Liam Mahoney, author, Unarmed Bodyguards
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
LIAM MAHONEY: We were just with people. We followed them around. We, they, they wanted us
there. We would go to their meetings and sit outside the office while they had a meeting or a
press conference. If they had to go to work we would sometimes wait outside the place where they
worked so that if anyone else was waiting outside the place they worked they would see us and not
want to act on any orders they had to attack or harass the people that we were accompanying.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, the peacemaking work of unarmed bodyguards.
MAHONEY: The international rights movement is—and this is one of the most hopeful
messages I think our book brings out—is the international human rights movement is a very
powerful political force in the world right now. It doesn’t know it often and most of the world
isn’t aware of it, but governments around the world, they’re very aware of what people are saying
about them in terms of human rights. And they want to control that.
PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
PORTER: [with sounds of a demonstration in the background] This is the sound of a
protest march in Guatemala in the early 1990s. Demonstrating against the government of Guatemala
at that time was a dangerous business. But these marchers were protected largely by unarmed
bodyguards from Peace Brigades International. Our guest today, Liam Mahoney, explains how this
type of protection works.
MAHONEY: [with sounds of a demonstration in the background] International accompaniment
is the process of sending international volunteers to places where there is either a war going on
or a high level of international, of human rights abuse. And what we’ve found is that having an
international volunteer with people who are threatened by human rights abuse has served as a protection.
And it serves as a protection because the governments who are committing human rights abuse don’t
want the outside world to know about it. And because they don’t want to happen they’d rather not
commit this sort of violence while foreigners are standing right there watching. Or worse yet,
they’d rather not hurt a foreigner. `Cause either thing can cause a scandal. And so over the years
we’ve developed this process in Peace Brigades International of sending volunteers to countries
like Guatemala or Sri Lanka or Columbia or other places where there’s a lot of human rights abuse.
And it’s been almost fool-proof. I mean, in almost no cases have people been hurt or killed or in
anyway, even harassed in many cases, when we’re with them. Now, in some cases it hasn’t, it’s not
utterly fool-proof, but if you really look at the 15 year history of doing this work we didn’t even
expect it to be this successful, as it has been.
PORTER: Tell us about your personal experience. I mean, you’ve served as, what do you
call them, the people who are doing the accompaniment?
MAHONEY: It’s funny, `cause I served in Guatemala and we only had a Spanish word for what
we call ourselves, which was accompaniante?, which would be “accompanier.”
MAHONEY: Something like that. But I worked in Guatemala 4 or 5 times over the last 11
years and most of the time I was accompanying individual human rights leaders. People working
with human rights organizations who were constantly receiving death threats for the kind of work
they were doing. Calling attention to the awful violence that the Guatemalan state was responsible
for, especially during the ’80s. And so we just, we were just with people. We followed them around.
We, they, they wanted us there. We would go to their meetings and sit outside the office while
they had a meeting or a press conference. If they had to go to work we would sometimes wait
outside the place where they worked so that if anyone else was waiting outside the place they
worked they would see us and not want to act on any orders they had to attack or harass the people
that we were accompanying. So it, it, everyday was a little bit different. It depended on who you
were accompanying and what kind of work they were doing.
PORTER: Yeah. Juana Tipez is from the Committee of Displaced Guatemalans
JUANA TIPEZ: [speaking via a translator] The visits by peace brigades are very important
to us when there are threats. Also the accompaniments. Say, when we are traveling around the city.
Because when others see that we are with someone from Peace Brigades it’s less likely that we’ll
be kidnapped. So their presence, their visits, are very important to every grassroots organization here.
PORTER: The calculation is that the, the life of the white American is somehow more valuable
than the life of the Central American peasant. I mean, how troublesome is it to you that someone
out there is making that calculation and that’s why the program works.
