Protective Accompaniment and Violence in Colombia

Peace Brigades International faces new challenges as human rights violations increase

By Erica Zaraté | 2000-10-01 12:00:00

Dear Friends,

Yesterday we visited the village of La Unión. It was an emotional trip for me because it was the first time I had returned to the community since the massacre of July 8. We rode up to La Unión on mule. I rode with a young girl from the community, and as we proceeded slowly along the steep muddy trail she told me about her classes at school and we practiced counting. Then, without pausing, she began to talk about the massacre. Her father was one of those killed. She talked in detail about the events of July 8 in the same tone of voice she had talked about her troubles learning to read, as if it was all a strange story she couldn't quite understand...

Above is an excerpt from a recent letter from Peace Brigades International (PBI) volunteer, Scott Pearce, a Canadian working on the PBI-Colombia Team. As an international volunteer, he offers protective accompaniment and other non-violence skills to local human rights defenders and citizen organizations, such as the members of the peace community of San José de Apartadó.

This recent massacre in San José, allegedly instigated jointly by military and paramilitary troops, is one of the latest attacks against local human rights and nonviolence initiatives. Six people were assassinated in La Unión (the peace community of San José de Apartadó,Antioquia, Colombia) on July 8, 2000. Twenty hooded men entered the village of La Unión and gathered together the villagers. After asking them several questions and, accusing them of "helping the guerrillas," they separated the women, children, and old people and opened fire on the remaining group of men, killing six of them. They left immediately following the massacre, warning the villagers to flee the area within three weeks.

According to the Intercongregational Commission for Justice and Peace (Colombia), Amnesty International, and the World Movement Against Torture, a helicopter, probably belonging to the XVII Brigade of the Army, flew over the site of the massacre, and troops from the same Brigade were seen close by during the same time period. Some of the same soldiers threatened people in the area, saying they would "come in with the paramilitaries and finish the job off."

San José is one of the peace communities formed by displaced villagers who have declared themselves neutral in Colombia's increasingly violent civil war. This represents their attempt to regain social security and economic stability that was not afforded to them with the status as internal refugees. It is because of such events that the presence of PBI in Colombia is necessary.

The Colombia Project

PBI began its Colombia Project in 1994 in response to requests from local human rights defenders and NGOs working nonviolently for resolution of the 53-year civil war that has persistently restricted political, social and economic development in the country. From an initial team of seven volunteers working in BogotÁ and Magdalena Medio, the Colombia Team has expanded to over 30 volunteers working on four sub-teams, including the region of UrabÁ and the city of MedellÍn.

The main aspect of PBI's work in the field is protective accompaniment, based on the theory that international presence can be used as a deterrent to violence instigated by armed actors who are sensitive to international pressure. Essentially, international volunteers accompany threatened local citizens and organizations to allow them to continue their work for social justice, garnering them "breathing space." PBI-Colombia volunteers accompany individual workers on their daily activities, are present in the offices of local NGOs, and rotate for short stays in the peace communities in UrabÁ.


Security issues are an integral part of PBI's strategy of accompaniment. Everyone involved with the PBI-Colombia Project helps the team to strike a balance between ensuring the safety of those who the volunteers accompany and to not put the volunteers' own lives at unnecessary risk. Assessing our impact as an international presence has led us to reject many petitions for accompaniment in regions where PBI could not guarantee its volunteers' security and the security of those who we accompany.

As a basic starting point, PBI volunteers on the Colombia Team must meet certain pre-requisites. To be selected, they must be 25 years of age, fluent in Spanish, and have previous experience in developing countries, NGO work and team situations. All volunteers have several weeks of training which cover several topics from current events and regional politics, to political theory and security issues.

Some of the security measures that PBI undergoes in the field include sustaining well-orchestrated and fluid communication with government members and officials (at ministerial and sub-ministerial levels), security forces (at all levels), religious institutions, and NGOs. This communication is a key factor in ensuring that all of these actors fully understand our work as well as correcting misperceptions, both theirs and ours. It also helps us to have an overall view of the scenario and its evolution. Another important measure of security is establishing close connections with the international community to promote international aware ness, and if needed, international action.

International Concern

When a Peace Brigades volunteer witnesses a human rights violation in Colombia, PBI mobilizes international support through its protection network. This network is composed of over 1000 organizations, community groups, institutions and individuals in at least 12 countries who can begin responding within a few hours upon the release of an urgent appeal. The ultimate purpose of these appeals is to activate pressure from other countries in order to ensure that the Colombian government does not allow such violations of human rights and international humanitarian law to occur again and to ensure that those responsible for these violations are held accountable. While this is our aim, the Colombian government has been slow to respond to international concern.

The Colombian government has been under considerable pressure by the international community to improve its human rights record since it was documented by several leading human rights organizations as having the worst record in the Americas. As a result, its direct military involvement in political assassinations and massacres has dropped, although paramilitary activity has increased more than proportionately and is now being responsible for 78% of all human rights violations in the country.

This summer has borne witness to this disturbing trend of paramilitary aggression, and the apparent collusion between these paramilitary groups and the state forces on several fronts, including the politically motivated massacre of San José de Apartadó as one example.

With the approval of $1.3 billion dollars in military aid from the United States, which was approved by waiving the requirement for Colombia to meet human rights standards, this violence is expected to further increase. Several local and international human rights organizations have expressed their concern about this matter, due to the lack of denunciation from international governments against such measures that override concern for human rights. As stated by Human Rights Watch, "Ultimately, the waiver defeats the purpose of any policy meant to improve human rights."

PBI's method of protective accompaniment is not a panacea for the violence that plagues the lives of every Colombian. The effectiveness of its work is restricted largely by governments that do not support PBI's appeals to act and by armed actors who are not affected by international disapproval.

In addition to protective accompaniment, PBI also offers training in nonviolence, conflict resolution and psycho-social reconstruction, which have been equally in high demand not only by local organizations, but also by international organizations mobilizing international concern, PBI has succeeded in gaining support from key government officials, notably in Canada from David Kilgour, Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, who expressed his concern to the Vice President of Colombia, Dr. Gustavo Bell Lemus, about the San José massacre. What is needed now is to continue to improve these international connections in the effort to persuade the Colombian government to guarantee the protection of human rights and make those who commit these acts of violence to be held accountable.

Next training for the PBI-Colombia Team is December 2-10, 2000 in San Francisco. For more information on how to become a field volunteer, or how you can help support Peace Brigades International in other ways, please contact PBI-Canada at: <>. tel: (416) 324-9737. web site: <www.>.

Erika Zaraté is a staff member of PBI in Toronto.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2000

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2000, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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