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,
- 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’
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.
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 1999 after the evaluation concluded that there was no longer a need for PBI’s work.
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.
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.
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 (2000-2011, 2014-)
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.
Following discussions with civil society organizations and other stakeholders, PBI began a new Indonesia Project in 2014. The project aims to promote human rights in Indonesia through strengthening the capacities of Human Rights Defenders in remote areas, with a focus on their ability to document human rights abuses, advocate to the Indonesian government and internationally, and build their personal security and protection networks.
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 and PBI Nepal had a team of 5 volunteers based in Kathmandu providing protective accompaniment for local human rights organisations. The PBI office in Kathmandu closed on 1 January 2014 but the Nepal Monitor an online human rights protection tool will continue.
Nepal Monitor Project (2013- )
Nepal Monitor is a COCAP protection and conflict prevention initiative, supported by PBI. It's mission is to work with and for Civil Society Activists and Human Rights Defenders to increase their protection and maintain or expand the political space available for their work in favour of peace and human rights in Nepal. The human rights and security incident reports mapped on the site are distributed via e-mail and text message alerts to the members of a network of over 200 Human Rights organizations and individuals across Nepal, who are nearest to the incidents.
Kenya (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 (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.
Nicaragua – Costa Rica (2020- )
Following the political crisis in Nicaragua in 2018, PBI began an accompaniment project for Nicaraguan organisations and social groups exiled in Costa Rica. The project provides capacity development for exiled HRDs, from psychosocial support to organizational strengthening and security and protection strategies, focusing on improving their conditions for an eventual return to Nicaragua.