The role of accompaniment

To know that one is not alone is a basic psychological tool for dealing with fear. It becomes crucial if those you are with are able to reduce the risk that you face. Though there is often also a certain strength in numbers – 1,000 protesters are less likely to be arrested than 50, because arresting 1,000 may test the capacity of those doing the arrests and lead to more public attention – a capacity for protection normally requires something more than just bigger numbers.


'Accompaniment', or 'protective accompaniment' has a narrow and a broader meaning. Its narrow definition refers to the physical act of being with someone's (unarmed) bodyguard, to maintain a presence at a site such as an office, to monitor protests or maintain a (proactive) presence in threatened villages, with the intention of deterring violent attacks or police harassment because the accompanier would be a witness and could respond. In a wider sense accompaniment may also be used almost synonymously with what is called elsewhere 'solidarity work'. Unlike the usual definitions of accompaniment, for example in Mahony and Eguren’s classic study 'Unarmed bodyguards', it shall be pointed out here from the beginning that it is not only internationals who provide accompaniment, but often – and probably much more commonly – nationals protecting other nationals.

How it works

From the point of view of the activist under threat, the accompanier comes into the equation which can be found in many manuals and courses on security and safety under “capacity”:

Threat x Vulnerability
Risk = --------------------------

If they share the same risk with the accompanied, they indeed only add numbers. But accompaniers become more effective when they have influence to affect the behaviour of those from whom the threat emanates (for example police, paramilitaries, hostile mobs etc.).

Sources of power for achieving this may be the following:

1. To be well-respected and trusted because of your profession, age, membership (e.g. to a religious order or a political party) etc. This is one of the instruments that nationals are most often able to use. For example, in Sri Lanka it has often been Catholic Bishops who have helped to protect human rights defenders. In many countries, especially in rural areas, it is Elders who play such a role.

2. To be well-respected because you are a privileged foreigner. This works in those countries where foreigners – or certain categories of foreigners, particularly white-skinned ones – have higher prestige than average nationals. This is the idea on which most of the older peace team organisations are based. However, often this power-by-privilege is due to the colonial past or to current world power politics, and therefore has the problematic connotation of playing on the effects of racism and domination, a fact most peace team organisations are painfully aware of.

3. To have influence because of trust gained through your work in the community or the area, for example being part of a known humanitarian organisation or a civilian peacekeeping mission. The non-governmental organisation (NGO) Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) has found that this is a major reason for their effectivity in protecting civilians. Employing at least as many staff from the Global South than the Global North, NP had to build its power on different elements from the aforementioned peace team organisations, and found that it was trust-building in the communities that made a difference.

4. To be feared because of instruments of response to an attack at your disposal. The most obvious cases of this category are of course armed body-guards, police or military. But unarmed civilians may also have such tools at their disposal.

a) (The best-known) The capacity to raise the price of an attack through international pressure. This is what the theoreticians of accompaniment from Peace Brigades International call the power of “deterrence”. Alert networks of people standing by to send protest letters to a government, involving Embassies and influential international politicians, and of course using international media are tools for this purpose.

b) Naming and shaming in the personal context of the perpetrators. For example, the Belarussian NGO “Our House” writes letters to colleagues or neighbours of officials who have harassed activists, thereby making their misbehaviour known with their colleagues, neighbours and friends. This has proven very effective in changing the behaviour of the officials thus targeted (see the article by Sarah Roßa in this Broken Rifle).

Of course, these four qualities and capacities are not mutually-exclusive – often two, three or even all four may be combined by a person or group.

Some examples

As stated, there are different types of accompaniment. Although here one organisation is used to exemplify each approach, this does not mean that those organisations engage exclusively in that one activity.

1. Protection by nationals for nationals:
One example is the above-mentioned Belarussian NGO Our House. Others include local ngos and umbrella organisations in Mindanao (Philippines), such as Bantay Ceasefire, which began unarmed civilian peacekeeping to supervise a ceasefire between the government and Moro rebels on the island long before the international NGO Nonviolent Peaceforce began work on this.

2. Longer-term proactive presence of international or national peace teams or civilian peacekeepers to protect communities:
Nonviolent Peaceforce is currently doing this, alongside others, in the Philippines and in South Sudan. It deploys teams of mixed national-international composition in affected communities. Through a vast array of activities, ranging from visible presence and monitoring to ‘good offices’ for (2. (informal facilitation of) dialogue, setting up early warning structures, and rapid interventions if acute violence threatens, it is quite successful in protecting civilians in the areas where it operates.

3. ‘Unarmed body-guarding’
Undoubtedly the ‘classic’ example is the occasional 24-hour accompaniment that Peace Brigades International volunteers offer to human rights defenders threatened by death squads or police in numerous countries, particularly in Latin America. No PBI-accompanied activist has been killed, and the fact that unaccompanied activists are frequently killed in these areas shows the effectiveness of PBI's carefully-conducted activities.

4. Short-term visits by international delegations:
Especially in Latin America some US-based peace organisations have developed what has almost become a tradition of sending delegations to places where human rights defenders are at risk - Witness for Peace and Christian Peacemaker Teams are two examples.

5. Accompaniment from afar by international organisations:
The gay and lesbian group GALZ in Zimbabwe, a member organisation of War Resisters’ International, has repeatedly faced police harassment and arrests of some of its leading activists. The WRI office, which is in regular contact with them, informs groups in its network, asking them to send protest and/or solidarity letters. Another well-known example of this kind of work is of course Amnesty International with their prisoners campaigns.

Capacities and limitations of accompaniment

Accompaniment has certainly saved the lives of many activists, and has given the space to continue their activities. But as with all nonviolent action, it must not be seen as all-powerful. It can fail. A well-known example is the Colombian peace community San José de Apartadó, which faced several attacks and killings in spite of the ongoing presence of accompaniers from more than one organisation. Illegal arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings are happening in many countries despite attempted ‘accompaniment from afar’. Therefore it is always necessary to conduct a careful risk assessment before engaging in any kind of protective accompaniment. A strategy that may work in one context may not work – or may even be counter-productive - in another because the accompaniers may not have the same sources of power available, or simply because the determination of the opponents in pursuing their unlawful activity may be so strong so that they are undeterred. Having said that, I would like to end the article as it began: Even in cases where accompaniers do not have additional power or influence available, the mere knowledge that there are people who care, that you won’t be forgotten, and that your family may count on support, is a powerful factor to overcome fear.

Christine Schweitzer.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Enter the characters shown in the image.