International protective accompaniment is a strategy for protecting threatened individuals and communities in the midst of an armed conflict or political violence. Protective accompaniment works on various levels.
First, the physical presence of international observers deters violence from happening: most perpetrators don’t want to commit a violent crime in front of a witness. If a person is about to be mugged on the streets of New York and someone walks by on the other side of the street, the aggressor will be less likely to carry out the mugging. Similarly, armed groups want to avoid being identified by a third party in the crimes they commit for fear of being identified later and held responsible. In this way, the presence of an international observer causes armed groups to be less likely to commit acts of violence while they are around.
However, any person walking around (who could be a witness) does not stop violence, especially when an aggressor (or group of them) is dead set on silencing an activist, stopping a trial from moving forward or displacing a community so that a multinational can use the resources on their land. Physical presence is only useful if coupled with political work to back it up. In other words, the physical presence of an individual or team represents the concerns of the international community, literally personifying the international concern for human rights. The international community is constantly communicating its concerns to other organizations, the diplomatic core, the United Nations and government officials both in the country where the violence is taking place and in other countries around the world. The attention brought to the situation causes both the potential aggressor and government officials to fear the repercussions – whether that means going to jail for the person on the ground or diplomatic and economic pressure for the government officials at the top. In this way, accompaniment is preventative and works to avoid violence taking place before it happens.
Physical and political accompaniment helps a threatened individual feel both more safe and encouraged to continue doing his/her work, knowing that the international community supports the work and is vouching for it in a variety of ways. Armed groups use fear and intimidation to stop an activist from continuing to work for justice, but the real and felt experience of being under the watchful eye of the international community, allows the activist to continue and feel morally supported moving forward.
Perhaps the most inspiring part of this strategy is that deep relationships of friendship and solidarity are built between the threatened activist and the international observer, which strengthens the global movement for peace and justice. Our worlds and movements are connected through the relationships between our team and our partners on the grouns, but also between our wider networks of family members, friends and other organizations that support the work from afar.
Physical presence means that we live day in and day out in a peace community village and we walk with peace community members from one village to another. It means that we travel with lawyers from Tierra Digna to the area where communities are affected by mines and we go to the military base where a conscientious objector is being released to accompany him back home, making sure he is safe and sound. Political accompaniment means we meet with the General of the Army brigade that operates in the region, we meet with the US Embassy and the Colombian government, expressing our concerns and asking that the official take action to ensure the safety of our partners. We encourage by being there, by believing in our partners struggles, by being inspired by their commitment and bringing that inspiration home. And we build a movement through our team’s presence on the ground with the our partners, through delegations, speaking tours and publications, by crossing the borders that separate us, by undoing “otherness,” by listening to each other’s stories and struggles and knowing that our futures are deeply tied to one another’s.
Although accompaniment is a powerful tool that has worked to protect people’s lives, we realize it is not perfect. The strategy has been criticized as using nation, race, and class privilege in ways that might reinforce these structures of domination rather than dismantle them. For an analysis of accompaniment and privilege, read this article The Racialization of Accompaniment.