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Modus Operandi

En librairie

Transformation de conflit, de Karine Gatelier, Claske Dijkema et Herrick Mouafo

Aux Éditions Charles Léopold Mayer (ECLM)


Brussels, novembre 2007

Peace teams: other issues effecting relationship: Entrance to the field, local language, and relations with local government

Tourist-linked issues

A good share of the time, team members have had to enter the field with a tourist visa. This was true for BPT in Yugoslavia and for PBI in their early work in Guatemala, it is true for CPT, MPT, SIPAZ and for most WfP team members.

Tourist status has been a problem for peace teams in Chiapas. Michigan Peace Team volunteers, in spite of their efforts to just blend in, were stopped at barricades and told “Tourists don’t visit here.” Robert Poen is very frustrated by the visa situation for the SIPAZ team in Chiapas. Their volunteer from Uruguay had to renew her visa every two months; the U.S. volunteers get six months if they’re lucky. Travelling to renew visas is “a tremendous burden financially, and the time costs are enormous. On a tourist visa you’re not supposed to interfere in the domestic politics in Mexico, and you can be expelled on the flimsiest excuse. Our volunteers have never been expelled, but they are often stopped at road blocks and not allowed to continue to where they were going.” (1).

During their early work in Guatemala, PBI volunteers could enter only on tourist visas; applications for formal legal status met consistent delays (2). It was only after deportation and return that PBI was allowed a change in status. Team members witnessed a police shooting, were questioned in the Office of Foreign Relations and given 15 minutes to choose between legal deportation, court charges of “illegal involvement in an event resulting in a woman’s death”, or leave the country voluntarily under protection of their embassies. The volunteers were told that if they refused to leave, the entire PBI team would be expelled and their lives in danger. They co-operated and were deported (3). But PBI went public with its story after the murder and deportation, insisting on the legality of their presence; and in the end special visas were sanctioned by the Guatemalan Congress.

In Colombia, the Government considered PBI presence consistent with its own commitment to human rights and thereby authorised special ”courtesy” visas for team members, which were eventually registered and legally recognised. This is unique in the history of peace team projects.

SIPAZ reports that their 30 international observers during the Mexican elections were required to get FM3 visas (for human rights monitoring), which was an unbelievably time-consuming process and limiting to their activities. The new government has made it possible to do international observation work without an FM3 and not be expelled. Michigan Peace Teams found that the visa for observers was too restrictive for regular team work in the villages, however.

PBI begins their program at each location with a round of visits to national and local authorities, both civilian and military. In Colombia, for example, PBI explained the function and methodology of accompaniment to each authority, thus fulfilling the deterrence strategy requirement for communication regarding the existence and possible political consequences of accompaniment. They also recruited support from the diplomatic corps, which was kept closely informed of PBI work. The Colombian groups receiving protection also formally notified the government of the accompaniment they were now receiving (4).

For all projects in the Balkans registration with the police is required by law, even if entering the country as a tourist, as many projects do. BPT sometimes avoided it in Kosovo/a, but it was a risk. They tried registration as an INGO in Croatia, but it was very slow to come through because the law was just being put into practice. CPSes do not necessarily contact national governments upon entering the field but in BiH and Kosovo/a are registered as internationals (5).

Facility in local language and use of interpreters

SIPAZ, PBI, and WfP all have very high standards for fluency in the local language. Any person who inquires about being on a SIPAZ team is sent information and an application form in Spanish; so the relationship is begun in the language that will be needed. BPT and Austrian Peace Services offer two-week language classes during training and expect team members to continue to learn while in the field (BPT held these classes in the country). Resultant facility is minimal for use in the field. German CPS (and development services) offer intensive language training, with a special organisation, before going to the field.

A new volunteer on a Michigan Peace Team was at Spanish immersion school on her way to Chiapas before she realised that no one on the team would be fluent in Spanish. She wrote back to the base, “Moving ahead with this without a strong base of fluency would be not only personally challenging but potentially life threatening for people we are trying to shield… If I do not have a fluent person on the team I am considering leaving… This is not tourist travel where one can muck along through language with a conversation travel book” (6). John Heid reports that as he worked in Chiapas he had many doubts, questions and suggestions, but had to go along with the program because of his weak language skill (7).

In Colombia, all CPT team members must be fluent in Spanish. Originally, only one person on their Chiapas team was fluent; now they try to have two at all times. In Hebron, they rely on locals who speak English and the on translators who have assisted CPT long enough to understand their work (8).

Team-sending organisations do not normally require familiarity with indigenous languages or with second languages of the region. PBI, for example, was handicapped in its Guatemalan work, particularly in rural areas, by the fact that no volunteer spoke a Mayan language (9).

How much fluency is needed? Beth Abbot of Project Accompaniment says it is “the ability to speak Spanish well and not to lose that ability in tense situations!” (10) WfP tells potential applicants, “Conversational fluency means that you can converse with fluency in Spanish, that you can communicate your thoughts and ideas without much hesitation and that those you are talking to can understand you. It also means that you can understand and respond to those talking to you. This implies that: (a) you can use all the verb tenses: present, past, future, imperfect, subjunctive, conditional, present perfect, past perfect, and future perfect tenses, (b) you have a good working vocabulary.” (11)

An Unwelcoming local government

Only in Guatemala and El Salvador have any of these peace teams experienced being made explicitly unwelcome by the local government. In Guatemala, General Mejia Victores used the immigration department to cut off visas for 10 PBI volunteers in 1985, saying they were illegally meddling in internal politics (12). In El Salvador, five PBI volunteers were detained in November of 1989, and the entire PBI team was “exiled” to Guatemala (13).

Both CPT and PBI have practised the peace team “relay method” - if one team member is expelled, she/he is replaced as quickly as possible by another.

PBI believes that accompaniment as effective deterrence depends on adequate communication with the state, but this has not always met with positive response. In Guatemala, PBI met with local military and civilian authorities to inform them of its presence in El Quiche. The meetings, which called for attention to protection and international interest focused on the CERJ, had mixed results. Local mayors were polite, some supportive. But the governor threatened to have volunteers thrown out of country if they got involved in internal politics by attending CERJ events (14).

PBI’s heaviest clout is the use of political influence from Northern Hemisphere countries. They used this to good effect after their expulsion from Guatemala by issuing a public statement, visiting embassies and government officials, emphasising PBI commitment to nonviolence, to non-intervention in internal affairs of Guatemala and to acting within the law. Their international alert system includes government officials in places a small country may not want to offend. PBI insists on high visibility, use of international pressure, and a claim of non-partisanship to work in the field even when a local government is less than excited about their presence.


  • (1) : Poen - interview with author

  • (2) : Mahony/Eguren 1997: 43

  • (3) : Mahony/Eguren 1997: 118

  • (4) : Mahony/Eguren 1997: 228

  • (5) : Further research is warranted on registration as INGO. There are reports that in some countries enormous taxes are demanded for all income of such internationals.

  • (6) : Source confidential

  • (7) : Heid - interview with author

  • (8) : Use of translators in Hebron requires accompanying them to and from their homes and necessitates going to get them when an urgent situation arises which cannot be understood without translation.

  • (9) : Mahony /Eguren 1997: 63

  • (10) : Abbott in Moser-Puangsuwan /Weber 2000:170

  • (11) :

  • (12) : Mahony in Moser-Puangsuwan / Weber - 2000: 138

  • (13) : Mahony / Eguren 1997: 179

  • (14) : Mahony / Eguren 1997: 63