Pat Coy

Professor of Political Science at Kent State University

Topics: protective accompaniment, nonviolence

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003

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Q: Can you give me a brief overview of your work?

A: Well, my work is in a couple of different tracks. I think of it that way. One piece of it has to do with my research and work with Peace Brigades International, which is an international non-governmental organization. It has pioneered the tactic of international, non-violent, protective accompaniment. They are working in situations of very high political violence with political opportunities available, especially to groups that are challenging the status quo or are highly strained/constricted. For various reasons these groups or individuals are under threat by the state itself or by para-military groups associated by the state, which the state may sponsor in order to have plausible deniability. They may, in fact, be under threat by other challenging groups that don't approve of the tactic that the group or individual was taking. This technique that Peace Brigades has pioneered builds off of the work of Amnesty International.

Early in the 1960's Amnesty International discovered that if citizens were to write letters on behalf of threatened individuals or imprisoned individuals that these letters were the symbolic representation of the concern of the international community for the health or the human rights of this individual who has unjustly been imprisoned. Peace Brigades took that idea, which Amnesty International found to be highly effective, in terms of protecting the rights of political prisoners. They took it a step further and said that if letters worked, what would happen if we took individuals and put them on the ground in situations of intractable-protractive conflict where the political opportunities of challenging groups was highly constricted. The international volunteers should walk along side the threatened individuals. The work began in Central America in the early 1980's. It was built off the work of Witness for Peace, which is an organization that sends North American volunteers to Nicaragua. There they tried to forestall a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua at that time.

What has been discovered in the practice of this international accompaniment is that the presence of internationals appears to have some deterrent effect on the people who are thinking about attacking, imprisoning, killing, or having political activists disappear. The idea is that even if the deterrents were to fail, the political costs for the perpetrator are raised significantly because the international community is there to witness, publicize, and to bring international pressure on the perpetrators. Even if the deterrents fails the next time that that organization or state thinks about attacking a challenging group or individual, they will realize that the political costs are going to be even higher than they were before; that is the theory it operates under. My work with Peace Brigades was in Sri Lanka in the context of a protracted, ethnic conflict that began in 1983.

When Peace Brigades went to Sri Lanka in 1989, they went there to protect the lawyers who were the last bastion of protection against the state.

Sri Lanka had been under martial law. The lawyers, who began to file habeas corpus cases, which was the last thing they could do to try to protect people against the state, began to disappear. There were only a few lawyers left willing to do the work and Peace Brigades first went to Sri Lanka to protect these very courageous lawyers, who were filing habeas corpus cases and then disappearing, never to be heard from again. The organization was invited in to protect lawyers, originally, but it ended up also working with other challenging groups over a seven-year period. I worked with them in Sri Lanka in 1993 and 1994, and conducted a participant observation study of their work in Sri Lanka.

I also continued to do research on international accompaniment, which now has become quite popular. We see other organizations using it: Christian Peacemaker Teams, Project Accompaniment, and the International Solidarity Movement. These are groups that use a much more provocative, partisan approach to accompaniment than Peace Brigades does, and as a result, they have experienced direct attacks on their accompaniers. Peace Brigades is very careful to be non-partisan, to work with the diplomatic community, and to askew overt kinds of activities that demonstrate solidarity or partisanship with one side or another.

Q: So, for example, when you detailed the lawyers that was not in the name of the opposition but in the name of ...?

A: Human rights in general.

Q: Justice?

A: That's right.

Q: Versus someone who might go to the territories in the Middle East and call themselves a human shield and stand in front of a Palestinian house that is about to bulldozed. I mean how is that different?

A: How it's different is that some of the tactics used by the International Solidarity Movement and other groups would make it very difficult for them to, say, protect challenging groups who don't agree with their political agenda. For example, Peace Brigades will protect anyone in a country under threat, whether they are under threat from the right or the left. This is all provided that the person who is in threat is not a member of a violence-wielding organization or they have themselves used violence as part of their political work.

In context of the Sri Lanka conflict, Peace Brigades accompanied both members of the Tamil community, members of the Sinhalese community, and at different times even accompanied police. The police had been brought to court for activities the state wanted to punish them for. I don't see the International Solidarity Movement engaging in that kind of across the board accompaniment, which is not to say their work isn't good; I think it's wonderful work. Clearly what we see, especially in Palestine, the work is effective enough that they now appear to be targeted by the Israelis' military [Israeli Defense Force].

Q: Is there a moment in your work that you can think of that has been particularly inspiring to you?

A: Yeah. With my work with Peace Brigades, two examples come to mind. One was in 1993 when Peace Brigades accompanied a fellow named Selva Kumar. Kumar had been a Tamil, political activist and he worked with the EPDP [Eelam's People's Democratic Party], a Tamil challenging political group that had been associated with the right-winged Sinhalese government. The EPDP was in opposition to the Tamil Tigers and they were cooperating with the dominant majority Sinhalese government. Kumar had worked with the EPDP, thought better of it, and had withdrawn. Upon his withdrawal, he was kidnapped by his former colleagues, held and tortured.

