Reflections on the Importance of Unarmed Civilian Protection

by Katherine Hughes-Fraitekh

This year Peace Brigades International is celebrating its 30th anniversary – 30 years of highly creative and effective non-violent struggle supporting peace with justice. Like Mahatma Gandhi (Narayan Desai, one of Gandhi’s freedom fighters, was a founding member of PBI), the founders of PBI believed that non-violent struggle was taking the moral high ground and that it was the most effective way to transform conflict and relationships, rather than just exchanging positions of power and domination. In actuality, non-violent resistance may come with high costs, but these are costs struggling in a peace army, rather than those waging war. As Cesar Chavez stated, “Non-violence is not inaction. It is not discussion. It is not for the timid or weak. Non-violence is hard work. It is the willingness to sacrifice. It is the patience to win.”

PBI has developed a unique non-violent tactic termed unarmed protective accompaniment. This tactic is tailored to protect human rights activists, organizations, and communities who are at high risk for their work for economic or social justice in their local context. PBI has a principle of non-partisanship working on behalf of human rights, rather than for one side against another. It is based on a principle of non-interference whereby international volunteers create a safe space for human rights defenders to carry on with their work, but do not directly interfere with nor seek to influence the decisions and work of the human rights activists. PBI utilizes a multi-pronged strategy, which includes direct physical protection to targeted activists, bridging and convening to relevant resources and initiatives, participatory peace education, and active encouragement and moral support for human rights activists. PBI has run field projects in countries of conflict throughout the world including Indonesia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Timor L’este, Haiti, Congo, and Bosnia, and is currently in Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, and Nepal with ongoing project explorations in Kenya and Honduras.

Peace Brigades International and other protective accompaniment organizations have faced a number of diverse challenges over the years. Some of the current challenges include: 1) issues around white privilege and dependency; 2) deterrence methods that work in non-traditional spaces such as in non-functioning states or with non-state actors such as drug cartels or multi-nationals; 3) the ability to develop flexible, rapid deployment teams to respond to requests for protection in unexpected emergencies or for short time periods; and 4) the use by larger agencies such as the United Nations of unarmed protective accompaniment models leading to more effective and culturally appropriate methods of civilian protection.

PBI accompanies Bimala, the director of DAFUO, Dalit Women’s Organization, in Nepal.
PBI accompanies Bimala, the director of DAFUO, Dalit Women’s Organization, in Nepal.

Regarding concerns about international volunteers utilizing and possibly reinforcing their “white privilege” to provide protection in countries of conflict in the global south, one possible solution is stressing an international “trademark” for protection organizations allowing volunteers from all regions to play an effective role in unarmed protection strategies. Another advancement in the field is the training and development of in-country teams deployed in other regions leading to less dependence on internationals and more internal capacity building. Regarding the second challenge, ongoing work is being done to develop new deterrence models for non-state actors such as multi-nationals and drug cartels – actors that have enormous and growing power in today’s world, but do not fit into the traditional state structure or cost/benefit analysis used by organizations such as PBI to determine key points of pressure and influence over state policies and actions related to protection of human rights activists or citizens in general. Non-state actors are very conscious of their national and international image, which should lead to effective dissuasion strategies including the possibility of new international mechanisms such as the UN Working Group on Corporate Accountability or “shaming” of business or cartel leaders in their communities or other settings.

PBI and other protective accompaniment organizations are in the process of developing rapid deployment teams that would utilize large pools of previously trained volunteers and experts ready to deploy in a situation where large scale violence was utilized against civilian dissent such as is currently happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria. Regarding the final challenge discussed, many organizations working in the field of protective accompaniment have begun a dialogue with the UN about the possibility of unarmed civilian protection in their work. This dialogue and development of a model could greatly expand the breadth and impact of such tools.

We are living in a dynamic period of world history when non-violent, grassroots, people’s revolutions for democracy and change are erupting all around the world. Strategies developed and honed over the years by organizations such as PBI, Nonviolence Peace Force, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and Fellowship of Reconciliation, as well as nonviolent strategists such as Gene Sharp, are much in demand. Such organizations have a major role to play in supporting these movements based on their principles and long-term knowledge, research, and experience built up over years of work in the field of conflict resolution and non-violent resistance. This information and experience needs to be discussed and shared widely with ongoing citizen movements around the world in states where traditional legal and international mechanisms are failing to protect unarmed activists being targeted with violence for asserting their political, civil, social, and economic rights.

As Charles Reich predicted in his book The Greening of America: “There is a revolution coming. It will not be like revolutions of the past. It will originate with the individual and with culture and it will change the political structure only as its final act. It will not require violence to succeed and it cannot be successfully resisted by violence.” We are witnessing the beginning of this revolution, one that will be lead and successfully realized with non-violent strategies.

Katherine Hughes-Fraitekh is the Executive Director of Peace Brigades International. She has worked on human rights and peace and justice issues for over 20 years. Previously, she was an activist for the Middle East Peace and Justice Alliance and the Executive Director of the New Mexico Human Needs Coordinating Council. She also created and directed a program in New Mexico for women dealing with domestic violence and poverty.

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