MAHONEY: Well, it’s, it’s very troublesome. It’s even more troublesome to the Central
American peasant because we had, one of the quotes in the book we wrote on this process was a
human rights activist in Guatemala who was asked by a Guatemalan journalist, she was asked, “Why
do you always have these foreigners tagging along with you?” And she just said really bluntly,
she said, “`Cause my life as a Guatemalan woman is worth nothing to my government.” But it’s not
solely that it’s a white North American that’s with her. Really the government is quite concerned
about any sort of international pressure. Now, I mean it’s the unfortunate reality of our global
system that they are a little more concerned about pressure that’s related to the most powerful
nations like the United States. But our organization has volunteers from all over the world. And
we’ve had other Latin Americans do accompaniment in Central America and have the same role of
protection. Because they know, the government knows, that our organization is going to respond
with political pressure to whatever any of our volunteers witness, regardless of where they
happen to be from.
PORTER: How would you compare this to the Freedom Rider movement during the Civil Rights Movement?
MAHONEY: It’s, there’s some comparison, on two levels. One is, there was definitely in
part an idea in the Freedom Riders Movement that having white people there might serve as an
encouragement or a protection for people to get involved. But also, there was a very clear
analysis in the Freedom Rider Movement that most of all having white people down in the South was
going to force the federal government to pay attention. But I think another really important
comparison is that the Freedom Rider Movement was, largely grew out of joint strategizing—not,
it wasn’t a plan of the white, North American activists. It was actually strategized by the
black—what was it called?—SNCC, the [Student] Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the South.
It was mostly black activists who were looking for ways to draw more attention to the situation.
And that’s a factor that we put a lot of importance on in our work as well. Which is that the
accompaniment is something that has to be desired and wanted and planned by the people who are
being accompanied. It’s not like we just dive in somewhere `cause someone’s in danger and we come
up and knock on their door and say, “You need us,” you know. We’re not…
PORTER: Sort of like Superman swooping out of the sky. Yeah.
MAHONEY: …we’re not, right, we’re not parachuting in. It’s just, people find out what
we have to offer and they think about their risks and what they’re facing and they decide whether
this sort of presence is something that would help them. And they come to us and talk about it.
And sometimes we strategize a little more together, `cause we know more about our role, and we’ve
done it with a lot of people so we can help them understand how it would work. And then they
decide if they want it or not.
PORTER: Nery Barrios is a union leader in Guatemala.
NERY BARRIOS: [speaking via a translator] For us it is of utmost importance that Peace
Brigades is with us here. We’ve had many death threats. Threats from the Army; threats from the
National Police; and the repressive government forces.
PORTER: Tell us something about what the accompanier does on the ground. And more importantly
tell us what they won’t do. What are the limits, the things that the accompaniers can’t do?
MAHONEY: Well, in Peace Brigades International what they do ranges all over the map,
depending on who you’re accompanying. But most of the time you’re just going along with whatever
the people who you’re accompanying are doing. And we’re not actually participating in their work.
We’re just accompanying it. Just going alongside it. And in some cases that just means, I mean
I’ll give you an example. If we’re, we might accompany a union that’s gone on strike and occupied
a factory. Well, we can’t go in the factory and occupy with them, `cause it’s illegal and we’d get
thrown out of the country most of the time. So often we would then have just a presence outside
the gates of the factory. And what we’d do is nothing. We’re just there. The whole idea is not
doing, it’s just being there. We don’t get involved actively in the organizations we’re
accompanying. We certainly don’t get involved in any directive or managerial way with any
organizations. We don’t tell anybody what to do. We don’t try to strategize their political
movements for them. We’re firmly convinced that the changes that have to occur in most countries
that are facing conflict in human rights are going to come from the people who live in those
countries. And although some, I mean sometimes you can have an outside intervention that brings
in a useful change, I think over the long haul we’re pretty convinced that the longevity of the
structural changes that are going to happen in these countries are going to be much more stable
and sustainable if they’re developed by a process that’s empowering to the people in the countries
themselves, that are developing them. So we try to really keep a hands-off approach to the actual organizing.
PORTER: What kinds of people volunteer to be accompaniers?
