A stone in their shoe

IssueSeptember - November 2004
Feature by Abbie Fielding-Smith

Peace Brigades International (PBI)'s work in conflicts around the world involves intensive interaction with the local police and military. On one notorious route in Colombia there are 60 military checkpoints. How can a small organisation committed to nonviolence affect the outcome of their encounters with government forces?

PBI's objective is to create the political space for local human rights defenders to do their work in countries where disappearances are commonplace. PBI does this by trying to capitalise on the effect that their presence has on those who would harm and intimidate human rights defenders. Though government forces are not always the main threat to these people, they can obstruct their work and increase their vulnerability.

Military encounters

PBI often encounters the military when providing “protective accompaniment” to a human rights defender who needs to travel through contested territory.

Wherever a PBI volunteer encounters a representative of government forces, that person should ideally already know who PBI is, what they are there to do, and that their superiors will reprimand them if they do anything to antagonise PBI. We can only achieve this in countries whose governments have committed themselves to human rights treaties, and who have publicly recognised PBI's work as legitimate.

In projects involving a lot of accompaniment, such as the Colombia project,volunteers carry around signed letters from the Vice President at all times stating the government's support for the organisation.

This method works because military commanders know that they cannot act in a way that will have repercussions for their political masters. In an interview in1994, the former Guatemalan Defence Minister General Gramajo Morales bluntly explained the constraints which this rationale put upon his troops: “If the Organisation of American States, informed by Amnesty International, puts out a report against us then we're fucked”.

Going higher

Gaining high-level diplomatic support on its own is not enough however. Commanders at field level must know that PBI has that support and they must know that any violations of that support will be noted at higher levels. The teams must therefore regularly liaise with local police and military commanders to make sure that their subordinates know who PBI is.

If they are travelling somewhere on an accompaniment, the teams write letters in advance to the commanders of government forces in the area they will be travelling through. If necessary, they also notify the UN representative and their own embassies of their travel plans, and make sure that local commanders know they have done this.

According to the theory of protective accompaniment, with these local, nation-al and international networks in place a PBI volunteer should have to do no more than blithely gesture at their logo to pass through military checkpoints unimpeded. Of course it rarely works like this in practice. Communications are imperfect, and misunderstandings can occur.

Showing empathy

On the Sri Lanka project, for example, two volunteers using public transport(something which few other internationals did) were stopped at a military road-block and suspected of trying to get around a law obliging foreigners travel-ling on that route to carry Ministry of Defence authorisation. Fortunately the situation did not escalate and they were able to show their authorisation.

For all that the organisation can do to reduce the risk of misunderstandings,much of it comes down to the volunteers' diplomatic skills. This sometimes means trying to empathise with the officials you are dealing with. This isn't always a difficult task: a volunteer on the Indonesia project last year started asking the government soldiers stationed in Aceh why they were there, and the commonest answer he received was that there were simply no other jobs.


When dealing with the military in inflamed situations, understanding of their concerns is essential to negotiating access. In March 2003, two members of the Indonesia Project were accompanying a legal aid lawyer investigating the disappearance of a human rights activist, Koes Sofian from Blang Pidie, South Aceh. The authorities had previously denied any knowledge of his whereabouts, but local sources indicated that he had been taken by Indonesian special military forces(Kopassus) and was being detained in a make-shift detention facility behind the local police station.

Fifteen minutes before PBI arrived in the town there had been an extended shoot out between rebels and soldiers. Tension was running high, particularly at the police station. Upon arrival, PBI introduced the legal aid lawyer, and stated their purpose. The fact that the leading police officer had good memories of an earlier networking visit with PBI helped ease the tension slightly. The police officer led them to the back of the building. They were greeted at first with confusion, and then open hostility by angry Kopassus soldiers. The policeman had apparently overstepped his office by intruding insuch a manner and he quickly ushered them back out.

A long monologue was delivered by a now very uneasy policeman explaining that this investigation should go no further. When he asked the delegation to leave, PBI replied that if they did, it would be to immediately telephone his superiors and state that the cooperation that had been guaranteed was not forth-coming. The officer hesitantly returned to the special forces camp.

Twenty minutes later, the Kopassus vice-commander for the area emerged in a cloud of rage. A more forceful version of the same monologue was delivered. Attempting to de-escalate the situation, the PBI volunteer sympathised with the soldier's predicament--a difficult and dangerous job made worse by ungrateful locals, unquestioned bravery rewarded only by resentment, etc. Vigorous nodding ensured. The volunteer explained that PBI would be obliged to do a report anyway, and that it would make both their lives easier if PBI could say that local commanders had cooperated.

The vice-commander promptly retreated to the compound once again. Then, to the absolute astonishment of everyone involved, Koes Sofian--presumed to be dead--was lead from the camp, dazed but alive.

Though the volunteers' ad hoc diplomacy was impressive, this story also shows the importance of networking with authorities prior to a visit so as to empower the volunteers in their dealings with police and military officials.

Changeable weather

Nonetheless, as one former volunteer with the Sri Lanka project ruefully recalls, “all the local networking in the world will do you no good if the political climate changes”. If the central government decides upon a change of strategy that will make it less worth their while to cooperate with PBI, then they will not put pressure on local actors. For this reason, volunteers are continually analysing the political situation and trends in the conflict.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez suggested such a shift in policy in May 2004 when he alleged that guerrillas had infiltrated San Jose de Apartado, a peace community in the North-Western region of Uraba in which PBI provides a protective presence (see PN2450, http://peacenews.info/issues/2449/index.php). Uribe claimed that PBI was “obstructing justice” in the peace community. He continued: “I reiterate to the police: if these (foreign human rights observers) continue to obstruct justice, put them in prison. If they have to be deported, deport them.”

PBI responded by announcing an emergency activation of the international support network. Ordinary supporters,parliamentarians and diplomats across the world expressed their support for PBI's work in San Jose, which resulted in high level meetings between Vice President Santos, PBI, and representatives from the UN, the EU and various national governments. The US State Department, as well as a number of embassies, organised a delegation to visit the peace community. Though the situation remains one of concern, the international attention seems to have constrained the actions of the local military, at least in the short term.

Ultimately there are many factors that determine the relationship between PBI's volunteers and the local government forces at any given point in time. Often a simple, calmly-articulated explanation of who PBI is will suffice to defuse tension. But for this to be the case depends on the assiduous telephoning, letter-writing and faxing that goes on tens, hundreds and thousands of miles away.