threat of death, disappearance, unjust imprisonment, or serious harassment, s/he may be "escorted" by one or two international observers who openly accompany her in public and private. The escort will walk between the activist and the street and will sit prominently beside her in an attempt to deter repressive actions. For example, Peace Brigades International frequently escorted Rigoberta Menchu, the exiled indigenous Guatemalan activist who went on to win the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, when she made return trips to Guatemala during the 1980s. If the presence of the international observer fails to deter, the costs of the attack for the perpetrator may be increased as it becomes internationalized via various lobbying and pressure tactics.
  2. Presence. Sometimes an entire domestic organization will be earmarked for repression and harassment. Activities may be openly monitored, meetings may be disrupted, offices ransacked or firebombed, and the police may turn a blind eye to abuses or even be the agents of repression, giving the organization few legal or civil remedies. Protective accompaniment of organizations includes maintaining a steady "presence" at the organization's offices, with international observers visibly sitting on the front porch, in the doorway, or in the offices and meetings in an attempt to deter an attack or to witness, report, and internationalize any that does occur.
  3. Observing. This tactic is similar to maintaining a presence with a specific organization, but is generally applied more broadly across a society for political events (demonstrations), legal proceedings (trials or tribunals), or social processes (holidays, celebrations, parades). If police brutality or inter-community violence has marred events in the past, organizers may request international observers whose presence may deter or at least moderate future violence. In some instances, these observer missions, applied across a society for a community, may be rather large. For example, when Guatemalan refugees living in Mexico secured the right to international accompaniment for their historic return to Guatemala following the signing of the Central American Peace Accord in 1992, their 78 buses were accompanied by well over 100 international observers from a coalition of accompaniment organizations.
  4. Visits. Frequently the level of threat facing an activist or an organization is not serious enough to warrant a 24-hour individual escort or an organizational presence. At other times, there simply will not be enough international observers to provide escorts or a presence, no matter the perceived threat level. In these instances observers will make frequent but irregular short visits to the individual or organization in a publicly prominent manner. This sends the message to would-be perpetrators that this person or group is known and cared about by members of the international community; thus any repression will be quickly publicized and broadly internationalized, potentially decreasing impunity for the violators.
  5. Delegations. Short-term delegations of 10-20 internationals who informally serve as observers are also used to provide accompaniment and fulfill assorted witnessing, reporting, and protecting roles in intractable conflicts. For example, many NGOs have sent delegations to Israel and Palestine during various stages of that long-running conflict. Delegation members typically meet with and interview politicians, government officials, and organizations and activists representing the various parties to the conflict. This may increase the safe political space available to local activists, and embolden them to continue constructive work to overcome injustice and transform the conflict. Upon their return home, delegation members typically meet with their elected representatives and policy makers in their own country, and they publicize their findings through formal and informal media outlets. All of this is done in an attempt to increase international awareness and garner support for constructive peace processes.

All conflict interventions, whether part of the promotion and protection of human rights, of peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peacebuilding exercises, or of development initiatives, must be based upon accurate, insightful analysis of the rapidly changing political and social realities on the ground. While many intractable conflicts move through similar stages and often engage a common set of conflict mechanisms, each conflict does so at its own pace, and in response to dynamics that are specific, even unique, to it. Thus there can be no substitute for timely and precise data that provides the basis for accurate analysis of the shifting and evolving conflict.

[1] Patrick G. Coy, 1997. "Cooperative Accompaniment and Peace Brigades International in Sri Lanka," in Transnational Social Movements and Global Politics: Solidarity Beyond the State, eds. Jackie Smith, Charles Chatfield and Ron Pagnucco, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997), 81-100.

Use the following to cite this article:
Coy, Patrick G.. "Protective Accompaniment." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: June 2003 <>.

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