What is International Accompaniment?
Communities and human rights defenders under threat sometimes ask for international accompaniment so they're able to continue their work and so that their work gains visibility on an international level. The experiences of various organizations in Colombia demonstrate that international presence in a conflict region can diminish considerably the risks faced by civilians targeted by armed actors that consider them the collaborators of their adversaries.
How International Accompaniment Works
International protective accompaniment is a non violent strategy for protecting threatened individuals and communities in the midst of an armed conflict or political violence. It is based on the principles of non violence, non interference and impartiality.
As Liam Mahony and Luis Enrique Eguren explain in "Unarmed Bodyguards," accompaniment literally personifies the international concern for human rights. It is a convincing and visible reminder to those who use violence that their actions won’t go unnoticed. The premise of accompaniment is that there will be an international response to whatever violence is observed by our international teams. That request carries the implicit threat of diplomatic or economic pressure; a pressure that the perpetrators of violence want to avoid. Therefore, all of our efforts focus on the prevention of attacks on those we accompany.
Because of this, the armed actors and civilians in the conflict area should have explicit knowledge of the physical presence of the international accompaniers as well as the support network that backs them up. The work therefore is two pronged: the physical presence of the volunteers and the political/diplomatic work that raises the visibility of the accompaniment as well as of the accompanied person.
Protective accompaniment works on various levels.
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. Armed groups and aggressors with links to political and economic influential 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 and other aggressors to be less likely to commit acts of violence.
The international community is constantly communicating its concerns to other organizations, the diplomatic core, 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 and other aggressors 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.
Building a Movement
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 international team and our partners on the grounds, but also between our wider networks of family members, friends and other organizations that support the work from afar.