International protective accompaniment is a strategy pioneered by PBI for protecting human rights defenders and communities whose lives and work are threatened by political violence.
PBI sends teams of volunteers to stand shoulder to shoulder with human rights defenders, deterring violence, persecution and even assassinations. This remarkable display of international solidarity makes PBI unique among international human rights organisations. Over four decades, it has protected the lives and liberty of hundreds of human rights defenders in 11 countries.
Those accompanied have included indigenous communities, environmental organisations, lawyers, women’s organisations, trade unions and relatives of people who were forcibly disappeared. Despite facing daunting threats, PBI's presence has enabled these inspiring activists to continue and expand their work - defending the vulnerable, promoting fundamental rights and freedoms, and laying the groundwork for peaceful societies.
This short video from PBI Colombia explains how our protective accompaniment works.
What difference does accompaniment make?
Protective accompaniment has three mutually reinforcing effects.
1) Protection: The presence of international volunteers protects threatened human rights defenders by raising the stakes for potential attackers.
The premise of accompaniment is that there will be an international response to whatever violence or potential violence the volunteer witnesses. Behind such a response lies the implied threat of diplomatic and economic pressure. The accompaniment volunteer is the embodiment of international human rights concern, a visible message to those using violence that their actions will have consequences.
International accompaniment can succeed in deterring attacks because the decision makers behind these attacks do not want a bad image internationally. They do not want the world to know what they are doing. Making such attacks known and ensuring a strong international response is the job of country groups such as PBI UK.
When defenders face imminent and serious threats, accompaniment is sometimes round the clock. In other situations, volunteers stay with threatened communities or remain in the offices of organisations, and accompany threatened activists when they travel. Another form of accompaniment is regular phone calls to organisations to check on their safety.
2) Moral support: The protective presence of PBI volunteers provides moral support to threatened human rights defenders, giving them the confidence to continue their vital work.
The activities of human rights defenders in pursuit of social justice, nonviolence and the rule of law often challenge the interests of powerful elites. Besides violence, defenders often face defamation and stigma within their home countries. An international presence can be a source of hope. It assures defenders that they are not alone, that their work is important and that their suffering will not go unnoticed.
3) Strengthening the international peace and human rights movement.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with threatened human rights defenders gives accompaniment volunteers a powerful first-hand experience that becomes a source of inspiration to themselves and others upon their return to their home countries.
Accompaniment protection and the line of command
In the more traditional model of international human rights, pressure is usually directed at the top. However, responding to systematic human rights abuses requires engaging with authorities at local, national and international levels. PBI's constant presence on the ground means that we are one of the only organisations that can advocate at all levels - from the soldier at a local checkpoint to the leaders of the UN.
- The accompaniment volunteer is directly visible to potential perpetrators of violence.
- PBI, with its international links, can ensure that international pressure is transmitted to the whole chain of command by meeting regularly with local and national military and civilian authorities to raise concerns about human rights and to raise the profile of our own presence and that of the organisations we accompany.
- International presence strengthens the credibility of the local human rights defenders and their organisations. It also serves as a constant reminder that human rights abuses continue, making it more difficult for states to claim that they are solving the problem themselves.
- The presence of volunteers from many countries engages their embassies and home governments more forcefully in human rights protection, strengthening the overall pressure on decision makers.
- Distributing objective, accurate information based on PBI's in-depth knowledge and unique insights into the political situation as it affects human rights contributes to PBI's credibility, and therefore the effectiveness of the protection it provides.
- Organising activities such as speaker tours, exhibitions, and events raises the profile of PBI's own work and that of accompanied organisations, which in turn creates higher levels of protection.
- PBI’s global emergency networks are alerted when an attack happens; our high-level and grassroots supporters in turn remind authorities in the country where abuses are occurring of international commitments they have made to protect their own citizens.
In 2019, PBI UK began working with , to explore the concept of ‘digital accompaniment’ that will allow NGOs such as PBI UK to quickly respond to threats against human rights defenders in a co-ordinated fashion, in order to amplify the impact of advocacy efforts. This project is currently in development, and holds a huge amount of promise for the future of international protection in the context of shrinking civil space.