As anyone who has eaten a hamburger in Colombia will know, simply adding good things, one on top of the other, often results in a whole that is somehow less than the sum of its parts. The standard combination of lettuce, and tomato, and onions, and peppers, and bacon, and/or tiny bits of chicharron, and cheese, and mustard, and ketchup, and mayonnaise, and pineapple jelly, and pink sauce (itself a combination of ketchup and mayonnaise), not to mention the surrealist ornamentation of a hard-boiled quail egg on a toothpick, produces a dense gluey block, wholly impractical, the meat is lost, the tensile strength of the bun overwhelmed. Being English, I recognize this magpie approach to food—the ever-expanding English Breakfast, the Roast dinner “with all the trimmings,” are the defining pillars of our cuisine. However, more often than not, the urge to augment, layer, and combine endlessly finally results in the initial aim of the undertaking lost, drowned in condiments, ultimately ineffective.
Tart ketchup cutting through sharp onions, lettuce moistening dry bread, mustard highlighting savory beef, and done. Quality is better achieved through simplicity, foresight, and considered combinations. As with much in life, the work of human rights organizations can be directly related through a strained metaphor to the preparation of hamburgers.
I work for an NGO called Fellowship for Reconciliation Peace Presence (FORPP). We provide accompaniment to human rights activists here in Colombia. “Human Rights Accompaniment” is an attempt to use non-violent means to provide some sort of safety to people who live in violent situations. It is also sometimes known as “International Protective Accompaniment,” which may give you a better idea of what it means in a more practical sense.
The theory, which has been used and developed in practice since the 1980s in Latin America, is that were a union organizer, political activist, human rights lawyer, or any of the people who stand up for their rights, to come up against forces both reactionary and well-armed, the presence of an international observer, both symbolically and actually embodying “international opinion,” may provide additional security.
Just being there, physically accompanying somebody, will make aggressors think twice (although there are no guarantees they will change their minds) about attacking, detaining, threatening, or any other sort of –ing. So we make sure we are in a position to be “there” when the worst may happen.
To reinforce this deterrent, FORPP will carry out political dissuasion, utilizing the widely recognized first law of professional physics (the one about problems rolling downhill). Whether this is talking regularly to international embassies, UN, or state agencies in Bogotá, or Army and Police Colonels here where I am based with the Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó, Urabá, we focus on the specific points of power that affect the chains of command that lead to human rights abuses, raising the political costs of allowing human rights abuses to continue. Maintaining pressure where decisions are made, and making life uncomfortable for those with power, constantly reminding them that there is international headache in the area, provides the political structure that supports the physical work we do as accompaniers.
Like burger preparation then, human rights work is a fundamentally proactive and practical endeavor. It is engendered by activists with a work plan, and works best when that work plan is focused and mindful of the resources and objectives at hand. Limited resources necessitate the careful selection of strategy, a clear-eyed analysis of structures of oppression and the identification of weak spots where pressure can be best applied and change effected. Choices must be made—ketchup, or mayonnaise, or pink sauce—‘all of the above’ is not an option.
As such, the work of NGOs offers an entry point into understanding the issues and power structures that result in oppression, in human suffering, and the slow shredding of human dignity. These structures are multifarious, myriad, and muddy. Oppression is layered, more often than not a side-effect of some other process, unconcerned with the wider ramifications for other people, culture, history, or the environment. The banality of evil has long been recognized, and the intentions that result in the removal of freedoms and the destruction of lives are generally utterly, utterly mundane. The making of money, access to natural resources, the retention or achievement of power—these are the objectives that result in oppression. It is rarely an objective in and of itself.
Effective NGO’s zero-in and carefully select how best to induce change in a system, rather than allow the diverse and overlapping systems of domination overwhelm and render their efforts null. They focus on and analyze cruelty until the strands separate in order to identify weak spots and formulate an action plan.
Like binoculars suddenly coming into focus, looking at the strategies of NGOs and human rights groups highlights the fundamental organization of processes of oppression, and throws complex structures into sharp relief. This blog will attempt to do just that, using the numerous Colombian human rights activists FORPP works with as a lens through which large and interrelated systems of oppression can be studied and dissected. The strands thus separated and specific structures recognized, our anger can be more effectively directed. The tomato slung aside, the quail egg dropped.
Luke Finn is a writer and international accompanier with Fellowship of Reconciliation Peace Presence in Colombia. He graduated from the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester.