Defending Activists at Risk: Protecting Human Rights Defenders from Threats and Violence

by Deji Olukotunand; Jessica Wrenn; Noah Cohen-Cline; Rosalie Nezien

Apr 11, 2013
This paper seeks to identify protection and security strategies that can be utilized to support human rights defenders. With the intention of making this paper useful to both human rights practitioners and grantmakers, we discuss important legislation, highlight case studies and conclude with a series of best practices drawn from our experience and the recommendations of experts in the field. We hope this work stimulates needed dialogue, enhancing the safety of human rights defenders and making them more effective in their tireless efforts on behalf of others.
  • Provide emergency, capacity-building and long-term security grants. Capacity-building grants with specific funds earmarked for security can ensure that Human Rights Defenders are planning for their own safety. However, it is also important that other funding be flexible enough to allow Human Rights Defenders to respond to threats in unexpected emergency situations -- for example by using grant monies to purchase bus tickets or new cell phones to avoid surveillance -- even if those funds were earmarked for something else.
  • Build the response capacity of grantmaking staff. Country-based staff members need to be equipped with the tools necessary to document threats and communicate with headquarter staff, playing a vital liaising role. Additionally, staff and consultants should be well trained regarding the resources they can provide to grantees.
  • Support Human Rights Defenders in developing and implementing a security plan.
  • Identify regional "hot zones" and issues that are likely to place Human Rights Defenders in danger.
  • Improve digital security and support grantees in doing the same. Technology has become a key tool for oppressive regimes and state actors. Staff, consultants and grantees should be trained in basic digital security in order to work safely
  • Work with grantees to establish security networks.
  • Fund psychosocial support. Human Rights Defenders operating under insecure circumstances for extended periods often experience reduced productivity, depression, illness and burnout. In some instances, Human Rights Defenders may still be unable to implement a security plan -- despite technical preparations -- without proper psychological preparation and a better understanding of how various members of their organization might react to an unexpected threat.
  • Support local responses. While international organizations currently provide support when an individual or an organization is in danger, it is important for activists to have access to experts and organizations that understand the cultural, legal and political contexts within which they are operating.
  • Consider Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation. In addition to receiving threats from state and non-state actors, women and LGBTI human rights defenders are often overlooked within larger mainstream human rights movements.
  • Foster dialogue among funders about security and protection. The broader human rights funding community has been slow to address the issue of the protection of grantees.
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