For more than 300 years, Quakers have been working for peace. That work emerges out of the Friends peace testimony that reflects a commitment to social justice, reconciliation, mediation, disarmament, and ending militarism.
These Quaker principles also serve to inform their longstanding support for Peace Brigades International (PBI), a human rights group which now has a presence in 20 countries around the world.
PBI acknowledges the key role of Quakers in its answer to the question, “Where did the idea of a ‘peace brigade’ come from?” The PBI website explains, “The idea of an unarmed, nonviolent peace force comes from two different sources: the Quakers and Gandhi.”
It then notes, “In 17th-century England, Quakers offered their services as mediators before or during conflicts. This practice was rooted in the Quaker belief that there is something of God in everybody, therefore, no-one should be debased, exploited or killed.”
In turn, the Canadian Friends Service Committee has posted, “Founded by Friends, PBI places volunteers in communities where support and protective accompaniment is requested by local human rights defenders.” It also highlights, “PBI volunteers report to the outside world a balanced analysis of the situation witnessed on the ground.”
Quakers in the World adds, “It is not a Quaker organisation, but its work is grounded in Quaker and Gandhian principles, Quakers were instrumental in its establishment, and many Quakers still work with the organisation today.”
That article also notes the Quaker participation in the founding of PBI almost 40 years ago.
It recalls, “In September 1981, a consultative meeting was held on Grindstone Island, site of the Canadian Friends Service Committee’s Peace Education Centre.” Grindstone Island is located about 100 kilometres southwest of Ottawa.
One of the founders of PBI at that meeting was Murray Thomson, a Quaker who passed away on May 2 in Ottawa at 96 years of age.
And the article highlights that six of the eleven founding members of PBI at that meeting on Grindstone Island were Quakers.
It’s also notable, as mentioned in this article, that the first direct request for PBI to intervene in a conflict situation came from Nicaragua where U.S.-funded Contra rebels were at war with the new government that came to power in a popular uprising.
That first group of PBI volunteers in 1983 was led by Jack Schultz, a Quaker.
George Lakey, a well-known American Quaker activist, was also an early volunteer with Peace Brigades International.
Lakey has written, “In 1989 I joined the first Peace Brigades International, or PBI, team in Sri Lanka. Our job was to act as unarmed bodyguards for lawyers who were threatened with assassination because they were standing up for activists’ human rights.”
He adds, “In one case I was told to live with the lawyer’s family and answer the doorbell at night after curfew, on the chance it was the hit squad there to kill the lawyer. ‘By tonight’, [the lawyer] said, ‘the [hit squad] controller will know all about PBI and possible repercussions if he kills me.'”
Lakey concludes, “For decades now PBI and other unarmed civilian peacekeepers have been operating in violent situations, keeping people alive.”
Just some of the other Quakers from Toronto who have been involved with PBI over the years include: JoLeigh Commandant who became the first staff person for PBI’s Central American program; Alaine Hawkins who was the coordinator of the PBI Central America Project from 1986 to 1991; and Lyn Adamson who was involved in PBI’s work in both Canada and Indonesia.
Additionally, Karen Ridd, a member of the Quaker community in Winnipeg, was a PBI volunteer in Guatemala in 1988 and in El Salvador in 1989. Maclean’s reported that when she was abducted by the National Guard in El Salvador, “Ridd showed remarkable courage throughout the ordeal: at one point, she even refused to leave jail unless a female colleague from Colombia was also freed.”
It should also be mentioned that the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, can nominate individuals and groups to receive the prize.
In 2001, the AFSC nominated Peace Brigades International.
Their statement highlighted, “PBI has a sustained, deep commitment to non-violence in working for peace and human rights and provides a successful model for how ordinary people with extraordinary courage can support local workers for peace in some of the most dangerous of the world’s conflicts.”
Peace Brigades International-Canada is now working to find some “ordinary people with extraordinary courage” to volunteer with its field project in Guatemala. Applications are due by July 22.
That work involves providing protective accompaniment and support to human rights defenders in a country where 26 human rights defenders were killed in 2018.