PBI was founded in Canada in 1981, but the concept of protective accompaniment had developed in South Africa in 1922 with Gandhi’s Shanti Sena, or “peace army,” which were groups of volunteers trained in nonviolent protest.
It was Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence, in conjunction with the principles of the Quakers that pioneered the modern peace movement.
As early as the 17th century, the Quakers offered their services in England as mediators before and during conflicts, believing that no person should be violated, exploited or destroyed by violence. Gandhi later extended this philosophy in the 20th century by building his peace armies in India and South Africa.
He believed that a small group of determined people with a strong faith in their mission could alter the course of history.
After Gandhi died, his legacy inspired the World Peace Brigade (WPB), an organization comprised of his peers in the peace community. The WPB worked to promote nonviolence as a component of African liberation struggles from 1962–64.
In January 1981, several peace advocates revived the idea of an international organization committed to unarmed third-party intervention in conflict situations. They sent a joint letter to a number of organizations inviting them to attend a conference on Grindstone Island in Canada.
Those present in August 1981 included Raymond Magee, Lee Stern, Narayan Desai, Gene Keyes, Charles Walker, Dan Clark, Mark Shepard and Jaime Diaz. Canada was well represented by Henry Wiseman, Murray Thomson and Hans Sinn. Over the course of almost three weeks, they developed and approved a founding statement and structure for the organization.This meeting marked the founding of Peace Brigades International.
Peace Brigades International – A Timeline
PBI is founded in Canada.
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.
First PBI team installed in Guatemala during a period of intense state terror and repression. PBI’s work focused on protecting victims and nascent nonviolent organisations confronting government violence.
While in Guatemala, PBI pioneered the strategy of international protective accompaniment. PBI undertook 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, and 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, believing that the government's sensitivity to foreign witnesses would prevent further assassinations.
After PBI began accompaniment, not a single GAM leader was killed. The GAM 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.
PBI protected nearly every significant local civilian effort during a long period of reconstructing civil society after total devastation by state terror. This included trade 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 (now called Country Groups) in fifteen countries.
After the signing of the peace accords PBI undertook an evaluation with the accompanied organisations. The Project was closed in 1999 after the evaluation concluded that there was no longer a need for PBI’s presence.
When the human rights situation began to deteriorate significantly with the Republican Front of Guatemala (FRG) taking power in 2000, PBI received petitions and communication from diverse Guatemalan organizations asking us to return to Guatemala. In response, PBI organized a delegation to explore the situation in 2001.
On-going PBI re-established an ongoing presence in Guatemala in 2002, and our in-country team formally opened in April 2003.
At the invitation of Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez, PBI started working in El Salvador.
The work consisted of providing protective accompaniment to popular organisations and regular visits to villages of returned refugees. Groups PBI accompanied included COMADRES (Committee of Mothers and Relatives of the Disappeared), UNTS and FENASTRAS (trade unions), and AMS (Women's organisation).
After the signing of the peace accords in 1992, the Project was closed.
PBI installed a team in Sri Lanka during some of the worst violence between government forces and the People’s Liberation Front (JVP).
PBI volunteers protected human rights defenders and community activists.
PBI withdrew from Sri Lanka when the government made our continued presence conditional upon the right to censor PBI reports on the human rights situation.
PBI also established peace teams that did not focus on accompaniment. PBI’s North America Project sought to respond 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.
PBI supported local dialogue and reconciliation, trained local human rights monitors, and provided anti-racism education.
This PBI project closed in 1999 due to lack of resources.
PBI joined "Cry for Justice", a coalition led by Pax Christi USA, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and a dozen other organizations.
Cry for Justice sent 75 volunteers to Haiti – including PBI volunteers – in late 1993 to provide a short-term peaceful presence in six different towns suffering from high levels of violence.
PBI opened a long term Project that provided protective accompaniment, offered training programs in nonviolent conflict resolution, and accompanied a local mediation process.
The Project closed in 2000 when it was assessed that local groups could carry out their work without PBI’s protection.
PBI came to Colombia, when there was rapidly spreading violence and, because of PBI's growing strength internationally, this rapidly became the largest PBI deployment.
The Project expanded to four teams in different regions involving the constant presence of up to 40 international volunteers, accompanying human rights activists and internally displaced people who face attacks and harassment from paramilitary squads.
PBI continues to provide accompaniment to local groups and communities in Colombia.
In response to requests for international presence from both Crotia and Kosava, PBI opened the Balkans Project.
Volunteers 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 organizations in different parts of the former Yugoslavia region.
PBI closed its presence in 2001 because of lack of resources.
PBI is a member of SIPAZ, an organization that was set up in response to growing violence following the Zapatista uprising in 1994 in Chiapas, México.
PBI formed our Mexico Projet in response to requests for accompaniment from Mexican organizations facing worsening human rights situations in several states.
Volunteers work mainly in Guerrero and Oaxaca states, with an office in Mexico City facilitating meetings with federal authorities and diplomats as well as accompanying the Cerezo Committee.
Long-standing conflict in areas of Indonesia, and invitations for a PBI presence by both local humanitarian and non-governmental organizations and the National Human Rights Commission, led to the opening of PBI’s first team in South-East Asia, in West Timor (now Timor Leste). However, later that year, due to widespread violence following the East Timor referendum for independence, the team evacuated to Jakarta, Bali, Flores and West Timor. In the years that followed PBI also held a presence in Aceh and Papau.
Feeling that their security had improved, human rights workers accompanied by PBI in Aceh, decided that they were able to build their networks and develop stronger and safer organizations. Based on this, PBI’s office in Aceh formally closed with the consent of the human rights organizations that they accompanied. Nevertheless, PBI agreed to continue to stay in close contact and to monitor the peace in Aceh.
By late 2009, however, the Indonesia Project was already facing challenges and constraints on its work. A Strategic Review was carried out in August and September 2010 to determine whether the project could continue in its current form. Ultimately, PBI's International Council decided that the current phase of operations in Indonesia could not continue as a result of a series of challenges and constraints during the past year that severely limited PBI's ability to effectively protect human rights defenders at risk. PBI's January 2011 departure meant the withdrawal of the last international human rights organization from Papua, after other organizations have already had their operations disrupted.
The first requests for a PBI presence in Nepal were made by Nepalese human rights organizations in 2003 because of violent conflicts between Maoist insurgents and the government.
PBI Nepal has a team of 9 volunteers based in Kathmandu and in the Midwest, providing protective accompaniment for local human rights organizations and women’s groups.
Luis Guillermo Pérez Casas, Lawyers Collective José Alvear Restrepo (Colombia) “I can say with certainty that if we are still alive, it is mainly because of PBI's work.”