Eventually he was released after a couple of weeks period following some international pressure. Kumar continued to be threatened by the Eelam People's Democratic Party, EPDP. He filed a case against the Sri Lankan government for his capture, which although it was done by the EPDP, the charge was that it was done by the cooperation of the government. He got one of the leading human rights lawyers to take his case and continued to be under threat. Peace Brigades accompanied Kumar for many months. They provided 24-hour accompaniments. Volunteers would live with his family, go wherever he went, sometimes when the threat was perceived to be less they would accompany him only when he went out into public. I interviewed the lawyer who took his case who was a legal scholar at Colombo University.

He thought that the Kumar case was historic and a landmark case in Sri Lanka because it was the first time that they were able to make the connection in court between the Sri Lankan government and the cooperating, para-military, political groups that the government used to have a plausible deniability. They said, "We're not doing what the EPDP is doing. We didn't capture Kumar, the EPDP did."

What Kumar's case did was to take that challenge to the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, and say, "No, that is not the case. The case is that you are standing behind the EPDP; even directing it." It's really the government who is ultimately responsible for the violation of, what in Sri Lanka are called, fundamental human rights. It's not clear that Kumar would have been able to continue the case or been willing to continue the case without this international accompaniment. In fact, despite the accompaniment, he eventually took asylum in Sweden and left the country. The case went forward and made this connection. I spent quite a lot of time with him and his family. Peace Brigades also facilitated his application for political asylum in Sweden because of their connection to the Swedish Embassy. That was an example of protecting one individual whose own personal case may not originally appear to be that important. He was a political activist who decided that he couldn't do it anymore, and then withdrew; yet the case had historic, political and legal consequences for the entire country.

I think another example would be in 1994 during the Parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka. What happened there was that the run up to the elections were extremely violent. There were over two dozen murders and political disappearances. A group of very brave Sri Lankan activists from Civil Society said, "This election was nonetheless important and we refuse to be cowed into non-participation. We refuse to let this violence our election." They have a very strong democratic tradition in Sri Lanka. They decided to try to mount a citizen's based monitoring effort. It was important to them that it be run by Sri Lankans and that the monitors themselves be Sri Lankan, but they didn't feel they could do it without international support.

They worked with Peace Brigades International, the British Refugee Council, the International Lawyers Human Rights Committee, International Lawyers for Human Rights, and put together a group of internationals to accompany the monitors so the locals, the Sri Lankans themselves, from lots of political stretch were actually mounting the monitoring effort in response before, Internationals accompanied them to all the polling stations in the week before the election and the week after in their work to set up the monitoring effort.

That was really quite an inspiring moment because it spoke about the attempt to reclaim the democratic process in Sri Lanka from political violence. I can remember interviewing one of the activists in the central part of the country and the line that he used I later used this in an article I published the title was, "Going where we otherwise would not have gone." His line was, "This international accompaniment allowed us to go where we otherwise would not have dared to go," to monitor their own democratic impulse. That was also a very inspiring moment in campaign and there are other examples.

Q: It sounds like that role of watching over the monitors might have had two benefits: one to protect the actual monitors but then to serve as general witnesses to any atrocities that might have taken place in that community.

A: In fact what happened was that, for example, the two evenings before the actual election the different political head quarters tended to be under attack. One of the jobs of the monitoring teams was to go there and to document that kind of political intimidation: property destruction, vandalism, trashing, and the like. It wasn't just monitoring the polling places on the day of the election but the time period before it, and not just attacks on individuals, but the process itself.

Q: What role do you see organizations like Peace Brigades playing in intractable conflicts?

A: I think that the primary role is this notion of viable political space for civil society to do what it does in democratic politics. The whole notion is to try to expand what is conceived to be safe or more safe political space for individual activists or for organizations. The degree that the political space can be expanded is also important for the primary actors who are actually responsible for solving the conflict, who are the locals themselves, as opposed to the outside interveners who have the safety to do their work. Sometimes it is only the perception of safety, they may be inaccurate in their perception of danger, but the danger may not be that high but their perception is that it is. This has a chilling effect on what they are willing to do in terms of their being a conflict intervener and reclaiming the democratic processes in their own protracted conflict. It does not matter whether their political analysis is correct because the perception is that the threat is that high and I need help, support, I am not willing to act without it. In the absence of the international support, in the absence of the international communities concern for this they may not be a functional actor in the conflict resolution process, so that is why it is critically important because it provides more opportunity for the principles in the conflict themselves both to solve it, to moderate it, and to document it.

All the work that third-siders do, or are supposed to do within their own conflicts, and of course in situations of extreme violence and political occupation, like in the occupied territories of Palestine and elsewhere. The tactic serves a little different function it is not so much the creation of political space, but the attempt to protect basic human life processes: the right to have a home, the right to food and clean water, and fundamental safety in the like. It is much more difficult for this tactic to work where there is overt military violence in a war zone. It seems to have a greater effect in situations of high political violence, but not overt military campaigns. For example in Sri Lanka, the Peace Brigades did not work in the North where the Tamils and the Tamil Tigers were fighting the government. It worked in the cities throughout the countries where challenging groups where trying to do there part to try to solve the ethnic conflict, but were under threat for their activities.