MAHONEY: All kinds of people really. We, the main criteria is that you have to be
committed and want to do this. And then we go through a whole process of training to figure out
if someone is ready for it. And…
PORTER: Screening as well?
MAHONEY: Screening. Yeah. Pretty in-depth screening.
PORTER: I mean, you have to find out something about them and….
PORTER: …and whether or not they’re a good candidate?
MAHONEY: They go through, they have to actually write up a very detailed application,
which scares a lot of people off right up front `cause it’s pages and page of soul-searching
about whether you’re ready to do this sort of work. And then we have a week-long screening/training
procedure where we bring everyone together and we do all kinds of activities and role plays and
discussions. And what we’re trying to figure out is, it’s not as if in one week someone comes in
totally unprepared for this work, they’re going to be prepared after a week with us. We’re not
magicians. It’s like in one week we can discern together with us and the people who are thinking
of doing this work, whether they have a past life experience that they can apply to this. That
they’re ready for it. And a lot of people do. They have other experiences with working with stress
or working with violence or working with people in trouble. You know, all kinds of people have
experience working with trauma in different contexts, that they can apply to the kind of work that
PORTER: People often think of peacekeeping as a function of the United Nations, the men
in the blue helmets who stand between the warring parties. And in recent years we’ve heard more
about peacekeeping along with peacemaking and peacebuilding and these other functions. Where does
international accompaniment fit into that, that theory of peacemaking, peacekeeping, peacebuilding?
MAHONEY: Well, I’d say, it fits into a little bit of all of them. They’re pretty, I mean,
peace, the way the U.N. defines those things, I mean peacemaking, is often the process of just
negotiating solutions to wars. And peacekeeping is usually just the process of getting in the way,
a buffering between the warring parties while you’re trying to build a negotiated solution. In a
sense we’re buffering, but we’re not between warring parties, we’re between, usually armed
government and unarmed civilians who are just trying to build a democracy. But we are doing the
bit of a buffer there. But I think in a large part we’re doing peacebuilding. Which is the local
activists who we’re protecting are really the ones who are building changes into their societies
that are going to create sustainable peace. And if they can’t survive to do that work nothing
the U.N. can do from the outside can create a sustainable peace in a country, if, where local
activists aren’t involved in the process and able to work. So, our protection of them is a contribution
to their ability to really build peace from the inside. It’s one of the weaknesses I think sometimes
of international humanitarian intervention, is the tendency to think that maybe we could impose
peace from the outside on a country. And it’s seldom possible.
PORTER: Well maybe now this is a good time to bring up the book. Liam Mahoney is the
author of Unarmed Bodyguards. Tell us something about the book and about your co-author as well.
MAHONEY: Yeah. The, my co-author, Luis Enrique Eguren and I, got together about 5 yeas
ago, after we’d been involved in this work for several years together. And we felt that there really
needed to be a book that carefully studied this process and in many ways showed the world how it
works and why it works. And we looked, we studied 5 different conflicts in countries where
violence and human rights abuse were going on and people were being protected by, by you know,
accompaniment. The most fascinating thing probably about the book was that in addition to going
out and talking to all the human rights activists we could find that were being accompanied—and
volunteers like ourselves who were doing it—we went out and we talked to former dictators and
high-level military officials and high-level government officials, who were involved in the
decision making about using human rights abuse as a policy. And so we needed to find out, what
did they think? Of the international accompaniment and international human rights movement. And
what the book, I think, pretty clearly demonstrates, is that, they’re thinking about it. They’re
trying to figure out how to respond to the international human rights movement. The international
rights movement is—and this is one of the most hopeful messages I think our book brings out—is
the international human rights movement is a very powerful political force in the world right now.
It doesn’t know it often and most of the world isn’t aware of it, but governments around the world,
they’re very aware of what people are saying about them in terms of human rights. And they want to control that.
PORTER: Yeah, the book, like you say, I think it’s fascinating that you talked to some of
the people that you actually used the tactics against, and it’s interesting to get their perspective.
