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Peace Talks Radio Host Carol Boss talks with Katherine Hughes-Fraitekh, Liam Mahony and Dana Brown of Peace Brigades International

Boss: Katherine, can explain the basic philosophy and the mission of PBI Peace Brigades International?

Hughes-Fraitekh: Sure Carol, basically, our basic philosophy is based on nonviolent strategies and philosophies to deal with conflict resolution. We believe that nonviolence is much more effective, actually cost effective as well and efficient for long-term peace than any kind of war or violence would be. Our vision, which is very broad, is that Peace Brigades International envisions the world in which people address conflicts nonviolently, where human rights are universally upheld, and social justice and international respect have become a reality. We know we're a ways off achieving that but that's our vision. And we work with what we call protective accompaniment and we can describe that a bit more in detail. But we have international observers and well-trained volunteers and teams on the ground in countries of conflict. And we work to protect human rights defenders that are at risk and peacemakers that are working in their local communities to focus on peace and justice to spread peace and justice in their communities.

Boss: Well, I think it's a good time now to describe for our listeners what an accompanier is and also a human rights defender.

Mahoney: Sure, I think the idea of accompaniment is fundamentally -- it first starts with the, our belief that it's local people in these conflicts that are going to do the most to change things. So what we've tried to do in developing accompaniment is figure out how do we give them the space to do it. How do we protect them so they can actually take risks and try to change this, the terrible things going on in their own societies. And what we found starting way back in Guatemala in 1983 was that just having a foreign volunteer with them was some level of protection, because whether it was dictators or death squads or whoever that it was who was out to get them, they really didn't want to carry out attacks right in front of the international community with us watching. Now, as far as who those activists are, "human rights defender" is actually a recent term that's been developed. But the whole idea is these are people in civil society who are trying to organize change in their own society, to change dynamics of human rights abuse and conflict. Whoever is taking those risks we are trying to strategize and work together with them to figure out where can we place an international presence and place international pressure outside most effectively to keep them safe so they can keep on doing their work.

Boss: Well, can you describe more fully the scenario in Guatemala when this model was, I guess essentially developed? What happened when the team members, the people who are being protective accompaniers, arrived? What did they discover?

Mahoney: Well, the interesting thing is they arrived in Guatemala in 1983 not intending to do this. They went to just look for how can we be helpful, how can we support. And what they found was, after they've been there a while and got to know people, it was the Guatemalans themselves who came to Peace Brigades and said, what you really can do best for us is just be here where they can see you. Because we don't think they are going to kill us if you are right in front of them. And so the notion of accompaniment was actually suggested to Peace Brigades by Guatemalan activists, mostly of this group that was called the "Families of Disappeared" who had all lost family members and who were also being killed off as well as leaders of this group. And they just said look, get people down here to be with us. And even though this was the Guatemalan military dictatorship of the 1980s who seemed to have no limits in what they would do to people, they didn't think they'd kill them, while we were with them and in fact they didn't. As soon as we started generating a lot of volunteers to go to Guatemala and just stay with all these organizations, the track record was astounding. Well, I mean this all these activists who were being attacked and killed in their early 80s, the ones who were accompanied by Peace Brigades once we started doing this, were able to keep on doing their work.

Boss: You just mentioned something that, from what I've been reading, seems to be a critical part of Peace Brigades International. And that is the whole notion that a peace can't be imposed from the outside, but that it has to be based on the desires of the local people and it's by request.

Hughes-Fraitekh: Yes, basically as Liam mentioned, a lot of the ideas that we have for our work came from local groups, what makes most sense to them. And our work is driven by them, by what they say would be most helpful for them. A lot of the work we do, we've actually expanded over the years from this first model to become more effective, based on that. Some of it is connecting them. "Bridging and Convening" we call it. Connecting them to the outside world to networks to other human rights activists within the country that they may not have access to. Many of the activists are very isolated working in isolated areas. And so we have the capability through our international networks, including 15 or 16 country groups that work in Europe, North America, which PBI USA is one of those and Australian, New Zealand and we've just started one in Argentina, that connect them into the outside world and that have focus on also multi level diplomacy so it's another level of the deterrence to the violence that Liam been talking about.