Q: So there are some limitations and it sounds like there is a scope of intent ranging from very basic survival, all the way to fairly sophisticated political action as a consequence of your presence.

A: Yes, that is a good way to put it. There are times when you are sleeping in the bed of an activist who is under threat when there is a suspicion that they're going to come tonight to drag him out of the bed. There is one person sleeping at the door way and another international observer sleeping in the bed of the activist and the activist is sleeping in the inside room, so if they come they are going to have to go through two of us, but still they do not have him and that may be enough to turn them away. It is that level of personal protection but also these other levels of trying to expand political space.

We used to go to the Na Gambo United Peoples Organization in Na Gambo, a fishing town on the east coast of Sri Lanka just north of Colombo. Many of Nupo's activists went into exile because so many of them were disappearing, they went into exile in the Philippines and came back when there was a bit of a political opening. PBI went and provided accompaniment to the organization and that meant going and taking the public bus to Na Gambo instead of a taxi, getting off outside the city, walking all the way through the city, being very visible as an international, with a bright yellow bib on, camera and the like, then walking to the headquarters and sitting on the porch all day. You wanted as many people as possible to see that, yes, you were there that day and so you may be there everyday, you may be there with a schedule that changes so people are not quite sure when the internationals might not be there. It might mean accompanying them to a demonstration or particular event.

We accompanied the Free Media Movement, which is a group of journalists that said we have to challenge state policy in terms of violation of fundamental human rights in Sri Lanka. They began to write about it the human rights violations of the government and then the journalists themselves came under threat. The Peace Brigade provided various levels of accompaniment to individual journalists, to the FMM, and then to their demonstrations that they called and held. It is both the protection of the individual, the protection of the organizations' operating space, in terms of their head quarters, and then also the protection of particular civic acts like demonstrations, it really runs the gamut.

Q: What lessons have you learned from your work?

A: Well, one lesson that is fundamentally important is that for this tactic to really work and it is difficult to say it often works, because you can not prove a negative, so you're left with

Q: If it didn't happen you can't say see we prevented this thing from happening.

A: Exactly. One of the things that you can do is ask the people who receive accompaniment and listen to their testimony about what it means to them, and if and when they say, "Well, I really don't think I would have been to be able to continue my work," then you know it made a difference on that level. You can't know if you actually deterred the attack, although there are examples. Researches have done enough research with high government officials who have said, "Yes your presence stayed the hand with this individual," but that is rare.

In order for this to work what we do know that it is very important for the international organization have a highly developed network. The image that I like to use is the work has to be nested, deeply nested in a series of concentric nests, nested in the sense for the individual volunteer they have to have individual support network in their home communities their home senators and congress men, ministers of parliaments, what ever country they come from who know they are there, they have made contact with, who are willing to step forth and try to protect them in a moment of need. You got have these individual volunteers nested in their home government that way, then when they get into the country they have got to make really tight connections with their home embassy and their staff so they know what they are doing, and have their support and knowledge. They have to be nested inside this larger international community of NGOs working on human rights protection because Peace Brigades can't do it alone. It is dependent upon the work of ICRC, identifying political prisoners, it depends upon the work of Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch.

Identifying key individuals who really are under threat and whose freedom has been clearly endangered is important. They provide a different kind of protection so it has to be nested inside this larger network, it has to be nested inside the international aid community, and then of course you have to maintain regular contact with the local police in the country, with the local government, regional government, and national government offices. That requires that every hour a volunteer is in the field, at a demonstration, or at Nupo's headquarters there are many more person hours back at the offices making those connections, going to meetings with the diplomatic community every week letting them know what you are doing, who you are accompanying, and why. If there is a threat then you can activate that network. The more that you are nested inside multiple networks the more international support, then you can communicate to the perpetrators, if you do something then this is what we are prepared to respond with. You have to make that threat credible, and the only way that you can do this is to demonstrate that you are deeply nested in all of these advocacy, support, and diplomatic networks.

Q: Which sounds like it is an attempt to broaden the scope of the witness in a sense. If you are communicating with more people and more people know what you are doing then the scope of vision of the international community is much larger.

A: That is exactly right. You know the Selva Kumar case that I mentioned a moment ago, I wrote an article about his case and in the title I called it "Cooperative International Cooperative Accompaniment," because here was a case in which Selva Kumar was originally identified by the ICRC and Amnesty International, and they took him on as a political prisoner and that is how he came to the attention of Peace Brigades. Once he was released he went to ICRC, Amnesty International, and he went to Human Rights Watch and they said, "We have done what we can for you," and actually referred him to Peace Brigades. When it came time, PBI provided the accompaniment for him, while he was putting his case together while he was still in danger, and when it came time for him to make his application he said I have to get out of this country and go to Sweden, then that network was reactivated because there was data, Amnesty International had data about his case from the research that they had done so there was this cooperative work between the various human rights organizations who had different mandates. The more that you are nested inside that the larger the witness.

Q: So complementary is a big part of that effort, not only being seen but also coordinating deliberate understandings of the rules of the other organizations.

A: Yes.