You talk about some of the success stories. People who were, who benefited from international
accompaniment. There are also a couple of chapters that, that take peacemaking, the process of
peace, very seriously. And treat it in a social scientific manner, along the lines of Jean Sharp
or Johanne Galtung, or, you know, other people. And I find that fascinating as well. Did you know
going into it that you were going to have chapters on, you know, peacekeeping being disassociative
and peacemaking and peacebuilding being associative, and…
MAHONEY: Well, we were trying…
PORTER: …charts and graphs and all that stuff.
MAHONEY: Yeah. It’s, the book, we were trying to fulfill a whole lot of goals at the same
time with this book. But in large part we want to write a book that would both be accessible to
the general public and tell exciting stories and hopeful stories. And that’s really one of the
most important things I think the book does, is it shares experiences that most people don’t know
about. People, people see human rights abuse around the world and they just think it’s a black
hole of dismal depression and don’t know that there’s incredibly hopeful and courageous things
going on. But at the same time we wanted to build credibility for this work. We wanted to be taken
seriously in the academic community and in the policy level in governments and in the United Nations.
And so we had to place the work in a theoretical context that, where it could be perceived
credibly and understood within, within the realm of how people are looking at international
interventions around the world. And so we put a lot of work into researching and documenting how
this fits in to the overall development of the human rights movement in this century. And how it
fits in theoretically into studies of international intervention and international politics. So,
we did, we spent a long time developing a theoretical context in which to put this. And that’s
part of the book. But we also didn’t want to scare off most readers who don’t really want to read
about political theory and most of the book really is actually showing on the ground how that
works. You can learn just as much about the theory by reading the stories.
PORTER: And the stories come from what countries?
MAHONEY: The stories are from Guatemala, El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Haiti, and Columbia. And
those are five countries in which both, in which myself and Luis Enrique, my colleague, we’ve all
had, we’ve both had personal experience in these countries. So we were also, in writing the book,
trying to bring together, other people’s stories, political analysis, and our own personal
experience. And we didn’t really feel comfortable going in and writing about some country we’d
never even worked in ourself. Because the context is very important to understand some of the
basic content when you’re trying to do a sensitive political analysis.
PORTER: What in your background led you to this? What made you sort of have this idea
and want to be a part of human rights in general and international accompaniment in particular?
MAHONEY: Sometimes a tough question because if you, somebody looks at my, my, my c.v. and
they see basically that I’ve studied music in college. And it doesn’t seem like the logical
progression. But I think anybody can come into peace work and human rights work. And that’s the
whole importance of it, is that its everyone’s responsibility. My own experience was just that I
got involved in college, being concerned about war and peace and injustice and started working as
a volunteer, in my life, with different causes. And like a number of people who got involved in
the 1980s with the Central American Solidarity Movement, I took a brief trip to Central America
in the mid-1980s. And that was what completely turned me around, because, I, I went to Guatemala,
which was a country I totally fell in love with, and I met people who were doing this work. I
mean, I didn’t found this organization; it was going on long before I got involved. And I was
very impressed that people were, people believed enough in the possibilities for peace and non-violence
that they would take a considerable amount of risk to try to bring it about. And that meant both
the Guatemalans themselves and the international volunteers. And that seemed like the way we
ought to look at the possibilities for change in the world. Which is, a) that they’re very
possible; and b) that we have to be able to undertake a certain amount of risk to make change happen.
PORTER: We’re talking in this edition of Common Ground with Liam Mahoney. He’s
from Peace Brigades International and he’s co-author of a book, titled Unarmed Bodyguards:
International Accompaniment for the Protection of Human Rights. Printed transcripts and audio
cassettes of this program will be available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details.
Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization
that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
PORTER: Tell us about a time when you maybe felt threatened. Or did you ever feel
threatened in the times when you were serving as an accompanier?