Boss: Dana Brown you recently returned from a trip in Columbia as an accompanier. Do you have an experience that you can share with us that gives us a vivid picture of what you and your team have done?

Brown: Well, one of my most memorable accompaniments was when we accompanied a human rights lawyer that we've worked with for 10 years now. Who is based in Bogotá but he is not originally from Bogotá. He and most of his team are from the coast, from the Atlantic coast of the country, and have been displaced because of their work, because of repeated threats on their lives and threats on their family. So this particular lawyer who is a very well known lawyer in the country works not only with his organization, which was the committee in solidarity with political prisoners, but he works on national human rights platforms, has brought cases internationally at criminal court et cetera, very well known lawyer. He was going back to a community that he had worked in previously for the first time in 14 years. And he hadn't gone back because of the risks that he runs in that particular zone of the country, because he is very well known there, because that's where he is from and because there is a high paramilitary presence in that part of the country.

So he had actually been carrying a case for 14 years without having visited the victims and been able to interview them himself in 14 years. It's an entire community that was displaced by the paramilitary forces and hadn't been able to return to their land. And they were working at the moment that this accompaniment happened a few months ago, to return to their land. And he decided that it was finally time for him to go back and he asked for our accompaniment because he didn't feel comfortable going alone. And he knew that because of the political work we do we would be raising his profile, that he would know that people knew he was there and that if something happened, there would be a large reaction. So and he is a very wonderful but also a very stoic man. And it was an incredibly emotional experience for me. Because as soon as we got there, and it's a long trip. You get on a bus, you get off the bus in the middle of nowhere, you get on another bus, you get on a boat, you cross the river and all of a sudden we show up at this tiny little community. And the community itself, everyone is standing on the shore waiting for us. And they run up to him and they say "Doctor, Doctor," they call lawyers "Doctor" in Columbia. And he just bursts into tears because he is so overwhelmed by seeing these people that he hasn't been able to see in so long. That he has been terrified to go back and se in person, because of the threats that he has received and here we are with him and with some of the junior lawyers that he works with shaking hands with these people. And he is bawling. I mean no one I know has ever seen him cry. So it was just a gorgeous moment that I think typifies what we are there to do. Which is to allow people to do the work that they want to be doing. So that their country can move forward.

Boss: Liam, can you give some more instances of where accompaniment has achieved some notable successes?

Mahony: Well it's interesting because one of the tough things about analyzing the impact of accompaniment is that you can only be really certain if you fail. Obviously if somebody got killed that we were accompanying, it would be considered quite a failure. Although, it doesn't happen. But if somebody doesn't get killed or doesn't get hurt, it's kind of hard to prove that it happened because we were there. But if you really look back at the track record, we started doing this in early 1980s in Guatemala and then started in 1994 in Colombia. We've literally protected thousands of activists who were on death squad lists over the years in the many countries we've worked. And if you look at the statistics that they actually haven't been killed it's quite incredible. I mean it's really not the statistics for people who are not getting this kind of protection. So, you can sort of see the effect that way. The other place that I'd say you can see a real impact is sort of over the long-term. Like, for instance, Peace Brigades went into Colombia in the mid 1990s. Some of the organizations, we accompany today in 2010, are literally the same organizations we began accompanying in 1994, 1995 and 1996. So for 15 years those organizations have been able to essentially survive and flourish and become, you know, gradually more important fixtures on the political landscape of Colombia to really standup for people's rights and for what Colombia needs to be. And the same thing happened in my experience in Guatemala, which was from the 1980s all the way through the late 1990s when we were in Guatemala the first period, we accompanied groups that went from working completely clandestinely, where they were in hiding, to going public, to creating large movements, to forming parts of a peace process that led to peace accords in the late 1990s. And after those peace accords, some of the people we accompanied went on to become members of Congress in Guatemala. And so you were seeing a whole political transition, in which key activists who were trying to fix things were protected and survived to do that because of this ongoing accompaniment.

