Being Well and Staying Safe: Resources for human rights defenders

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Wednesday, June 22, 2011 to Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Summary available

Thank you for joining New Tactics, Jane Barry and other practitioners for an online dialogue on Being Well and Staying Safe: Resources for human rights defenders. Human rights work is a powerful and fulfilling vocation.  And it is equally hugely challenging for human rights practitioners.  The nature of this work exposes defenders to distressing and threatening situations.  The need to take care of one’s self is extremely important, as is the need to take care of, protect and support each other.  Human rights defenders cannot be well without being safe.  Likewise, they cannot truly be safe without being well.  

Often, security is thought of as a stand-alone concept, rooted in the set, militaristic concepts of war and conflict.  Human rights defenders are defining a new concept of security - one that comes from a feminist and anti-militarist standpoint.  Women in Black have defined security as including: freedom from constant threats, economic security, political security, environmental security, and health security.  How would a new, more integrated and holistic definition of security impact the human rights community?

This online dialogue is an opportunity to further explore the ways in which well-being and security are mutually inclusive for human rights defenders.  This is a space to discuss how these issues and concepts relate to gender, identity, human rights work, budgeting and fundraising. 

What is the relationship between well-being and security?

Participants traced the development of our notions of well-being in security, beginning with security threats such those associated with war, genocide, and the displacement of populations. Over time, the focus on security has expanded to acknowledge needs associated with well-being, which often deals with more long-term challenges to mental, physical, and emotional health. Also discussed were ways in which well-being is more about the condition of soul, while security is physical condition. Participants emphasized the need to go beyond basic definitions to include social, political and cultural elements. Human rights defenders may be expected, and expect themselves, to be “tough,” in ways that undermine their personal well-being. Furthermore, participants considered the way in which gender (1) and other identities may impact the way in which human rights defenders understand and address their well-being and security.

Solidarity and community were two important elements participants identified as important to the maintenance and sustainability of well-being. Bearing witness to the pain and suffering of others, it was agreed, puts us at risk for secondary trauma known as compassion fatigue. Human rights defendants must take care of themselves to ensure that they can continue to help others.

What gets in the way of integrating well-being into security from an individual, organizational and community perspective?

The first step identified in integrating well-being into security is challenging the idea that the individual is not as important as his/her work. Too often well-being and security are perceived to be the price paid to do human rights work, when really the passion and well-being of human rights defenders is what motivates them to do their work well. Participants identified the business attitude and language that has entered many NGOs as undermining the integration of well-being, citing the shock of ideology and market language.
To counter these challenges, participants emphasized the need for organizations to conduct internal discussions about well being and whether they are a place with or without “soul.” Rather than confronting resistance to efforts integrating well-being, participants suggested that systems validating well-being be rewarded. Furthermore, efforts should be made to demonstrate the ways in which exhaustion and burn-out ultimately contribute to organizational failure. The risks and fears that accompany human rights work need to be discussed and acknowledged.

How does information communication technology fit into the work of keeping defenders safe and well?

Information communication technology is vital to the work of defenders in an increasingly digitized age. Participants suggested adapting technologies, such as GPS tracking devises in phones, to improve HRD’s security, citing an example of midwives who enter information when  making house calls to alert others to their whereabouts and needs. However, it is harder to use these technologies for long term well-being, and other venues must be explored. It is also important that grant makers evaluate their digital security to ensure they protect HRDs.

In discussing the role information communication technology, participants emphasized the need to improve the way human rights defenders learn about technology. Though technology has great potential to assist defenders, there is a persistent gap between the language of technology and the language of human rights defenders, paying particular attention to gender. When teaching information communication technology it is important to break the instruction down into understandable parts.

How can the human rights community support the well-being and security of defenders?

The variety of needs of HRDs range from individual to collective support.  Dialogue participants agreed that there is a growing recognition of the security and well-being concerns/priorities of HRDs within the grantmaking community, in particular.

More and more grantmakers are identifying the types of support they are best-placed to provide to their partners and reaching out to other organizations that can be supportive, including ongoing dialogues with partners and providing general support.  One way to provide support is to work with regional networks of national human rights organizations.  These regional networks (there are examples in Latin America, East Africa and Asia) seek to strengthen the work of HRDs in the region by reducing their vulnerability to the risk of persecution and by enhancing their capacity to effectively defend human rights.

Grantmakers have identified best practices, both in terms of prevention and response, through which they can support HRD well-being and safety:

  • providing emergency, capacity-building and long-term security grants while  also allowing flexibility for unexpected emergency situations
  • supporting HRDs in developing and implementing a security plan
  • identifying regional “hot zones” and issues that are likely to place HRDs in danger
  • improving digital security and support grantees in doing the same
  • funding psychosocial support and considering Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation

However, grantmakers do face challenges when trying to support the well-being and security of HRD. Oftentimes requests speak to threats and major security concerns but do not include a security plan. It is crucial for grantmakers to approach such requests with caution and sensitivity, reminding, instead of prescribing, to these groups that the grants can also support their security needs including well-being.

What works? Share resources and tools for defenders for being well and staying safe.

Participants shared ideas for next steps after this dialogue.  Many agreed that there is a need for a more formal network or coalition of practitioners/trainers, HRDs and grantmakers interested in continuing to share information and ideas, and collaborate/coordinate future efforts. 


Conversation Leaders

edna.aquino's picture
edna aquino
Women Living Under Muslim Laws
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Mahabat Murzakanova
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Jane Barry
linchew's picture
Lin Chew
Institute for Women's Empowerment (IWE)
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Patricia Smith
Compassion Fatigue
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Mike Grenville
Transition Network
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Nina Jusuf
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Wojtek Bogusz
Front Line
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Marie Caraj
UAF Saira's picture
Saira Hamidi
Urgent Action Fund for Women's Human Rights
marcioscj's picture
Marcio Gagliato
Center for Victims of Torture
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Emily Jacobi
Digital Democracy
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Becky Hurwitz
MIT Center for Civic Media
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Jesse Wrenn
American Jewish World Service