MAHONEY: Probably one of the most threatening moments I had was the almost the first
experience I had in Guatemala. Which was when I was accompanying a group, the mutual support
group for families of disappeared people, in a rural area at a wake, where two women had just
been killed. And this organization went up to show moral support for this family. And after an
all-night wake and a very sad situation, the next morning a bunch of soldiers came by to harass
the, just came by and started standing and hovering around the house where this wake was going
on. And in fact they began to harass a journalist who was taking their picture. And at that point
one of the women who we were accompanying, the president of this group, came out of this house
and walked over to these soldiers and just sort of nosed her way in between them and took the
camera so that the soldiers wouldn’t take the camera from the journalist, and walked back. And
she didn’t say a word but she just showed no fear whatsoever of these soldiers. And the next
thing the soldiers did was they all filed into the house where the wake was going on. And I have
to admit that was a moment that I was pretty scared. And I was also scared `cause I knew it was
my job to go into the house with them. Which I did. And the interesting thing was, my fear may
have been totally fictional. Absolutely nothing happened. They actually quite respectfully viewed
the caskets and left silently. So it was quite an interesting sort of possible transformation
that went on. And, but the other thing was I found when I’d worked in Guatemala for almost a
year, that it wasn’t an incident that got me scared. What got me scared was the fact that I
realized after a year that fear was contagious. And I was simply around people who were frightened.
Guatemalans who were frightened. Those were the ones who come to us for support. And being around
people who were frightened that much all the time, I realized, I was just getting very nervous.
PORTER: Boy I can understand that.
MAHONEY: And after a year I needed to leave. You know. That first time I went I only
worked, could only work about a year, and I needed to leave.
PORTER: You’ve talked about how there are times when accompaniers, accompaniment can work
when you’re up against a government that is violating human rights, or there is some sort of
structure to the violations.
MAHONEY: Umm hmm.
PORTER: But it might not work so well in other cases where perhaps there are death squads
or it’s organized crime groups or something, some other kinds of organizations that are involved
in the violation of human rights. Can you talk some about the difference there, and why accompaniment
works in one case and not in the other?
MAHONEY: I mean, on a political level the power of accompaniment is dependent upon the
possible response if w see something. In other words we’re depending on the idea that if we see
something we will then put, wage a campaign of political pressure against whoever violated human
rights. And it just is a characteristic of the international system that there are all kinds of
mechanisms that we can use to put political pressure on a government, right? But if you’re
facing a non-governmental terrorist organization, you know, they don’t have an embassy down the
street that you can go walk in and knock on the door and you know, make a political protest. And
so it’s a little harder sometimes to figure out how you can pressure them. And you’re not quite
as sure if they are at all sensitive to pressure. So, taking on, protecting people who are being
threatened by a non-governmental group is more risky. Now, sometimes, a lot of times, you are
dealing with death squads who are not officially part of the government but are in some way
linked to a government. So that you can, you can still take on protecting people from that type
of organization. Because indirectly and eventually, the government or the military of a country,
let’s say like Guatemala or Columbia, they have the power to influence what death squads are
doing. Okay? So you can accompany them. But if you’re actually dealing with a group, say in Sri
Lanka, like the Tamil Tigers, who are absolutely fighting the government, it’s a little harder to
know how to put pressure on them. And therefore if you accompany people who are threatened by
them, you are depending on other kinds of pressure. For instance, perhaps moral pressure. That
they really, just still probably don’t want to do something while someone is watching. Right?
Now, but that’s, you know, that’s a little riskier to depend on sometimes, I think. But we have
been in that position where w have accompanied people without really knowing if we could politically
respond to the violence. But, hoping that the presence anyway would have some effect on whoever saw us.
PORTER: You mentioned the Tamil Tigers fighting against the government. Other organizations
though might be just involved in organized crime. Is that correct? I mean, the, a drug cartel,
or a Mafioso-type group.
