More and more communities and human rights defenders under threat start to ask for international accompaniment to maintain their space of action and visualize their work on an international level. The experiences of various organizations in Colombia, among them the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó demonstrates that international presence in a conflict region can diminish considerably the risks of the civilian population that has been converted into a military target by armed actors that consider them the collaborators of their adversaries.
International accompaniment means to share all kinds of experiences with our partners: joys, sadness, dangers, fears, parties and successes. Our permanent accompaniment to the Peace Community in San José de Apartadó, the sharing of life with the Community distinguishes our work from many other international accompaniment experiences in Colombia. This closeness contributes to the profound understanding of this alternative to war constructed by the war’s victims.
In requesting international accompaniment, the Community made the decision to raise its profile in order to protect itself. The founding of a peace community is a proactive strategy and the international presence is an additional ingredient. The request shows the desire of the Community that its history be documented not only for its own memory, but also for the outside world. Contact us to request international accompaniment.
International protective accompaniment is a non violent strategy for protecting threatened individuals and communities in the midst of an armed conflict or political violence. It is based on the principles of non violence, non inherence and impartiality.
As Liam Mahony and Luis Enrique Eguren explain in Unarmed Bodyguards, accompaniment literally personifies the international concern for human rights. It is a convincing and visible reminder to those who use violence that their actions won’t go unnoticed. The premise of accompaniment is that there will be an international response to whatever violence is observed by the volunteer. That request carries the implicit threat of diplomatic or economic pressure; a pressure that the perpetrators of violence want to avoid. Therefore, all of our efforts focus on the prevention of attacks on those being accompanied.
Because of this, the armed actors and civilians in the conflict should have explicit knowledge of the physical presence of the international accompaniers as well as the support network that backs them up. The work therefore has two prongs: the physical presence of the volunteers and the political/diplomatic work that raises the visibility of the accompaniment as well as of the accompanied person.
Protective accompaniment works on various levels.
The physical presence of international observers deters violence from happening: most perpetrators don’t want to commit a violent crime in front of a witness. Armed groups and aggressors with links to political and economic influential groups want to avoid being identified by a third party in the crimes they commit for fear of being identified later and held responsible. In this way, the presence of an international observer causes armed groups and other aggressors to be less likely to commit acts of violence.
However, any person walking around (who could be a witness) does not stop violence, especially when an aggressor (or group of them) is dead set on silencing an activist, stopping a trial from moving forward or displacing a community so that a multinational can use the resources on their land. Physical presence is only useful if coupled with political work and a support network to back it up.
The international community is constantly communicating its concerns to other organizations, the diplomatic core, United Nations and government officials both in the country where the violence is taking place and in other countries around the world. The attention brought to the situation causes both the potential aggressor and government officials to fear the repercussions – whether that means going to jail for the person on the ground or diplomatic and economic pressure for the government officials at the top. In this way, accompaniment is preventative and works to avoid violence taking place before it happens.
Physical and political accompaniment helps a threatened individual feel both more safe and encouraged to continue doing his/her work, knowing that the international community supports the work and is vouching for it in a variety of ways. Armed groups and other aggressors use fear and intimidation to stop an activist from continuing to work for justice, but the real and felt experience of being under the watchful eye of the international community, allows the activist to continue and feel morally supported moving forward.
Perhaps the most inspiring part of this strategy is that deep relationships of friendship and solidarity are built between the threatened activist and the international observer, which strengthens the global movement for peace and justice. Our worlds and movements are connected through the relationships between our team and our partners on the grounds, but also between our wider networks of family members, friends and other organizations that support the work from afar.
When starting the accompaniment project FOR-USA considered also other roles linked to the fact of U.S. international accompaniers on the ground. Given the high level of U.S. military support for Colombia, it believed that the presence of U.S. volunteers could help in showing the U.S. public an image of Colombia that would contrast with the general perception of a violent country without hope for change. Documenting the experiences of civilians seeking independent and nonviolent ways of life in the middle of conflict would serve to motivate U.S. Americans to demand a change of the militaristic policies and give support to civilian and grassroots initiatives.
For these reasons, it was decided that the Program would not only serve as accompaniment in San José de Apartadó, but that public education work in the U.S. would also play an important role in protecting the Community and securing long-term changes. As FOR Peace Presence got independent from FOR-USA this objective has been amplified to sensibilizing the international civil society at large .
Although accompaniment is a powerful tool that has worked to protect people’s lives, we realize it is not perfect. The strategy has been criticized as using nation, race, and class privilege in ways that might reinforce these structures of domination rather than dismantle them. For an analysis of accompaniment and privilege, read this article The Racialization of Accompaniment.
Our international accompaniment in Colombia means in practice is that we are “there” with Colombian activists when they need support – whether that means having someone there to act as an eye witness, or as an embodiment of international opinion standing there in a bright blue shirt, we improve the personal security of people whose lives are threatened by powerful people who want them silenced.
Physical presence means that we live in one of the settlements of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, that we travel with lawyers from Tierra Digna to the area where communities are affected by mines and that we go to the military base where a conscientious objector is being released to accompany him back home, making sure he is safe and sound.
Political accompaniment means we meet with the General of the Army brigade that operates in the region, we meet with the US Embassy and the Colombian government, expressing our concerns and asking that the official take action to ensure the safety of our partners. FOR Peace Presence maintains direct and frequent contact with the Colombian civilian and military authorities in order to advise them of the international presence, inform them of how witnesses are faring, and to be able to listen to the government’s analysis of the situation in Colombia and the specific region. These opinions are incorporated in our analyses of security and the political climate. In addition, relationships with international, national and local NGOs are extremely important for building internal solidarity networks and to jointly analyze and react to threats. We do not make direct contact with illegal actors.
We encourage by being there, by believing in our partners struggles, by being inspired by their commitment and bringing that inspiration home.
We build a movement through our team’s presence on the ground with the our partners, through delegations, speaking tours and publications, by crossing the borders that separate us, by undoing “otherness,” by listening to each other’s stories and struggles and knowing that our futures are deeply tied to one another’s.