In 2016, on PBI's 35th anniversary, PBI UK released the documentary "Invisible Mandelas", reflecting on 35 years of providing vital protection to threatened human rights defenders, and the role of PBI UK in supporting this work.
The idea to start Peace Brigades International came from people with practical experience of nonviolence. Especially relevant was the earlier work of the Shanti Sena peace army in India and the World Peace Brigades.
On 12 January 1981 a letter signed by Narayan Desai (Shanti Sena Mandal), Raymond Magee (Peaceworkers), Piet Dijkstra (Foundation for the Extension of Nonviolent Action), Radhakrishana (Gandhi Peace Foundation) and George Willoughby was sent out to a number of organisations. It invited them to attend a conference to revive the idea of an international organisation committed to unarmed third party intervention in conflict situations. This led to a meeting that took place on Grindstone Island, Canada from 13 August to 4 September 1981. The participants discussed:
- The experiences of the many previous nonviolent actions
- The role international peace brigades could play in conflicts
- Organisational approaches (build a new organisation, form a new organisation from existing ones, co-ordinate interested groups, or encourage others to act)
- The relationship peace brigades could have with the United Nations
Having taken a decision to set up a new organisation, the meeting discussed the practicalities such as networking, training, project development, fundraising, and the location of a secretariat. The participants approved a founding statement and a structure: a directorate of 4 people and a General Assembly of approximately 25 people, with subcommittees to develop different areas of work. The name agreed upon for the new organisation was PEACE BRIGADES INTERNATIONAL.
The first work PBI did was in Nicaragua in 1983, where 10 PBI volunteers interposed themselves between US-backed Contras and the Sandinista forces in order to deter hostilities. Subsequently, a PBI team was installed in Guatemala, where work focused on protecting victims and nascent nonviolent organisations in the context of the intense state terror and repression of the Guatemalan civil war. The protection strategy developed in the Guatemala project, consisting of the constant visible presence of foreign volunteers backed up by an international emergency response network, proved so successful that PBI began to receive many more requests for protective accompaniment from around the world.
Over the following decades, PBI has applied its strategy of protective accompaniment in situations of conflict and human rights abuse in El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Haiti, Mexico, Indonesia, Nepal, Kenya and Honduras. It has also been involved in peace initiatives that focus on supporting dialogue and reconciliation. These include a project responding to conflicts in and around Native American communities in the 1990s and participation in the Balkan Peace Team Coalition. PBI focusses on ensuring its strategies are constantly adapted to local situations, and frequently closes projects and opens new ones in response to changing community needs and political realities. PBI currently has field teams in Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Honduras and Kenya, and offers capacity-building support to human rights defenders in Indonesia and in Nepal.
When PBI first started in 1981 there were no country groups – only an International Office, initially in Philadelphia. As PBI field projects expanded throughout the 1980s, numbers grew of ex-PBI volunteers who had returned to their home countries and wanted to stay involved with the work of PBI. By 1988, there were PBI country groups in a number of European countries, but not in the UK. In that year one returning British volunteer, Bué Alred, took up the challenge of developing PBI UK. A meeting of the European country groups was called to which an open invitation was put out for anyone in the UK interested in the work of PBI to attend. Apart from Bué, three turned up.
From humble beginnings in which these initial four volunteers struggled to build the organization from their homes around the country, PBI UK managed to set up their first office in Bradford in 1989, and held their first volunteer training in 1990. The following year Tim Wallis, one of the four PBI UK founders, was given the job of PBI International Secretary. The PBI International Office was moved to London, where it remained until moving to Brussels in 2018. Since 2002, PBI UK has sent over 90 volunteers to PBI field projects around the world.
Key dates in PBI's history
1981 PBI founded
1983 - 1999 Guatemala Project, reopened 2002
1987 - 1992 El Salvador project
1989 - 1998 Sri Lanka project
1992 - 1999 North America project
1994 Colombia project established
1994 - 2001 Participation in the Balkan Peace Team
1995 - 2001 Haiti project
1996 PBI joins SIPAZ coalition, Chiapas, Mexico
1998 Mexico project established
1999 - 2011 Indonesia project
2002 Guatemala project reopened
2005 - 2014 Nepal project
2013 Nepal Monitor Project
2013 Kenya project
2013 Honduras project
1989 PBI is awarded the Memorial Per la Pau "Josep Vidal I Llecha"
1995 PBI is awarded the Memorial de la Paz y la Soledaridad Entre los Pueblos
1996 PBI is awarded the Pfeffer International Peace Prize
1999 PBI is awarded the Aachener International Peace Prize, and the Medalla Comemorativa de la Paz by the Rigoberta Menchú Túm Foundation
2001 PBI's 20th Anniversary with international conference in Switzerland.
2001 PBI awarded the Martin Ennals Prize for Human Rights Defenders, and is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize
2011 Jaime Brunet Prize for the promotion of human rights