It's not so easy to prove that what we do works, okay? It is just that the activists truly believe it works and they feel very encouraged and build their movements much more powerfully because they have this presence with them. But it's not like you are going to walk up to some dictator and he's going to say, "Oh, well you know, we were going to kill that guy, but we didn't, because you were standing next to him." You don't get that kind of proof of impact, it's pretty hard to find. Although there's a few instances that are quite interesting in that respect. We had one case about 7 or 8 years ago in Colombia where Peace Brigade's volunteers were staying that night in the home of a local human rights activists who was in great danger. And the death squad came and knock on the door and broke into the house to take him away. And the Peace Brigade's volunteers basically stood up right in front and introduced themselves and said they were an international organization that was there to make sure that human rights were respected, and the death squad turned around and left. And that's really rare in part, possibly, because accompaniment works so well, which is to say most of the time, they don't even come and knock on the door. Because our assumption is they know the people who we are with are being accompanied and they've already made that calculation. And so there are so many instances of success that I would say we can't really document. We don't know how many times they don't knock on the door.

Boss: What can listeners take from these stories and these techniques and how can they apply them to their lives and their own personal conflicts?

Mahony: One of the things that I think that the Peace Brigades experience has demonstrated is that very often, you know, people who are doing things that you think are bad are a lot more sensitive than you think they are. I mean, almost every place we've gone and tried to do this kind of work, people at first has said, "this will never work, they're crazy, they just kill people, they don't listen," you know, whether they're saying it's, you know, military dictators in Guatemala or you know, drug-crazed paramilitary assassins in Colombia, the assumption at first is, this won't work and therefore people don't try. But the key dynamic of what we do is we're basically saying, having someone, accompany someone who is in trouble and watching and observing and stepping in, in some way to sort of aid them, is actually something that those who are attacking them pay attention to. And if you look at that locally and domestically there are tons of examples. One example that occurs to me is, after 9/11, for instance. There were a lot of immigrant communities in United States who were under attack, particularly Arab communities in the United States. And there were Peace Brigade volunteers and other community people all over the country who were trying to figure out ways for non-Arab communities to accompany those people who were being threatened, to sort of show that they were not alone and that they couldn't be singled out and marginalized and that's basically accompaniment at a domestic level. And it can happen out of personal and community level as well. You can just generalize this dynamic, which is if, if one community that's not under attack, one set of people that are not under attack step in and stand beside those who are under attack, those who are attacking them are likely to have a second thought and think about it.

Hughes-Fraitekh: I think another important and very powerful impact of Peace Brigades International work and nonviolent strategy in general, is the fact that we believe that nonviolence, as Gandhi said, is a transformative tool. So it's not just about winning something or enforcing power over someone. We're really looking at, protecting these communities that are trying to transform. And I spoke with one of our volunteers, an Italian volunteer actually in Mexico. And he said to me, "I couldn't do this kind of work, I couldn't work with Peace Brigades International and talk to dictators and talk to Defense Directors who I know have tortured these friends and these people that were working within their families, unless I truly believe that there was a good part of every human being. That there was something inside that could be reached and could be transformed." And I think that's another important aspect in our every day work with people that we have conflict with, with people politically that we are up against or disagree with, that we really believe all of us have something very good and human in each of us. And that can be transformed. And that there's a way to shift that through nonviolent strategy and modeling and working for peace.

Boss: Why is it important for Americans to care about human rights in other countries such as Colombia or Guatemala for example?

Hughes-Fraitekh: I believe it's very important for us as Americans. We have a huge impact on the world. We are the largest military power and one of the largest economic powers in the world right now. The countries that we're working in - Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Nepal and Indonesia right now- all of those countries, the U.S. has a very strong impact. For instance, just this week, we just signed a military protocol with Indonesia and are going to be giving more military aid to their country. We work very closely with Colombia. They are one of our largest aid recipients both military and otherwise. And Mexico obviously is on our border and a very big impact with what's happening there with the violence. So I think it?s very important. Our tax dollars, our hard earned tax dollars, go to many of these countries and we need to make sure that those countries and our presence in those countries is actually a positive presence for peace, for development, for supporting communication and work that has a positive impact. Both because it comes back to the U.S. and how people view the U.S. and U.S. citizens. But also because I think that as American citizens most of us want to have a positive impact on the world. And we want to see our constitutional ideas and freedom and peace and justice for trade and other parts of the world and for our money and our presence there to do something positive for people.

