Peace Brigades International and psycho-social support for human rights defenders

Published by Brent Patterson on

What does Peace Brigades International mean when we talk about psycho-social support, self-care, and mutual care for human rights defenders and communities impacted by violence? How can self-care be understood as a political project?

Tanja Vultier of Peace Brigades International has written, “The individual effects of constant threats and attacks can include anxiety, nightmares, paranoia, feelings of guilt, physical problems, or even depression, to name but a few. This can lead to aggression, burnout, isolation, or general mistrust among those affected.”

“This significantly undermines participation in social and political life – and therefore the work of human rights activists.”

Vultier adds, “The psychosocial support offered by Peace Brigades International has a twin objective: firstly to help human rights activists cope better with the heavy emotional impact of the security risk they have faced for years, and secondly to boost their capacity to defend human rights as a result.”

Furthermore, the Peace Brigades International-Colombia Project has noted, “PBI’s work in support of the reconstruction of the social fabric is oriented to address fear and ruptures in organizational initiatives affected by sociopolitical violence.”

PBI-Colombia cautions, “The effects of sociopolitical violence can paralyze a human rights defenders’ work and weaken the social movements capacity to resist and organize to seek political, social, and economic alternatives.”

Human rights defenders on self-care

Indira Ghale of Change Action in Nepal has noted, “Sometimes we don’t think about the psychology, our feelings, and we always keep some kind of theory of ‘oh, you have to be strong, you have to be very brave’.”

Stephen Mwangi of the Mathare Social Justice Centre in Kenya has commented, “Learning how to take care of yourself as a human rights defender, to recognize the kinds of pains you go through in your work, they could be mental, physical or even very deep spiritually. So that was quite important to me and it’s something I’m hoping to take forward, to take back home with me to share with the other human rights defenders.”

Recommendations for political actors

PBI has called on the European Union to ensure “rapid response mechanisms in the case of extraordinary risk to human rights defenders; include self-care measures that respond to the psycho-social impact suffered by victims of violations.”

“Likewise, [the EU must] ensure that the issuance of visas does not represent an impediment to apply to these programmes and that the personal and family situation of the human rights defender is included. Guarantee safety funds with a holistic approach (individual and collective physical safety, digital safety, psycho-social safety).”

Activist burnout in Canada

Many will know that in Canada that we lost activists Tooker Gomberg, Dave Vasey and most recently Derek Soberal to suicide.

Years ago, Tooker wrote, “I should have developed a deeper kinship with my family and with people. Don’t get me wrong – I had lots of friends and acquaintances in the activist world. But they were not deep friends of the heart.”

“I neglected my heart, and how I was feeling about things, about people, about situations. Now that I’m in crisis, I don’t really have the language to connect with people.”

Tooker concluded, “The world needs all the concerned people it can get. If you can stay in the struggle for the long haul you can make a real positive contribution and live to witness the next victory!”

Addressing this issue, Syrus Marcus Ware has written, “I have been on the front lines of activist movements like Black Lives Matter and fighting for prisoner and disability justice and transgender rights for over 20 years. I know first-hand what activists have experienced in terms of violence, harassment and trauma.”

“That is why my artistic practice involves writing love letters to activists and drawing huge portraits of them. I want to celebrate and nourish them so they have the strength, support and will to keep going. For society to push forward in the face of issues like the climate crisis, police brutality, inaccessibility and crushing anti-Blackness, we need to care for activists before the toll on them becomes too great.”

To read her article, please click on How to fight activist burnout: If we’re going to tackle huge issues like the climate crisis, artistic practice and activism can’t be separated anymore. To read Tooker’s letter, please see Letter to an Activist, Earth Day, 2002.

For more on this in the context of PBI’s work, please see the 6-minute PBI documentary, Support of the Reconstruction of the Social Fabric: Self-Care as a Political Project. Psycho-social support is also noted in this 5-minute PBI documentary.

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