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The Accompaniment Model in Practice


By Liam Mahony

As I write this article, there are civil society activists, organizations, and communities all over the world facing threats, discrimination, violent repression, or other more subtle pressures inhibiting their ability to work freely and effectively for justice, peace, and human rights. They are facing these challenges with courage and perseverance. Often they are isolated and marginalized, struggling to find hope and desperately seeking effective solutions.

In many situations, though, these activists and communities are not so isolated. They feel a sense of support and solidarity. They work together in networks, seeking mutual protection mechanisms and collective strategies. And in some cases, they are finding a special kind of support through the accompaniment of international volunteers from organizations around the world dedicated to protection and encouragement of these struggles. As you read this issue of Fellowship, hundreds of these volunteers and staff all over the world are in the middle of a busy day at the side of these civil society activists and communities. They are in Colombia, the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and other countries.

Nonviolent Peaceforce in the Philippines
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Multinational peacekeepers with the Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) meet with internally displaced peoples in the Philippines. NP deploys internationals in Mindanao and other conflict zones within the country to work with local peacekeepers, contribute to their safety, help to maintain ceasefires, and advance the peace process. Photo courtesy of Nonviolent Peaceforce.

Accompaniment can take many forms. Some threatened activists receive round-the-clock accompaniment. For others the presence is more sporadic. Sometimes volunteers spend all day in the office of a threatened organization. At other times they live in threatened rural villages in conflict zones. In the case of the Nonviolent Peaceforce in the Philippines, these functions of protection and support are carried out in the context of a formal peace process-monitoring operation.

Accompaniment has three simultaneous and mutually reinforcing impacts. The international presence protects threatened activists by raising the stakes of any attacks against them. It provides moral support and international solidarity for civil society activism by opening space for threatened organizations, thereby giving them the confidence to operate. In addition, it strengthens the international movement for peace and human rights by giving accompaniment volunteers a powerful first-hand experience that becomes a sustained source of inspiration to themselves and others upon their return to their home countries.

The accompaniment volunteer is the embodiment of international concern, a compelling and visible reminder to those using violence and repression that it will not go unnoticed. The volunteers spend time with indigenous organizations, human rights defenders, lawyers, trade union leaders, women’s organizations, peasant groups, environmental organizations, and peace communities. Sometimes these organizations face deadly threats. In other cases they face more insidious repression that undermines their organizational capacity to function, including attacks on their reputation, manipulation of the legal system to undermine their credibility, and administrative and bureaucratic sabotage. The premise of accompaniment is that there will be an international response to whatever the volunteer witnesses. Behind such a response lies the implied threat of diplomatic and economic pressure – pressure that the sponsors of such violence and repression prefer to avoid.

Victims of human rights abuses are frequently those attempting to organize for social justice, nonviolence, and respect for human rights, thus challenging their society’s powerful elites. An international presence can be a source of hope. It assures activists that they are not alone, that their work is important, and that their suffering will not go unnoticed by the outside world. Thus the volunteer’s presence not only protects, but also provides moral support for the growth of civil society activism in repressive situations.

Accompaniment volunteers often return home inspired by the privilege of having been able to offer a modest contribution to protecting and providing moral support for the work of the human rights activists they have accompanied. These local activists are the ones building civil society from the ground up while facing daily risks. Some of the people being protected are extraordinary leaders – courageous and charismatic activists, lawyers, or non-governmental organization leaders. Others are ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances and roles by the trauma of events around them.

The modern practice of accompaniment was pioneered in the early 1980s by two organizations working in Central America: Witness for Peace and Peace Brigades International. Witness for Peace focused on collective accompaniment of communities in Nicaragua who were threatened by a U.S.-sponsored war being waged against the country after its revolution overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza. They brought thousands of U.S. church activists to briefly live in these communities and go home to tell their story, building in the process a significant and influential solidarity pressure to change U.S. policy. Peace Brigades International (PBI) developed a more targeted individual style of accompaniment in Guatemala, accompanying individual activists and civil society organizations threatened by the death squads of their own military-controlled government. Since that time, thousands of people have been protected in many countries. Hundreds of organizations and activists have expanded their work and persevered despite risks because of the feeling of greater security and moral support provided by accompaniment volunteers from all over the world.

