Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Latest From Guatemala

I've now finished my fifth week of ten as member of the Rapid Response Team of Nonviolent Peaceforce Guatemala, also known as the Guatemala Accompaniment Project. My team members and I provide protective unarmed accompaniment for the staff members of La Unidad de Proteccion de Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos (Unit of Protection for Defenders of Human Rights, a unit of the National Movement for Human Rights). This week we have been with them in Quetzaltenango, Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan and Guatemala City as they investigate threats to human rights defenders. We accompanied La Unidad Co-director Claudia Samayoa who gave a talk to the parishes of northern Quiche where priests and nuns work with survivors of the twenty years of genocide.

So it's appropriate, I think, to give you a more specific look into the philosophy and specific roles that we play in Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) and how it works to encourage peace and justice.

Mahatma Gandhi's word for it is satyagraha, holding onto the truth. It
is not about passivity, but active struggle. The term "nonviolence"
implies avoiding harm, avoiding violence in meeting an opponent.
Violence includes physical, emotional, verbal, institutional, structural
or spiritual behavior, attitude, policies or conditions that diminish,
dominate or destroy ourselves or others. I have often defined it
functionally as any effort to take away rights guaranteed by the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, rights to health, life, safety,
home, family, rights to participate in government and culture, rights to
information and beliefs. (See my first blog for web sites about the
UNDHR and more recent Human Rights declarations).

Further, Gandhi's nonviolence includes the following principles:
1. All life is one
2. We each have a piece of the truth and the untruth
3. Human beings are always more than the evil they commit
4. The means must be consistent with the ends
5. We are called to celebrate both our differences and our
fundamental unity with others
6. We reaffirm our unity with others when we transform "us" versus
"them" thought and action
7. Our oneness calls us to desire and work for the well-being of
8. The nonviolent journey is a process of becoming increasingly
free from fear.

The activities of Nonviolent Peaceforce do not include some of the more traditional strategies (as outlined by Gene Sharp, Nonviolent Struggle) such as strikes, boycotts, street theater, speeches, petitions, marches and parades. Our mission is not to create change, but to protect those who are working for change nonviolently using peaceful strategies. This approach is now called third party nonviolent intervention. The tools we employ are presence, accompaniment, monitoring and recording, and interpositioning, and are explained below. NP does not advocate for the causes of the organizations we accompany because, as Gandhi suggests – we each have a piece of the truth and the untruth. We are non-partisan.

Presence is "entering a situation of open conflict and, through public actions and visible, risky acts of service, influencing the dynamics of the conflict itself. Presence is about directly influencing the field of the conflict by offering a different behavior." (Training for Change). In Nicaragua in the 80's Witness for Peace organized a large group to walk on a stretch of road that had been closed by the government due to "contra" attacks. Along the way memorial services were held at the sites where people had been killed. By challenging the dynamic of violence and fear, the march succeeded in altering the perspectives of all parties so that the road could once again be traversed. Having peace monitors in protests would be an example of "presence." In Sri Lanka where the first NP team is working, presence at a community fair deters the capture of children by Tamil Tiger forces to be used as soldiers.

Protective accompaniment. Peaceworkers act as nonviolent bodyguards. We are physically beside the local Guatemalan human rights defenders in their offices and interviews and sometimes in their homes and cars. Sometimes protective accompaniment involves mingling with people in groups or villages that might be under threat. Witness for Peace, a Northamerican accompaniment group, placed volunteers in villages in Nicaragua which were subject to attacks from the "contras". According to the Nicaraguan Minister of Defense, there was no violence where there was international accompaniment. In Guatemala, we accompany individuals as they do their work of investigating threats to human rights defenders, helping them to feel safer. Our presence with peaceful defenders of human rights demonstrates that the eyes of the world are focused on them. This is our main strategy in Guatemala.

So this week, in Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan, Quetzaltenango, El Quiche and Guatemala City, we accompanied the Unidad human rights defenders as they interviewed witnesses to violations of human rights. In the case of out of town assignments we stay with La Unidad staff in their overnight accommodations and in their vehicles as well as at the interview site.

Observing and recording. We "witness" as a reminder to those who might use violence that the world is watching. Recording might include taking photographs or notes about conditions affecting human rights workers. We witness constantly and take photographs as conditions require.

Interpositioning is a strategy used when two forces are moving into confrontation. Although this is not our major strategy here, we might be called on to call for reason and calm, physically reaching out to opposing parties in a situation. There was an instance not long ago here where a community was holding a celebration to announce that they were going to create a separate municipality. Three hundred people showed up to block the road to the event, then proceeded to go to the event location and beat up their opponents, sexually molesting the women, and breaking equipment. Their intent, it seems, was to intimidate them from taking action to separate from the municipality. No third party intervenors were there, but had they been, they might have quickly talked to the road blockers to assess their concerns, asked the event conveners to postpone their event until dialogue could occur about the concerns (Gandhi called off nonviolent events when he thought that violence could erupt), and stood physically in the way with the eyes and conscience of the world. Photographs and eye witness note taking would have documented those who intended harm as well as those convening the event. In this case those who committed the violence claimed "they started it by throwing rocks, so what could we do?" Videotapes would have provided some indication of the sequence of events to assist in discussion when reason and rationality prevailed.

In short, we are not the actors but we help provide space for the peaceful actors, which in turn allows them to be more fully engaged without fear of violence. We use proven strategies for reduction of violence.

You can read the Nonviolent Peaceforce feasibility study by Christine Schweitzer et al at

This study gives many examples of peace keepers using these strategies. Peace, Ann

I would love to hear from you If you want to be part of our work, you can send contributions to or buy peacebonds at our web site

Remember that contributions from individuals and congregations through churches are matched by Samsara Fund of Minneapolis.

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