Unarmed Bodyguards: International Accompaniment For The Protection Of Human Rights by Liam Mahoney and Luis Enrique Eguren.
Reviewed by Val Liveoak.
For anyone who is interested in civilian peacekeeping work, or in nonviolent intervention, this book is essential. It is a careful, in-depth study of the work of Peace Brigades International (PBI), founded in 1981. PBI developed international accompaniment of peace activists and human rights workers and groups as a way of preventing the murders of people working nonviolently for change in their countries, enabling them to continue their work.
The first part of the book examines PBI’s work in Guatemala, where family members of people who were killed or disappeared by death squads or the security forces, including Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rigoberta Menchú, were a major pressure group for human rights in one of Central America’s longest civil wars. Mayan human rights worker Amilcar Mendez said, “Without accompaniment, I would not be alive today.”
General and former President Mejia Victores (After a military coup, President from 1983-86) made the case for the official view of human rights groups: “Human rights policies had softened [the El Salvadoran] army and its resolve. We decided we couldn’t repeat that mistake. We couldn’t allow human rights to get in the way of our essential military strategy.” [Pp. 32-33] PBI’s presence helped impede the progress of the strategy to eliminate the “subversive” activities of such groups. As labor organizer Sergio Guzman said, “It’s not that the threats stop when you have accompaniment. Accompaniment questions the threat .” [P. 56]
Former President Vinicio Cerezo (1986-92), the first elected President since 1954 and successor to General Mejia, claimed to have some appreciation of PBI’s offsetting the power of the hard-liners: “Human rights pressure actually enabled me to put more pressure on the security forces. The army was committing human rights abuses because they believed this was part of their job and they thought the human rights groups were aligned with the guerrillas. You have to realize that the civilian government is always between two fires: the conservative sectors on one side and the human rights groups on the other. I was in the middle of the sandwich .” [P. 74]
Mahoney and Eguren’s analysis of the factors involved in PBI’s work is an important contribution to understanding the role of international intervention in similar situations. As an international organization it was effective in marshalling world-wide response, even on the governmental level, to human rights violations. The authors see PBI’s work as increasing the space for local activists to work, while decreasing the impunity with which local authorities can repress the activists work.
When discussing the issues that confront PBI in the future, the authors analyze the possibility of providing real protection in situations where international opinion is of even less importance than it was to the Guatemalan army. Non-state groups, guerrillas, rebels, and so on, have less to lose than standing governments and have likely not become signatories to any international agreements which could be brought into play to stop their attacks on their opponents. Another obstacle is the need to balance the obvious presence of a (usually white) international volunteer with the need of locals to work unobtrusively—although the leaders may receive protection from their accompaniment volunteers, does the attention drawn by the volunteer interfere with the leaders' making quiet connections with grassroots, even uninvolved, people? And how does outsiders’ presence reinforce stereotypes of (white) privilege and of outside manipulation of the groups with whom they work? What other sort of work beyond accompaniment (peace education, nonviolence training, democratic organizing, international law, reconciliation) would be appropriate for PBI’s volunteers? Currently PBI receives many more requests for work than it can fulfill. How are these needs to be assessed, prioritized, and projects developed? The authors discuss these issues and many others in the last part of the book. Peacemakers will benefit greatly from consideration of this thought-provoking book.
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