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   October 14, 2003

Safety Of Peace Workers Discussed By Rights Panel

Rachel Corrie was only 23 years old when she stood in front of a Palestinian home in Rafah last March. A member of the non-violent International Solidarity Movement, she hoped to protect the home from destruction. Instead, an Israeli Army bulldozer ran her down, killing her.

On Tuesday, Corrie's parents were part of a panel that assembled at the Dodd Center to discuss the role of peace activists in protecting human rights around the globe.

These activists, and the international organizations that support them, believe so strongly in the causes of peace and human rights that they are willing to put themselves in harm's way to help others. Some, like Corrie, become victims.

Andrew Miller, co-director of Peace Brigades International, an organization of peace activists, told an audience of about 100 people in Konover Auditorium that several thousand activists around the world are willing to take risks in an attempt to protect people they may not even know, in countries they may only have seen on maps.

"Many of them are drawn into it because family members have been affected by the tyrants in third-world countries," he said. "Many just decide to take a stand and put their lives at risk."

Richard Wilson, the Gladstein Chair of Human Rights and director of the new Human Rights Institute at the Dodd Center, said he first became aware of the activities of the peace activists when he was doing research in Guatemala in the 1980s. He praised the work of Miller and his organization.

The International Peace Brigade, he said in his introductory remarks, has to "navigate very difficult political waters and, at the same time, intervene effectively" on behalf of oppressed people.

Miller, the Peace Brigades leader, said his organization has about 40 members in Guatemala and Colombia. Others are working, or have worked, in the Balkans, El Salvador, Haiti, Indonesia, Mexico, and Sri Lanka.

"Our philosophy is simple," Miller said. "We are unarmed and our work is non-violent. We are non-partisan, we don't advocate for either side. We practice non-intervention and non-interference. We are not there to instruct. In fact, we feel it's best for the local protagonists to negotiate the peace. We just give them the space they need to work."

"There are many defense mechanisms," he said. "There are protective measures, where we stay with threatened activists, sometimes 24 hours a day. We help them keep a low profile, travel in numbers, vary traveling routes, and maintain a dialogue with the government."

Members also build relationships with local governments and work to create a global network of high-level political contacts.

Other groups, such as Amnesty International and Urgent Action, have employed the tactic of raising the profile of threatened activists through the media, making it that much harder for those they oppose to make them "disappear."

Another panelist, Justine McCabe, co-chair of the Connecticut Green Party and the point person on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the International Committee of the Green Party of the United States, spoke about the situation in Palestine, where she spent several months as a volunteer at the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme. McCabe, who is a certified psychologist in Connecticut, conducted respite workshops with relief workers in Gaza and offered therapy to Palestinians suffering from trauma.

McCabe spoke out against the destruction and death she has witnessed in Palestine, which she said are perpetrated by Israeli soldiers and funded largely by the United States.

Her 30-minute presentation, laden with statistics indicating how badly the Palestinians have fared in the conflict, angered several people in the auditorium. Dustin Adamstein, a UConn graduate student studying religion and politics, offered his own statistics, many of them representing barely half the numbers cited by McCabe.

McCabe said her impressions of what she called the "unspeakable horrors" that face Palestinians every day were based on personal experience, gained during her stay in the Middle East.

"This is where relief workers like Rachel Corrie, and Israeli, Palestinian, and other International Solidarity Movement workers step in - to begin to reset the imbalance between Israeli and Palestinian societies," she said.

Activists accompany Palestinian families through roadblocks, try to harvest crops in Palestinian olive groves to shield the farmers, walk alongside ambulances carrying food or medicine, acting as human shields, and - as Rachel Corrie did - stand in front of homes to prevent their demolition, she said.

"None of this work is risk-free," added Miller, the Peace Brigades leader. "We must be careful and deliberative as we carry out our work. Being from the United States or Canada doesn't put a golden halo around us."

The seminar was co-sponsored by the Human Rights Institute and the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center.

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