Mahoney: Well, I think a key thing as to why it matters to Americans, as to anyone else, is basically moral. There are a lot of people who are hurting, who are in danger and there are things that we can do. And I think the main reason that many, many people do not, get engaged in these kinds of issues that are far away in other places, where they, in fact may hear that people are in pain and suffering, is not because they don't care. It's because they feel it's futile and they don't actually know what they could do or what would work. And that's why I think, you know, one of the things that Peace Brigades is trying to show is that there really are things you can do and that we can do. And there are actually a lot of others that we're not doing. And the key thing is if people felt that there were things they could do that worked and helped and if they could see that difference, a lot more people would be getting engaged in these struggles to support people who are under threat around the world.

Peace Talks Radio Host Carol Boss talks with Mel Duncan, director of Outreach for the Nonviolent Peaceforce

BOSS: How would you say that the Peaceforce's strategies differ from other organizations that also utilize unarmed body guards?

DUNCAN: There are very few organizations, you know, really that utilize unarmed body guards. There's a handful and I'd say that we differ in a number of ways. First of all, as I pointed out, our peacekeepers are paid. Their minimum commitment is for 2 years. They go through rigorous training. They come from throughout the world from both the Global North and the Global South. And they are working as part of a comprehensive strategy that looks at, how to do peacekeeping on an ongoing basis in a particular country or region.

BOSS: How have you seen things changed since the beginnings of Nonviolent Peaceforce?

DUNCAN: I think that one of the biggest changes is that we have a growing number of people who want to do this work. Routinely, we have 10 applicants for every peacekeeper spot that we have available. And people are coming from throughout the world who want to do this work. Secondly, we're seeing that in the field, we have to be much more specialized. So, for example, with our team in Mindanao, now that we have been given a role for civilian protection, we're having to recruit people who have backgrounds in civilian protection and who have specific backgrounds in international humanitarian law. So that we're moving more away from the generalists and into people who have very specific experiences and education. In addition to that, I think the most important thing that we've learned in the field is that our peacekeeping is based upon trust and relationship. Now while we have to be well trained, we have to be disciplined in following our mandate, we have to be strategic. We also see that peacekeeping really flows from a trusting relationship. And so our teams need to be in areas for longer periods of time, as they build this relationship with people in the community and then work with them as those people build the peace in their areas.

BOSS: You know, when we last spoke, you told us, what I'd call a moving story that you as a professional peacemaker was having to see of your own son who volunteered for military duty in Iraq and that was hard for you. How is your son doing?

DUNCAN: Well, he did return after a year in Iraq, where he served as a member of the National Guard. He has struggled, since then with drug addiction and with a number of other problems. And I'm happy to say today that he is clean and is working through a rehab program at the Veteran's Administration and currently, just in the past week, passed his nurse's assistance training and so he's working on the oncology wing at the Veteran's Hospital. I think, Carol, what this point out, is that our son and tens of thousands of men and women, some young, some not so young, are returning with very deep wounds. Some of which are very visible and some are not. And that the services are woefully inadequate to deal with the post dramatic stress with the drug problems with the adjustment problems that people are having as they return from Afghanistan and Iraq. And I'd urge that all of us, as we look to send in more men and women into harm's way, that we include in the upfront cost, the cost of supporting and caring for them when they return.

BOSS: Thank you Mel for sharing this. Last time we spoke you said this, "what we have found as we worked in various parts of the world, was that they're creative and courageous peacemakers in the most violence places in the world today." Can you give us a story, an example?

DUNCAN: In Guatemala, where we had a peacekeeping team who provided protection for Women's Human Rights Defenders Unit. And in that case our team was there for 10 months and provided protection for these women, as they continued to do the necessary work to uncover the genocide that took place there. These women called on us, when they went to their office one day to find that their office had been broken into, that there was a noose hanging from the ceiling, the computers has been stolen and various women had gotten very graphic threats on their cell phones. We were able to provide one on one accompaniers to these women as they continued to do their work. They would have continued to do that work whether we were there or not, and that's the inspiring part. And there are men and women, more often than not women, who are doing this work at this very moment in the most violent place in the world today. And so by us being there, we were able to provide them with support and protection so they would have more confidence and safety in being able to carry out their work. And so as you and I, as people in civil society, which just means regular people throughout the world, we really have a responsibility and an opportunity to reach out to them and to provide them with the support and the protection that they need. So that they can continue to do the courageous and creative peace building and human rights work that they're doing at this very moment.