The analysis of this article draws a good deal from the experience of PBI. After demonstrating the power of this simple tool of protection and solidarity under the intensive state terror dynamic of Guatemala in the 1980s, PBI went on to establish accompaniment teams in El Salvador (1987-1992), Sri Lanka (1989-1998), Colombia (1995-present), Haiti (1995-2000), Indonesia (1999-2010), Mexico (2001-present) and Nepal (2005-present). During the 1990s, it also had a program of sporadic field presence in North America focused on situations of tension affecting Native American communities.

During this period, many other organizations began to use and develop this powerful tool. In 1993, Christian Peacemaker Teams began working in Haiti; it later established accompaniment teams in Hebron, Palestine, Chiapas, Mexico, and Kurdistan, Iraq. (In 2005, CPT helped Iraqis to form Muslim Peacemaker Teams within their country.) Also in 1993 dozens of small solidarity organizations around the world began providing accompaniment to Guatemalan refugees making a daring return home from camps in Mexico. (PBI and several others are still present in Guatemala; see related article on page 24.) The Nonviolent Peaceforce was formed a decade ago and has fielded substantial accompaniment presences in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and South Sudan. The International Solidarity Movement (ISM) emerged during the second Intifada to send hundreds of international volunteers to accompany Palestinian resistance movements. The World Council of Churches, meanwhile, sponsored the Ecumenical Accompaniment Project in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), coordinated by Palestinian churches.

The idea that physical presence in areas of conflict and human rights could offer both protection and support for communities and civil society was also taken up widely by other key institutions in the international community. “Protection by Presence” and support for civil society became a frequent strategy of United Nations human rights and humanitarian missions, drawing in part from the experiences and analysis of accompaniment organizations.

How does accompaniment work? Why is it effective?

Accompaniment has three primary impacts: it protects, it offers moral support, and it helps to build the global movement for peace and human rights. Let us consider each of these impacts and their complementary functions.

Protection: deterring attacks against civil society leaders, groups, and communities

Leverage in action:

There are a wide variety of international tactics for putting pressure on abusers when accompaniment organizations need to confront attacks. For instance, in response to one serious incident of attacks against peace communities in the Urabá region of Colombia in 2004, Peace Brigades International mobilized these reactions (some with the collaboration of FOR):

  • A letter of concern to President Uribe signed by 60 members of the U.S. Congress
  • A delegation to Urabá representing officials from the United States, British, Spanish, Canadian, and Dutch embassies, and the United Nations
  • Numerous press releases by national and international NGOs
  • Supportive articles in Colombian national newspapers
  • A special meeting between the European diplomatic delegation and Vice President Santos
  • Public statements of support for PBI from U.K. government minister William Rammell, as well as the French ambassador
  • A public communiqué by the European Union
  • Public expression of concern by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
  • A motion of support before the Australian Senate.

International accompaniment can succeed in deterring attacks and repression because the decision-makers behind these attacks seldom want a bad international image. They do not want the world to know what they are doing. They do not want to be made to feel uncomfortable by diplomats discussing their human rights problems in their meetings. They don’t want to read in the international press that they are being called to account for human rights abuses.

The decision makers may be high-level government or military officials, lower-level officials, private elite businessmen (local or international) with influence or private enforcement capacity, or leaders of private armed groups. In every case, the accompaniment functions by increasing the perceived political costs of ordering an attack in front of international witnesses – witnesses whose organizations are committed to making such attacks as costly as possible for those responsible.

The direct perpetrators of violent attacks might be soldiers, police, paramilitary organizations, guerrillas, or hired assassins, among others. In each case, the accompaniment strategy requires a thorough analysis of the chain of command between the perpetrator and the higher-level decision maker. It should not be assumed that the perpetrators on the scene are unaffected by international presence. No one wants an unexpected witness around when they are carrying out a crime. The volunteer’s presence may also have a moral influence on individual perpetrators. It introduces an uncertainty factor – the attackers do not know what the consequences of the presence of this witness will be, so unless they have explicit orders that take the accompaniment into account, they are likely to restrain themselves rather than risk getting into trouble with their superiors.

