What is international accompaniment and how does it work?

“To see and to be seen”, so goes the motto of the organization Peace Watch Switzerland (PWS), a Swiss NGO founded in 2001.



In the following paragraphs, I will deconstruct some of these concepts a bit more and touch on some of the strategic and ethical questions that face international observers (some additional readings will be suggested at the end for those who are interested).


What makes international accompaniment a legitimate peacebuilding tool?

1) It is always need-based and so only takes place when vulnerable communities or human rights activists explicitly request it.

2) It relies on non-partisanship and non-interventionism, which means not siding with any particular actor or getting involved in the local political situation (e.g. enticing or participating in protests). This not only gives it more neutrality and thus credibility in the eyes of the local government and the international community, but also allows for a greater degree of local ownership of the peacebuilding process. In this sense, international accompaniment can be understood as providing a neutral buffer between the actors involved in conflict, allowing civil society to function ‘normally’.

3) It is committed to the principle of non-violence and thereby to the full respect for all human lives. In striving to build a more humane society, the principle of non-violence gives a broader base of sympathy in society for the presence of international observers.

Two important caveats must be noted:

First, the principles of non-partisanship and non-interventionism are not without controversy, since an organization is automatically involved in a conflict by its mere presence. It is therefore better to talk about the degree of partisanship or interventionism.

Second, even if it is legitimate, international accompaniment is not always welcome by local governments. Indeed, the agenda of human rights organizations has often been at risk of being distorted and even criminalized when it threatens existing power structures. This happened for example with PBI in Guatemala under Guatemalan President Mejía, who framed the human rights organization as a member of the political opposition.


How does the presence of peace observers deter conflict and why must they be foreigners?

The presence of international peace observers heightens the political cost of violations of human rights by putting them in the spotlight of the international community. International observers therefore leverage their political weight in order to more effectively pressurize local actors to act in respect for human rights and international humanitarian law.

A few additional points are worth mentioning:

First, the presence of international observers can only exert pressure on actors who are concerned about the negative consequences of their actions, such as potential economic sanctions and/or a tarnished international reputation. However, if the benefits of committing human rights violations outweigh the economic or political costs, then violations may still take place; the role of international observers can therefore only be facilitative.

Second, it is undeniable that the extra protection provided by foreign observers to communities/human rights activists in conflict areas is a product of their differential privileges. Victoria Henderson, a Canadian academic and social activist who worked in Guatemala, speaks of “differential ‘worth’ of citizen bodies, (re)produced through centuries of racism and classism […].” She talks about the degree of ‘bareness’ of human lives, with the ‘barest’ lives those who can be attacked with most impunity (such as indigenous populations and other minority groups). In contrast, international observers are most often white Westerners – the lucky few who can flee when the situation on the ground gets too tense. As committed as they may be to the cause, they are always weighing the needs of the local population against their own needs and safety.

Some academics have questioned whether these well-intentioned humanitarian strategies may actually serve to perpetuate the world’s unequal power relations, undermining the peacebuilding process they wish to strengthen. Indeed, those international observers who are unaware of their privileges may, unintentionally, disempower the very people they seek to support. This may occur, for example, through the use of alienating language, different working styles or by creating the belief that only foreign third parties can handle the conflict effectively.

Boothe and Smithey, in a very thought-provoking academic article called Privilege, Empowerment, and Nonviolent Intervention, admit that there is “no easy solutions to this dilemma, but reflexive awareness of the ways in which intervention depends on the economic, political, and symbolic capital of the West or Empire is an important starting point.” It is therefore vital for international observers to understand their position of privilege within these power dynamics through appropriate training before going into the field.

According to academic Gada Mahrouse, this reflexive awareness should lead to reconceptualizing accompaniment, from an act of transnational solidarity that “unquestioningly rely on liberal, universal and ‘naively idealistic’ principles” to a “calculated response to an emergency situation where few alternatives exist.” Accompaniment, in this sense, is not heroic solidarity; it is merely ‘principled pragmatism’.

Finally, beyond passport privilege and ‘differential citizenship’, international accompaniment relies on chains of communications and relationships, which link the most vulnerable with the power centers of the country. Sara Koopman, a former volunteer with PBI in Colombia who wrote her PhD on the topic, offers a sharp explanation of how these chains work in practice:

“In the case of Colombia, the general depends on US military aid, that aid depends on votes from US Congress, the Member of Congress depends on votes from their constituency, and one of those constituents just got an email from, say, someone they go to church with whose niece is in Colombia serving as an accompanier. If this chain happens enough times, the accompanier may eventually be able to call the general directly when a threat happens, and without mentioning the chain, the general will know that this kind of pressure can be generated. […] However, these connections do not happen just in moments of crisis. Rather, these chains are built up over time. Church basements across North America play a key role, as they are regularly the site of talks by accompaniers and the accompanied that make it more likely that people will understand and care when they receive an ‘action alert’ email or letter. This sort of groundwork has been done for years by the solidarity movement in North America, which has built a culture of connection to struggles across Latin America, as well as national policies, paradigms and institutions that they can draw on (like Congressional subcommittees). The work of accompaniment may seem dramatic – ‘putting bodies on the line’, getting ambassadors to call generals – but it relies, through these chains, on more ordinary actions elsewhere, from a church dinner to an email or a phone call.”

On the verge of embarking on my Colombian adventure as a foreign peace observer, I will certainly carry with me these important reflections on the ethics, strengths and limitations of international accompaniment. I am confident that my own experience in the field will widen my understanding of this debate and will make the most of this blog space to continue reflecting on these topics…

Thanks for reading! As always, do not hesitate to share your thoughts on this topic through comments.


Some additional readings for the very keen:

Boothe, I., & Smithey, L. A. (2007). Privilege, empowerment, and nonviolent intervention. Peace & Change32(1), 39-61.

Coy, P. G. (2001). Shared risks and research dilemmas on a Peace Brigades International team in Sri Lanka. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography30(5), 575-606.

Henderson, V. L. (2009). Citizenship in the line of fire: protective accompaniment, proxy citizenship, and pathways for transnational solidarity in Guatemala. Annals of the Association of American Geographers99(5), 969-976. 

Mahrouse, G. (2014). Conflicted Commitments: Race, Privilege, and Power in Solidarity Activism. McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.

Mata, J. (2006). International accompaniment in violent scenarios. A performative reading of Peace Brigades International in Colombia (Master’s thesis, Universitetet i Tromsø).

Koopman, S. (2014). Making space for peace: international protective accompaniment in Colombia. Geographies of Peace. IB Tauris, London, 109-130.

Roy Grégoire, E., & Hamilton, K. (2016). International accompaniment, reflexivity and the intelligibility of power in post-conflict Guatemala. Journal of Genocide Research18(2-3), 189-205.