By Melissa Butcher
In a new twist of thinking globally, acting locally, a group is proving that non-violence in action is effective. It's a practical experiment in peace making.
Peace Brigades International began in Canada in 1981 and has branches throughout Europe, North America and now Australia. At present we work in three countries: Guatemala since 1983, El Salvador since 1987 and Sri Lanka since 1989.
Volunteers trained in their home countries spend two to 12 months overseas. They provide non-partisan, unarmed presence and — through means such as accompanying those whose lives have been threatened, staying at their homes, their offices, going to the markets — allow local groups to continue their struggle for a sense of justice and dignity.
Reluctance to commit violence in front of an international witness makes the presence of PBI volunteers a powerful deterrent. Teams can also provide training in non-violence and encourage dialogue and reconciliation between parties. No volunteers or their charges have been killed.
These activities are supported by an Emergency Response Network throughout the world which can be alerted within 24 hours to send faxes and telegrams if a kidnapping or crisis occurs for a PBI team.
Teams are invited into a country but will work only with groups which have not used or endorsed the use of violence.
In Sri Lanka, the Bar Association asked PBI to send a team after a series of kidnappings and murders of civil rights lawyers.
In three months of state of emergency in Sri Lanka in 1989, as many as 4000 people were believed to have been killed or are still missing. While we are mostly familiar with the Tamil/Sinhalese conflict in the north, the south of the country is wracked by civil war between government forces and the People's Liberation Front.
Both sides are known to engage in the widespread killing of civilians. Lawyers who represent detained and disappeared persons become targets themselves. By October 1989 six had been murdered. When PBI arrived, few lawyers were taking cases on behalf of people thought abducted, and some had left the country. With the protection of PBI volunteers in November, the office of a leading civil rights lawyer was reopened.
As well as accompanying lawyers, the team is also working with Negembo United People's Organisation, which organises cooperatives; the Organisation of the Parents and Family Members of the Disappeared; and the Sri Lankan Interfaith Fellowship for Peace and Development.
George Lakey, a member of the PBI Team in Sri Lanka, says "Each leader who stays alive and working is also valuable symbolically in the larger struggle between hope and despair. Keeping the hope alive is a condition of eventual peace."
The Australian branch was established after a visit in April by the PBI team coordinator for Sri Lanka, Yeshua Moser. A training session was held in Sydney in May with seven people now able to work in Sri Lanka. Future volunteers will attend a weekend workshop and then a week-long training course.
In the future PBI hopes to expand projects into Israel and Northern Ireland. At the moment it is a question of money.
We also need people: volunteers, supporters, people willing to become part of the Emergency Response Network. We share a strong commitment to non-violence and a belief that the people in whose country we work can create for themselves a peaceful and just society.
For details of meetings, contact Tess or Helen on (02) 281 9705, or PO Box A243, Sydney South NSW 2000.