Sometimes the threats are far more subtle, aiming to undermine activists’ credibility and reputation rather than physically attacking them. The presence of accompaniment also calls into question these strategies, lending greater credibility to the organizations under attack, and making it more difficult to get away with spreading lies about them.

To appreciate the added value of accompaniment, consider first the more traditional model of international human rights pressure. While systemic human rights abuses require the collaboration of a variety of actors in the line of command, international pressure is usually only directed at the decision makers at the top, urging them to take action to stop abuses by those below them. In addition, the international community offers various forms of remote support to threatened activists themselves. But these remote strategies of international human rights pressure are now several decades old, and states have developed very sophisticated countermeasures to deflect this pressure from having its desired impact.

A sound accompaniment strategy both complements and augments traditional remote human rights protection, in the following ways:

  • The accompaniment volunteer is directly visible to potential direct perpetrators, a unique impact among international efforts.
  • The accompaniment organizations, with their links to the international community, ensure that the “message” of deterrence is transmitted to the whole chain of command by meeting every echelon of the decision-making system of the military and civilian hierarchy, at both national and local levels. This process increases accountability, making it harder for decision-makers to deflect pressure.
  • The accompaniment strengthens the international support felt by the threatened activists. The “first-hand witness” effect strengthens the credibility of the local activists, their organizations and the overall international effort to protect them. By acting as a constant reminder that there is still a problem, it becomes harder for states to claim they are solving the problem themselves.
  • The presence of volunteers from many countries “in the line of fire” engages their embassies and home governments more forcefully in human rights protection, strengthening the overall pressure on top decision makers. Global high-level and grassroots emergency networks are alerted when an attack or harassment happens despite an accompaniment presence; they in turn remind decision makers in the country where abuses are occurring that they cannot escape responsibility for such “mistakes.”

Moral Support

The moral support for civil society in the face of repression is an important objective of accompaniment. In situations of widespread political repression or terror, activists are not simply asking for accompaniment because of a personal fear or an immediate threat. They are confronting systemic policies of violence that can frighten whole populations into political paralysis. This sophisticated social control is achieved by efficiently manipulating diverse individual responses to danger and fear.

The goal of such repression and terror is to keep people isolated from each other and keep society fragmented. Civilian organizations that empower people to overcome their isolation to confront and question state terror are therefore perceived as a threat. Human rights abuses, as a strategy to silence them, are thus often a rational choice made by strategic thinkers. These techniques of repression have been developed through a long history of military psychological operations. To policymakers, terror may seem no more immoral than other strategic choices made in a war. And these strategists study the successes and failures of others, perfecting their tools.

The state is not omnipotent, but it wants to create the perception that it is, since this belief prompts a self-regulation of political activity. This repression and self-regulation diminishes the range of action for civil society groups. Their organizations suffer diminished participation. And activists often suffer serious mental health problems resulting from the stress of constant insecurity.

Similarly, strategies of destroying the reputations, legitimacy, and credibility of these organizations aim to weaken their base of support, encouraging the population to believe the accusations and distrust them. Laws governing registration of non-profit organizations make them look like a threat to society. Spurious accusations of corruption or false prosecutions for “aiding terrorists” create scandals.

By providing moral support to these activists and organizations, protective accompaniment helps to reduce fear and stress and promotes increased participation. Activists and groups begin to choose tactics and actions they would otherwise fear and they attract more participants. They travel where they would otherwise fear to go. Their reputations with the public become more difficult to undermine, and their organizations stay stronger.

Moral support, protection, and political space

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Tom Fox, a Quaker peace activist and youth educator from Virginia, went to Iraq in 2005 with Christian Peacemaker Teams. He was kidnapped with three other CPT members in Baghdad that November. In March 2006, his body was found in Baghdad. Photo courtesy of Christian Peacemaker Teams.

