April 23, 2014
  
  • Promoting nonviolence and protecting human rights defenders since 1981
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PBI's History

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.

After a number of ad-hoc international peace initiatives, 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, attended by Raymond Magee, Lee Stern, Henry Wiseman, Murray Thomson, Narayan Desai, Gene Keyes, Charles Walker, Dan Clark, Mark Shepard and Jaime Diaz.

Among them, they had participated in numerous peace actions and organisations. Although some women had been invited, none were able to attend, and the minutes note: ’Those present deeply regretted the lack of women participants.’ They discussed:

  • the experiences of the many previous nonviolent actions;
  • the role international peace brigades could play in conflicts,
  • non-partisanship,
  • organisational approaches (build a new organisation, form a new organisation from existing ones, co-ordinate interested groups, or encourage others to act) and,
  • 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 meeting 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.

During the meeting, an interim name 'International Peace Brigades' had been used. According to the minutes, the meeting arrived at a decision on the name in the following way, ‘ Murray Thompson suggested that all present submit possible names that would sit well with governments, foundations, and the general public. … during and after the coffee break, the following name emerged to general approval upon first being voiced by Narayan Desai, and seized upon by Charles Walker: PEACE BRIGADES INTERNATIONAL.

An excerpt from the minutes reads:

‘We are forming an organisation with the capacity to mobilise and provide trained volunteers in areas of high tension, to avert violent outbreaks. Peace brigades, fashioned to respond to specific needs and appeals, will undertake nonpartisan missions, which may include peacemaking initiatives, peacekeeping under a discipline of nonviolence, and humanitarian service. …We are building on a rich and extensive heritage of nonviolent action. We are convinced that this commitment of mind, heart, and dedicated will can make a significant difference in human affairs’

A PBI volunteer accompanies an exhumation of a mass grave, Guatemala 1998
A PBI volunteer accompanies an exhumation of a mass grave, Guatemala 1998

Nicaragua (1983)

The first work PBI did was in Nicaragua. In September 1983, 10 PBI volunteers maintained a short presence in Jalapa, close to the Honduran border, interposing themselves between US-backed contras and the Sandinista forces in order to deter hostilities. This initial PBI work was taken over and continued by Witness for Peace.

Guatemala (1983-1999)

In 1983, PBI installed its first team in Guatemala during a period of intense state terror and repression. PBI’s work rapidly focused on protecting victims and nascent nonviolent organisations confronting government violence. From 1985, PBI pioneered international protective accompaniment with the leaders and activists of the Mutual Support Group for Families of the Disappeared (GAM), some of whose leaders had been brutally assassinated by the agents of the state. The remaining leaders had been threatened. Rather than close down or flee into exile, GAM asked PBI if it could provide round-the-clock nonviolent escorts, counting on the belief that the government's sensitivity to foreign witnesses would prevent further assassinations.

After our accompaniment began, not a single GAM leader was killed. The Group went on to become the first human rights group to survive the Guatemalan terror and credits its survival to the protective presence of PBI's international volunteers.

This success led to rapid expansion, and over the next 15 years PBI protected hundreds of Guatemalan activists and civil society organisations from state attack. Protection consisted of the constant visible presence of a foreign volunteer, backed up by an international emergency response network capable of responding rapidly to an attack with a barrage of international pressure. The growing sensitivity of the government to international pressure made this technique particularly effective.

PBI protected nearly every significant local civilian effort during a long period of reconstruction of a civil society after total devastation by state terror. This included trades unions, farmers organisations, student activists, and a powerful new network of Mayan organisations. During this time, PBI sent over a thousand volunteers from many countries to Guatemala, and developed support groups in fifteen countries. After the signing of the peace accords PBI undertook an evaluation with the organisations we accompanied. The Project was closed in 1989 after the evaluation concluded that there was no longer a need for PBI’s work.

An Army brigade forcibly recruiting campesinos, San Miguel, El Salvador, 1989.
An Army brigade forcibly recruiting campesinos, San Miguel, El Salvador, 1989.

El Salvador (1987-1992)

In the late 1980s, PBI began to receive many more requests for protective accompaniment from around the world. In 1987, at the invitation of Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez, PBI started working in El Salvador. Most of the work consisted of providing international protective accompaniment to threatened popular organsations and regular visits to villages of returned refugees. Groups with whom we worked included COMADRES (Committee of Mothers and Relatives of the Disappeared), UNTS and FENASTRAS (trade unions), CRIPDES (Christian Committee for Internal Refugees), and AMS (Women's organisation). After the signing of the peace accords in 1992, the Project was closed as there was no longer a need for our work.

Sri Lanka (1989-1998)

In 1989 a team was installed in Sri Lanka during some of the worst violence between government forces and the People’s Liberation Front (JVP) and continued to protect human rights defenders and community activists until 1998, when PBI was told that if it wished to remain working in Sri Lanka it would have to submit its reports to the authorities to be censored prior to their publication. This demand was not compatible with PBI’s mission, so the project was closed.

North America (1992-1999)

PBI also established peace teams that did not focus on accompaniment. In 1992 a project was opened in North America aimed at responding to conflicts in and around Native American communities. This work began after the 1990 military confrontation between Mohawk warriors and the Canadian Army near Montreal, Quebec. The project's work involved supporting local dialogue and reconciliation, training local human rights monitors and anti-racist education in Canada.

