Unarmed bodyguards

IssueDecember 2002 - February 2003
Feature by Peace Brigades International

Peace Brigades International (PBI) is a non-governmental organisation working with communities world-wide to address conflicts in nonviolent ways. We send teams of volunteers into areas of conflict to “make space for peace”.

PBI only enters countries where our international presence has been requested, and after a thorough study of the specific conflict. After that, we assess whether PBI's presence would be effective in dissuading violence, or in persuading parties to address their difficulties nonviolently.

PBI's strength lies in its teams of volunteers who work with grassroots organisations experiencing violent conflict. The current project in Colombia is the largest project in PBI's 21-year history. (Other current projects are in Indonesia and Mexico.)

Protective accompaniment

The way PBI works to protect human rights defenders and transform conflict nonviolently varies between its different projects. PBI is best known for its pioneering work in developing the use of protective accompaniment to safeguard human rights activists who are under threat. By escorting a threatened individual or organisation, PBI's “unarmed bodyguards” have been able to deter potential aggressors who fear the political repercussions if their violence is witnessed by a foreign observer.

Protective accompaniment takes many forms: from being with an individual 24 hours per day to being present in the offices of a threatened organisation, from acting as “observers” at a peaceful marcho r protest to travelling with people on risky journeys. “The accompaniment volunteers are a living bridge between the threatened activists and the outside world, and also between their own home communities and the reality of the global struggle for human rights. [They] experience a rare privilege of standing at the side of some of the world's most courageous and committed activists.” Liam Mahony & Luis Enrique Eguren, Unarmed Bodyguards: International Accompaniment for the Protection of Human Rights (Kumarian Press, 1997). Often volunteers wear a PBI t-shirt or the PBI symbol sewn onto their clothes to identify themselves and remind potential aggressors of their presence. This presence, however, must then be backed by an international network of concerned and informed supporters, individuals and organisations. In Colombia, PBI repeatedly visits public offices in order to register their concern about particular events, demonstrating that there is international awareness of the threats to individuals and organisations.

Support networks

PBI's support networks are designed to react promptly to a human rights crisis and apply specific pressure to prevent further acts of violence. PBI coordinates two such alert networks: a grass-roots network called the Emergency Response Network and a network of high-level contacts known as the PBI Support Network. The networks are comprised of PBI members and other concerned individuals, academic and religious organisations, government representatives, the UN and non-governmental bodies such as Amnesty International.

In life-threatening situations PBI will activate the most appropriate alert system. This may happen whenever one of the teams or someone they accompany is faced with death threats, abduction, arrest or assault. A case sheet is sent out with details of the violation and perpetrators, background information, the suggested wording of an appeal, and the contact details of the intended recipients. Participants are asked to immediately send faxes, emails or letters to government and military authorities in the country in which the crisis is occurring or to approach their own MPs to do it on their behalf.

Within hours of the initial incident, there are hundreds of faxes and emails protesting against the violation. The weight of this mass appeal has a significant impact on the recipients, making them aware that such violations are not occurring in isolation and the eyes of the international community are upon them.

These networks multiply the protective power of PBI's international presence, while giving thousands of citizens around the world a way to learn about the conflicts and to take effective action.

Peace education

Over the years, PBI has learned a great deal about addressing conflicts nonviolently. The organisation continues to model new ways of doing this through imparting what it knows and learning how others do it. PBI peace education provision is in response to requests from local people for support in addressing a history of structural violence and finding new and more peaceful ways to deal with their conflicts.

The long-term success of peace education depends on strengthening the capacity of local people to understand nonviolent conflict transformation and to pass these skills on to others. To this end, PBI runs “training for trainers” programmes. Themes that are explored include conflict analysis, nonviolent action in the struggle against impunity, nonviolent communication, participative ways to manage conflicts, and conflict prevention.

Observation, analysis & reporting

Human rights violations occurring in other countries are easily ignored and the people who try to defend themselves struggle to have their voices heard. A vital part of PBI's work is to help those repressed voices reach out to people allover the world. Abuse thrives in silence, but by carrying out regular observation, analysis and reporting of conflicts and human rights situations, PBI can inform the world what is happening and encourage action.

PBI works at a grass roots level: a good position to monitor what is happening. In developing close contacts with local non-governmental organisations and local, regional and national authorities, and through working openly and objectively, PBI builds relationships that yield a great deal of valuable information.

Field teams write regular reports reviewing socio-political developments and the changing state of human rights in a region. These reports, which are distributed from an international project office, are politically non-partisan in that they do not express a PBI point of view, but rather promote the need for respect for human rights. And they provide a valuable source of reliable information for other non-governmental organisations and diplomatic missions.

Consequently, PBI has had its work endorsed by a wide variety of governmental and non-governmental representatives. “...the embassy, on behalf of the Government of Canada, appreciates and admires the work which you are carrying out, not only in Barrancabermeja but in the whole country. I have no doubt at all that you are saving lives and that you're giving critical support to Colombian NGOs who are fighting for a better and fairer Colombia. I think it is no exaggeration to say that the whole diplomatic community supports this work.” Nicholas Coghlan, Canadian Embassy in Colombia “I would like to pay tribute to the work of Peace Brigades International and to the bravery of their volunteers. Through their work, they are able to provide the sort of protection in Chocó Urabá and elsewhere [in Colombia] that armed forces cannot provide.” Tony Lloyd, Minister of State, in a statement to UK Parliament, 1999.


Every day, PBI's field projects in Colombia, Mexico and Indonesia receive logistical support from a project office and are managed by a project committee. PBI also has 21 offices, representing countries throughout Europe, North America and the South Pacific. PBI UK is one such “country group”. This London office supports and promotes PBI by recruiting and training volunteers locally, fundraising for the projects and developing and activating the alert networks. It generates moral and political support for PBI projects and raises awareness of human rights violations in the regions where PBI works.

Like most country groups, PBI UK depends almost entirely on the labour of unpaid volunteers.

The broadest level of PBI's strategic direction is decided by the PBI General Assembly which takes place once every three years. Between these events, such decisions are handled by an International Council which is comprised of representatives from country groups and the field projects, and a number of finance, administrative, executive, communications and public relations committee representatives.

Project volunteers

The field volunteers are people with a strong belief in nonviolence, peace and the work of PBI and human rights. Because they live with other volunteers for at least a year in a conflict zone, they are capable of working under pressure and with tact and diplomacy. Maturity and a sense of humour are vital.

While no volunteer has ever been seriously injured working on a project, the work does present many challenges and is certainly not glamorous.

All volunteers are chosen and trained by PBI. In some countries, including Britain, prospective volunteers attend an orientation weekend to take them through self-evaluation and an exploration of their motives for getting involved. If successful, they are invited for seven to ten days of project training. They are all over 25 and fluent in the relevant language.