Protective Accompaniment

By Aaron Bates | 2002-04-01 12:00:00

Peace Brigades International (PBI) volunteers aim to embody an international concern for basic human rights. They strive to make clear to authors of crimes against civilian populations and human rights workers that their work will not go unnoticed by the international community. PBI volunteers do this by acting as "unarmed bodyguards" for individuals threatened by political violence. This accompaniment is intended to broaden the political space available to activists, and to allow them to work and speak in ways that may not otherwise be possible. PBI volunteers often spend 24 hours a day with threatened human rights workers, union leaders, or members of civil society organizations.

The theory behind protective accompaniment is that gruesome and horrific conflicts may be transformed in ways not intuitively obvious. The very presence of PBI's "unarmed bodyguards" questions our comfortable assumptions regarding the use of force: namely that the authors of ugly violence against defenceless populations warrant and demand to be dealt with in equally ugly and unthinkable ways. PBI's successful operations in some of the most horrific conflict areas over the past 20 years, and PBI's nomination for the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize, indicate that such innovative thinking warrants wider application.

The logic of what PBI appears rational enough. The authors of atrocities are, sadly, often intimately connected with, part of, national and state governments. Furthermore, as trade relations intensify and the world becomes increasingly connected, national governments are ever more sensitive to their international image; this is especially the case in the Americas, with NAFTA binding Mexico to Canada and the United States, and with the pending implementation of the FTAA that will bind the entire continent. Mexican President Vicente Fox is actively trying to prove to the rest of the world that Mexico is a modern democratic country respectful of human rights. Likewise, the Colombian government is increasingly under scrutiny from other American countries with the pending implementation of the FTAA. Therefore, those accompanied by foreigners are less likely to be attacked by organs of states.

As is perhaps inevitably the case, the work of PBI is wrought with uncomfortable ambiguities. PBI must constantly evaluate its work and the theory behind it. It would be arrogant and dangerous to assume that because protective accompaniment has been successful in reducing violence in the past (most notably in Guatemala and El Salvador), its effect will be guaranteed in the future. The nature of threats are constantly evolving. It is unsafe and often incorrect to assume that that states operate as rational entities. Decisions made by states are often informed by personal bias and stubbornness, bureaucratic inertia, internal power struggles, internal inefficiency and poor communication.


Proving that protective accompaniment actually dissuades or prevents aggression is a difficult task. The aggressor must be aware of which actions are considered unacceptable. This requires that the accompaniers, activists, and aggressors share the same vocabulary and understanding of certain acts. Some acts remain unambiguous; often the message to the aggressor may be as simple as, "don't kill this individual." At other times, however, the message is much more textured and may contain ideas either unfamiliar or seemingly illogical to the aggressor. Activists may demand an end to forms of economic or social repression, or a change to specific government policies seen as destructive to a particular ethnic group. If this is the case, such demands must be clearly communicated to the aggressor. Deterrence in the form of accompaniment will not work if the aggressor is confused as to what acts are seen as acceptable and what acts are not.

The aggressor must also know that an activist is accompanied, and that consequences will occur should the activist be attacked. In regions where communication is difficult, and where acts may be carried out by parties distant from decision makers, this sort of communication is often not easy.

Those responsible for violence must believe that threats of international repercussion are credible; it is not just the physical presence of international observers prevents killings or atrocities from occurring. That fact complicates this aspect of deterrence for PBI. As stated by Cristina Banzato, a PBI volunteer from Italy who was accompanying a threatened individual in Guatemala, "On a psychological level I'm sure we were helping him, but I think it was obvious that if anyone wanted to do anything to him in the night…well, we could be witness, but we certainly couldn't stop them." The deterrent effect lies in the suggestion that something may occur due to the presence of international observers, should a certain individual be harmed. Clarifying exactly what sort of international repercussions will occur should certain acts of aggression occur is central to what PBI does. PBI's connections to foreign embassies and multinational organizations must be transparent, and the chain of communication from volunteers through multinational organizations and other ntional governments must be unambiguous. Authors of crimes need to be convinced that the presence of PBI volunteers will lead to painful international condemnation of their acts.

One can only say that deterrence has occurred if an attack has not taken place because the presence of international observes created costs to the attackers that outweighed any perceived benefits for the attacker. This is extremely difficult to prove. Seldom will a party admit to cancelling a planned attack due to the presence of international observes. How does one prove that their actions have been instrumental in a non-event? PBI must rely on less direct forms of evidence: a cessation in threatening phone calls, or witnessing that activists whohave been threatened in the past are now free of threats. Yet none of this concretely proves that accompaniment has prevented an attack.

As well, there must be some evidence as to the origin of threats. Death threats, however, are often anonymous. Anonymity is often employed to increase fear in perspective victims. The fear of attack to you or your family is somehow amplified if you don't know who wants to harm you. One cannot effectively target deterrence, and cannot effectively decide which type of deterrence should be employed, if it is not known to whom deterrence should be targeted.

Some aggressors may simply not care about international pressure. That is, the presence of international accompaniment may provide no deterrence in the face of certain types of threats even if all the above conditions are satisfied. This may be the case when the actual individuals responsible for the crime cannot be controlled. Or, when opposing political parties may wish to embarrass or undermine the ruling national party for their own self-interest.


Even more troubling for advocates of protective accompaniment are the increasing number of cases where the perpetrators of crimes have no obvious connections to states. In a political world where most international law applies only to states (and not to individual perpetrators of crimes), how does one exert pressure on rebel or guerrilla groups? Such organizations often have leadership structures that appear illogical to outsiders, further complicating attempts to apply pressure. It would be wrong, though, to assume that non-state actors are oblivious to the rigors of international public opinion. In what some have called, "the world's first post-modernist conflict," Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista National Liberation Army has demonstrated that careful construction and presentation of reality to the outside world is just as important to the success of campaigns by rebel groups, as to those of state actors.

Threats by non-state actors do remain a problem for PBI and others offering protective accompaniment. PBI recognizes that when the authors of threats are so far removed from the world community that neither threats of trade sanctions, strongly worded UN resolutions, or outcry from global civil society may stop the authors of the threats, the deterrent effect of international observers is at best untested. Human rights groups are broadening the envelope for this sort of action, yet who would want to be a test case for protection of unknown effectiveness? Given that non-state actors seem to be increasing in importance, and that ever more threats of violence seem to come from this sort of actor, it must be said that a protection limited only to states is at best incomplete.

Despite the uncertainties inherent in working in the unpredictable world of international human rights, PBI has demonstrated the worthiness and effectiveness of protective accompaniment. It is conscious of the limitations and contradictions in its work, and these questions continue to be points of deep discussion and reflection for the organization. PBI is committed to the practice of protective accompaniment for the defence of human rights as an important method of conflict transformation.

Individuals interested in the work of Peace Brigades International may contact the PBI-Canada office:

427 Bloor St. West, Suite 202, Toronto, ON M5S 1X7. Tel: (416) 324-9737 Fax: (416) 324-9757

Email: Website: pbican and

Aaron Bates volunteers with PBI in Toronto.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2002

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2002, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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