PBI volunteer Peter Leblanc with Venerable G. Asami and two participants in the International Interfaith Pilgrimage for Peace, Sri Lanka, 1996.
PBI volunteer Peter Leblanc with Venerable G. Asami and two participants in the International Interfaith Pilgrimage for Peace, Sri Lanka, 1996.

Colombia (1994-)

In 1994, PBI opened a project in Colombia. With the spreading violence in Colombia and PBI's growing strength internationally, this rapidly became the largest deployment yet. It expanded to four teams in different regions involving the constant presence of up to 40 volunteers accompanying human rights activists and internally displaced people who faced attacks and harassment from paramilitary squads.

Haiti (1992 - 2001)

The 1990s saw a flowering of peace team efforts, largely based on the models provided by Witness for Peace and PBI. In 1993, in response to increasing military violence in Haiti after the 1991 coup, a coalition called "Cry for Justice" was established, led by Pax Christi USA, and including PBI, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Christian Peacemaker Teams and a dozen other organisations. Cry for Justice sent 75 volunteers to Haiti in late 1993 to provide a short-term peaceful presence in six different towns suffering from high levels of violence.

After the return of Haitian president Aristide in 1995, PBI fielded a long-term team that offered training programmes in nonviolent conflict resolution. The aim was to establish a network of Haitian trainers to continue the work in a country devastated by years of tyranny and military rule.

Balkan Peace Team coalition (1994-2001)

The Balkan Peace Team International (BPTI) was a coalition of mostly European groups who set up long-term teams in three different locations in Croatia, Serbia and Kosovo/a. These teams carried out a variety of peace-building work including providing support to local human rights and nonviolence efforts, fostering dialogue among civilian groups in search of peace amidst ethnic rivalry, and building links between like-minded local peace organisations in different parts of the former Yugoslavia region.

SIPAZ coalition, Chiapas, Mexico (1995-)

PBI is a member organisation of SIPAZ that was set up in 1995, in response to growing violence following the Zapatista uprising in 1994 in Chiapas, México. SIPAZ supports the search for nonviolent solutions that contribute to the construction of a just peace through building tolerance and dialogue. At the same time, SIPAZ serves as a bridge for communication. It assists the sharing of information and experiences among organisations and networks that work toward the building of a just and lasting peace at a local, national, regional and international level.

Mexico Project (1998-)

PBI's General Assembly created the Mexico Project in response to requests for international accompaniment by Mexican NGOs in the face of the worsening human rights situation in several states. The team works mainly in Guerrero state, the poorest and most marginalized in Mexico, with many environmental and social justice issues. An office in Mexico City facilitates meetings with federal authorities and diplomats as well as accompanying the Cerezo Committee.

Indonesia Project (2000-2011)

PBI opened its first team in South-East Asia, in West Timor, Indonesia to create the Indonesia Project. Recent and long-standing conflict in regions of Indonesia had led to invitations for a PBI presence by local humanitarian and non-governmental organisations.

Volunteers in teams in Jakarta, in Aceh, and in Wamena and Jayapura on Papua accompanied local human rights organisations. A team of PBI Indonesian and international volunteers worked with local partner organisations in peace education workshops to build capacity for conflict transfomation among local leaders, students, NGOs, officials and faith groups.

Nepal Project (2005-)

The first requests for a PBI presence in Nepal were made by Nepalese human rights organisations in 2003 because of violent conflicts between Maoist insurgents and the government. A number of international organisations, UN entities and embassies also supported the establishment of a PBI Project in Nepal.

In early 2006, the Nepal Project was launched. PBI Nepal has a team of 5 volunteers based in Kathmandu providing protective accompaniment for local human rights organisations.

Kenya Project 2013

Kenyan human rights defenders (HRDs) face numerous challenges and threats, particularly if they work in informal settlements and rural areas, or if they work on sensitive topics such as the ICC trials, land rights, or corruption.
PBI has been working to support Kenyan HRDs since January 2013, following extensive field and desk-based research into the human rights situation in the country and the needs of defenders.


Honduras Project 2013

PBI aims to contribute to the search for justice in a pluralist, participative state through an international presence that enables the opening of political space for human rights defenders from civil society, communities and other social expressions that suffer repression as a result of their work. PBI will carry out this work through physical presence, collecting and analysing information, advocacy and strengthening the capacity of Honduran organisations.

 

Key dates in PBI's history

Field Projects

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-

Nepal project established

2013-

Kenya project

2013-

Honduras project

 

Other Events

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, photo exhibitions in Germany and UK, workshops, celebrations and events in several other countries.

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

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What they say

"PBI is quite different from most other international NGOs I have come across...PBI safeguards rights on the front line by risking their own most basic rights: right to life, dignity and liberty of person."
Wimal Fernando, Sri Lanka

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PBI resources

We invite you to watch the documentary film "30 years accompanying hope" (in Spanish) made by the PBI Guatemala Project as part of the activities carried out to celebrate 30 years since PBI arrived in the country. A "Photo Exhibition" complements the film.

Mexican Human Rights Defenders explain what PBI accompaniment has meant to them.
Video

Starting all over again, PBI accompanies farming families returning to their lands, Cesar, Colombia
Video
Photos
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International Office, Development House, 56-64 Leonard Street, London EC2A 4LT, U.K. Tel: +44 20 7065 0775
To find your nearest PBI office visit the international contact page