The concept of political space is crucial to understanding how the incremental protection and moral support provided by accompaniment presence interact with each other. Each actor in a complex conflict situation, whether a soldier, politician, or human rights activist, perceives a broad array of possible political actions and associates a certain cost/benefit or set of consequences with each action. They each therefore categorize some consequences as acceptable and others as unacceptable, thereby defining the limits of a distinct political space of available action. Accompaniment alters this mapping of political space: actions that used to be considered too costly for an activist now become acceptable.

The repressive actors also have a limited political space: some actions will provoke too great a political reaction. The accompaniment shrinks their space – those threatening the activists of communities now perceive that they will suffer greater costs for some of their planned actions.

The accompaniment has only an incremental or partial impact. The activists will still be inhibited from many actions they should have a right to do. Different aggressors will still carry out acts of repression, and bear the costs. One government official might be extremely savvy and sensitive to international criticism, while an independent death-squad leader or entrepreneur might be more immune.

The presence achieves effective protection if the aggressor’s ability to attack has been significantly limited. If the activists can carry out significant political activities that otherwise they would have avoided, then that accompaniment has encouraged the strengthening and growth of a nonviolent civil society.

But neither the activists nor those who threaten them can really predict the future – they don’t know exactly what the cost of their actions will be. Everyone is guessing, and they all make mistakes. A dictator might not have attacked a certain organization if he had known that this would attract greater diplomatic support to the organization increasing its international profile and credibility. A young factory worker may think it would be dangerous to be an outspoken union leader and figures the odds are more in her favor if she is a quiet rank-and-file member. Then she’s fired anyway. At the factory next door, no one will even talk about unionizing, yet maybe there would be no repercussions at all. They don’t know. Nobody knows. Everyone learns by trial and error, and, unfortunately, the errors can be costly.

People base their decisions on their own perceptions and projections of what consequences they might suffer. These projections might be based on substantial historical or political analysis, on simple prejudices, on an emotional reaction to a past trauma, or on any number of other psychological factors.

The key role of perceptions and mistakes is one of the reasons the moral support aspect of accompaniment can be so important. Sometime the levels of inhibition are dramatically exaggerated beyond the objective risks associated with the actions people are afraid to take. Nearly every political or social action is feared; only passivity appears to have acceptable consequences. The moral support offered by accompaniment enables these activists to reclaim this political space: they start to overcome their inhibitions and confront these deliberately-created fears.

The accompaniment volunteers and their experience

Accompaniment organizations have been training volunteers for over 20 years, and a variety of models have been developed. Many have drawn from the early models developed by PBI, and in fact experienced PBI activists have often been involved in helping design other groups’ trainings. In the case of the Nonviolent Peaceforce, these models were extended and developed to a nearly month-long training process. These trainings are all highly participatory: volunteers go through a series of case studies and role-playing exercises to help them visualize the challenges they are considering and to help the organization gauge their preparedness. These trainings consider such criteria as commitment to nonviolence and human rights, capacity for intensive political analysis, understanding of the country of the project, cautious judgment, patience and humility, language and communication skills, and ability to work in a team under high stress.

These volunteers are from many countries and of many ages. Some accompaniment organizations are based in a single country, sending primarily their own country’s citizens. Others, like PBI and the Nonviolent Peaceforce, are multinational and consistently field teams of volunteers from many countries. In the case of the Nonviolent Peaceforce, a concerted effort has been made to attract and field volunteers from countries in the global South as well as from the more wealthy western nations that are most frequently represented in international NGOs. Interestingly, many accompaniment organizations have found that a significant majority of those volunteering are women.

“A day in the life of an accompaniment volunteer” – as readers will see throughout in the different stories in this issue – is so varied it is almost impossible to describe. Its range includes: escorting human rights defenders; living in communities of displaced people; meeting with the military or civilian authorities; observing a demonstration, checkpoint, or road-block; launching an international alert; writing a report; or simply cleaning a house.

Each volunteer comes home with a story to tell and often with an intense drive to continue serving the cause of human rights. They may be driven to support the groups they had the privilege to accompany. After doing accompaniment, participants can no longer see human rights abuses as faraway statistics. Instead they became faces and friends who have given something deeply important to their life. Returned volunteers often get more involved in working in their own communities for justice, peace, and human rights. Each of them is a resource, a person with a unique first-hand experience from whom others can learn and be inspired. In fact, it is quite common for returned volunteers to make substantial changes in their life plans and careers in order to sustain greater life-long commitment to service.