MAHONEY: Right. And I would say, in most cases there’s little we could do to protect
someone from that kind of violence. Now, I think the larger the institution, if you’re talking
about a Mafia, the more possibility that they are still nevertheless—still sensitive to international—to
pressure. They’re still worried about their image. I mean, even when, in the sort of the heyday
of Mafia activity in our country, you know, the Mafia still sort of didn’t like killing policeman
or priests or things like that, that would affect their image. And bring on more pressure and
enforcement. So, and I think that’s true across the board. There are always possibilities. But
they haven’t been very well developed yet by the human rights movement. I think a big challenge
facing the human rights movement is figuring out more effective ways to put pressure on non-state abusers.
PORTER: Earlier we talked about the Freedom Riders in the Civil Rights Movement. And
there came a point in the Civil Rights Movement, for whatever reason, that the movement outgrew
the need for the Freedom Riders. Is there a point when a struggle outgrows the need for accompaniers?
And how do you know when the struggle has reached that point?
MAHONEY: There absolutely has to be a point. And it’s a hard thing to judge when you know.
But the example I would give is we stayed in El Salvador for 5 years. And after about a year
after the peace accords were signed the Salvadorans themselves were no longer asking us to accompany
them. Now, they still wanted us to be committed to their struggle and they still wanted support,
and they never, they never want to go back to being where they were in the ’70s or ’60s, which is
being largely ignored by the outside world. They know that their long-term safety in terms of
human rights is dependent on everybody keeping on eye on what’s going on internationally. But
they didn’t need that physical presence. And so we closed down that project.
PORTER: Where is this sort of work going on right now? International accompaniment?
Where is it happening around the planet right now?
MAHONEY: Well, we have projects in Guatemala, Columbia, Sri Lanka, Haiti. We have, we
work together with several other organizations on two joint projects. One is called the Balkans
Peace Team, which has three teams in different parts of the Balkans; and the other is called the
International Peace Service, which is in Chiapas, Mexico. Now, Christian Peacemaker Teams is
working in Hebron, Israel. On a much more informal level there’s a lot, there’s more and more
accompaniment going on by other organizations. And in fact you find over and over again now, much
more of a consciousness by even such, you know, international charitable organizations that are
just involved in relief work—everything from the Red Cross to Save the Children to the United
Nations Refugee Commission—are more and more aware of the fact that just their physical presence
is providing a service to the people they are with. It’s not just, you know, the food or the
relief that they’re bringing in. It’s just the physical presence. So if you—one the things we
also try to look at in our book was the realization that accompaniment is going on in a much
bigger way than just the organizations who call themselves accompaniment. And, and the international
movement of relief agencies are becoming more and more aware of that political impact of their work.
PORTER: What’s the next step for institutionalizing this process? Is it, is it institutionalized
to the level that you want it to be? Or is there some next step in growth?
MAHONEY: Well, we’d love to have an extra $10 million to really build it a lot bigger.
Peace Brigades is quite small. And the other organizations I mentioned are also still quite small.
I think there are several levels that we present in the book for the growth or institutionalization
of this work. One is the growth of the organizations that are already doing it and just gradually
attracting more attention and support. And the formation of other, new small organizations. That’s
one level. The other level is to get accompaniment taken on as a tactic by larger organizations
who are already existing in the human rights or international service movement. And that could be
everything from the Amnesty Internationals to Doctors Without Borders or other groups that are
already working in conflict zones, realizing that, you know, in addition to whatever services
they’re providing they might also do this accompaniment service. And the third, higher level, is
getting this tactic taken seriously on a governmental level. So that when the United Nations, for
instance, does a peacetime intervention or trying to bring about peace that they, they integrate
the notion of accompaniment into the different tactics that they’re using to try to lower the
level of violence in the countries where they intervene. And each of these are a different type
of institutionalization with different political consequences. But they are all possible and they
are all happening in a small way. And we’re working toward, you know, building that as much as we can.
PORTER: That is Liam Mahoney. He’s co-author of Unarmed Bodyguards: International
Accompaniment for the Protection of Human Rights. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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