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March 7, 2005

Peace Brigades and Conflict Transformation

Living Room Dialogue with Michael Joseph and Monika Bricke

Monika Bricke, a Peace Brigades worker who has just returned from Mexico, and Michael Joseph, Co-Director of Peace Brigades USA, introduced us to the work of Peace Brigades in Mexico and internationally.

The goal of Peace Brigades is to place international observers in conflict areas where the lives of human rights workers are threatened as a result of their work. Having witnesses from other countries accompany human rights activists wherever they go appears to offer them a degree of protection. Peace Brigades has no political agenda, which has made its volunteers acceptable to the governments of the countries where they work. Its three core values are non-violence both for Peace Brigades and anyone it accompanies; non-partisanship; non interference in the decisions of any of the groups being supported.

Peace Brigades was formed in 1981 when observers were sent to Guatamala. Since then the group has sent observers to such places as Mexico, Colombia, Indonesia, Haiti, East Timor and Sri Lanka. At present there are 18 country groups and about 60 or 70 volunteers are being supported. Peace Brigades USA funds some of these. The international office is in London.

Monika talked about her experience in Mexico. As the child of international development workers, she grew up all over the world, but prior to joining Peace Brigades had spent nine years in Germany. Her vision of an ideal society is one where everyone is equal. She likes communal living and was attracted to Peace Brigades because its workers live together and operate by consensus decision-making. She also likes Peace Brigades' principle of supporting the work of people in the countries they visit rather than trying to do something for them. She had noticed that her parents had worked very hard on development aid projects that fell apart as soon as they went away because the local people hadn't been sufficiently involved. Peace Brigades workers don't take sides in any issue, just assure the safety of the people they accompany.

She was attracted to Mexico for several reasons. One was that although there were many human rights violations in that country, she would not have to witness the level of violence she might have to confront in a place like Colombia, for instance. However, human rights workers in Mexico do receive death threats and people have been killed or disappeared. Peace Brigades work in Mexico is centered mostly in Guerrero, a poor and highly militarized state, and in Mexico City. Part of the work of Peace Brigades involves lobbying government members to let them and the public know they are there. They aim for complete transparency, so that government knows where they are and what they are doing at every moment.

n Guerrero, they work mostly with organizations giving aid to indigenous people. One example is accompanying Obtilia Eugenio Manuel, a member of Organization del Pueblo Indigena Tlapanesco. She has documented human rights abuses against the indigenous community particularly by the military, which has almost total impunity in Guerrera. Among these abuses are two cases of rape reportedly by members of the military. Her house has been watched and she has received threatening letters. She told Peace Brigade that she was very frightened and had thoughts of giving up her fight, but that their presence has given her the courage to go on with her work.

In Mexico City, they are accompanying Emiliana and Francisco Cerezo whose three brothers have been jailed for allegedly planting bombs. Human rights groups say this arrest is because of their parents' Zapatista political activity rather than because of anything they themselves have done. The parents seem to have gone underground. Emiliana and Francisco, who have also been working to free about 300 other political prisoners as well as their brothers, have received death threats. Last year after another student activist was crucified on a hill near Mexico City, a note signed by a right-wing Catholic youth organization was sent to Emiliana and Francisco threatening to do the same to them. They have also been followed by government agents and threatened through the press, where human rights organizations are increasingly characterized as covers for terrorist groups. Money coming from the United States for counter-terrorism is being used to go after human rights activists.

hey accompany Emiliana, a psychiatrist, when she visits her brothers in jail. Francisco gave up his career to work for his brothers and is accompanied when he attends various events. In the dialogue after the presentation, some questions that were asked were: Q. How do you infiltrate the places where you go? A. Peace Brigades only go to places where we have been invited, and we only work in countries where we have received permission to do so from the government. While researchers from Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch may go into a country as tourists, we get explicit permissions. Our volunteers wear identifying uniforms, like a tee shirt with our name, when accompanying someone.

When we are petitioned, we make an assessment whether our methodology will work, and we don't accept the request if we think it won't. For instance, in Mexico, guerilla groups are different from Colombia. They haven't killed anybody, although they do plant bombs sometimes. Peace Brigades doesn't communicate with guerillas.

We do run into problems with governments. Last year the president of Colombia threatened to throw out the Peace Brigades near Panama. In El Salvador Peace Brigades volunteers were once arrested.

Q. What does "accompany" mean? A. Just showing ourselves. Maybe we only accompany someone every week or two. There is an emotional factor that's important. Our presence eases fear.

Q. In your publications, do you criticize governments? A. In our monthly newsletter, we only use material already published in newspapers or material from groups themselves. We never publicly criticize governments.

Q. Are you workers fluent in the languages of the countries they visit? A. That is a requirement. In a country where few people are already fluent in the language, like Indonesia, volunteers must do three months of intensive study before they can work there.

Q. What do you do where there is a lot of killing? A. In the case of an extreme event, such as the massacre of eight members of a peace community in Colombia five years ago, members of groups in all18 countries contact governments and public to mobilize protest.

Q. What have you learned for yourself doing this work? A. The most important thing I've learned is patience. You have to work for a very long time to change a very small thing. I like getting to know people who have a spiritual focus. I want to study conflict transformation – the idea that conflicts are not to be avoided, but you change the way you enter into it. Conflict is something positive. No growth is possible without conflict.

Q. What do you think about the terrorist guerillas? A. Guerillas are not the same thing as terrorists. Guerillas are desperate people who take up arms. Our governments are tending to brand such people as terrorists. I see paramilitaries as terrorist. Drug barons who force people to produce drugs under the threat of death are terrorist. Men can terrorize women. Rape is a form of terrorism used by the military, paramilitaries and other men. There is a huge amount of domestic violence. These are terrorist acts to me.

Every Network Living Room Dialogue ends with asking participants what insights or information they have gained during the evening. Some mentioned following this dialogue were: Learning about Peace Brigades; learning about the disappearances of women in Chihuahua; learning about the non-violent approach of Peace Brigades and the way it lets human rights activists know someone's watching their back; liked Monika's personal story of how she got involved; thought it important that volunteers are called to do something requiring sacrifice and discipline and live in community; liked the principle of transparency in everything they do.

Monika said she was impressed that the participants in the Network for Peace group that evening were interracial. Most of the groups she has spoken to previously in New York have been exclusively white and that had been concerning her. Michael said he was reminded of the power of people getting together over a meal. He liked the gentleness of spirit he found in our Living Room Dialogue.


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