Growing the movement

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In 2010, the Institute for the Promotion of Civil Society and the Sudanese Organization for Nonviolence and Development invited Nonviolent Peaceforce to provide operational expertise in preventing violence before and during the 2011 elections and referendum. Since then, in South Sudan, NP and its partners have collaborated to build Sudanese-led violence prevention teams. These teams act as adjuncts to traditional dispute settlement and peacebuilding activities in districts where the risk of violence is especially high. Photo courtesy of Nonviolent Peaceforce.

The expansion of a global movement for peace and human rights is an explicit part of the accompaniment tactic. The protection and moral support local activists can get from accompaniment is directly correlated to the strength of the global network of solidarity that cares about them. Accompaniment volunteers not only represent this network on the ground – they also strengthen it when they get home.

One of the first accompaniment organizations, Witness for Peace, was a U.S. church-based organization with an explicit and primary objective of building stronger solidarity network in the United States within the churches to support and advocate for Central American communities. Their “delegation” model has been taken up by many other accompaniment organizations, which periodically organize groups of concerned citizens from other countries to go on short-term group visits to learn about another reality, meet the inspiring people in these organizations and communities, and bring home that reality to strengthen support.

Longer-term volunteers on accompaniment teams often move on to other solidarity or human rights organizations, as staff-members or long-term activists. Many such volunteers can be found in the mainstream human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations. Their accompaniment experience informs their activism in these other settings for the rest of their career.

Accompaniment organizations are constantly receiving and exploring new requests for accompaniment. Based on lessons learned from their past experience, they develop explicit criteria and procedures for diagnosing requests and deciding whether to set up new projects or accompaniment commitments. As you will see in some of the articles in this issue, each of these organizations has its own identity and mandate, and so adapts accompaniment to its broader objectives.

Despite the rapid growth of the human rights movement in recent decades, most new accompaniment requests go unanswered. The international community has thus far been unable to effectively mobilize the necessary resources and commitment to meet the appeals received. Other challenges besides resources also limit the possibilities: in some countries, for instance, the language spoken is unique and therefore it might be very difficult to recruit volunteers from other countries with the necessary language skills. In other places, the security conditions or complete lack of infrastructure make it extremely difficult to function.

Accompaniment organizations have also encountered serious political resistance from states, sometimes preventing them from functioning. Peace Brigades International, for instance, was expelled from El Salvador not once but twice, and later also forced to leave Sri Lanka. Years later, the Nonviolent Peaceforce faced similar resistance from the Sri Lankan government. In Indonesia, government controls made it virtually impossible for PBI to function in Papua.

Despite these challenges, accompaniment organizations are extending the boundaries of what is known as “the international community,” beyond governments, beyond the United Nations, beyond the established humanitarian agencies. Accompaniment has helped connect grassroots efforts for justice and human rights around the world with these larger international structures. The accompaniment volunteers are a bridge between threatened local activists and the outside world and also between their own home communities and the reality of the global struggle for peace and human rights. These links in some cases help to overcome the seemingly impossible challenge of human rights protection.

In the final analysis, the international community’s response to human rights abuses is not only a question of resources but one of hope and empowerment. Accompaniment volunteers experience the rare privilege of standing at the side of some of the world’s most courageous and committed activists. This courage injects immeasurable energy into the international community’s efforts.

1611 Liam Mahony has been working in the field of civil protection and human rights since the 1980s. This article draws generously from other publications by the author, including Unarmed Bodyguards: International Accompaniment for the Protection of Human Rights (with Luis Enrique Eguren, Kumarian Press, 1997), Proactive Presence: Field Strategies for Civilian Protection (Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2006, free download at www.fieldviewsolutions.org), Side-by-Side: Protecting and Encouraging Activists with International Accompaniment (New Tactics for Human Rights tactical notebook series, 2004, www.newtactics.org), and Human Rights Defenders Under Attack: 25 Years of Safeguarding the Right to Defend Human Rights (Peace Brigades International-UK, 2007, download PDF file).