Protecting Survivors and Witnesses

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Monday, April 18, 2016 to Friday, April 22, 2016
Conversation type: 

Protecting survivors and witnesses of human rights violations is crucial to effective human rights work. Protection is important because when survivors and witnesses fear further persecution, they are unlikely to report their experiences, making redress and accountability much more difficult. The state is formally responsible for providing protection, but it is the state that is often the greatest source of perceived risk amongst witnesses and survivors. In this conversation, participants together with New Tactics in Human Rights and DIGNITY (Danish Institute Against Torture) discussed the various strategies to protect witnesses and survivors of human rights violations, the challenges faced and the role of civil society.

Roles of State vs Civil Society

Under Article 13 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT), State parties have an obligation to ensure that victims and witnesses are protected against "all ill-treatment and intimidation as a consequence of his complaint or any evidence given”. However this may not be appropriate in cases of torture when human rights violations were perpetrated by agents of the State. The Committee's General Comment No. 3 on Article 14 of UNCAT states that while States have the obligation to ensure victims obtain rehabilitation, it is also important to recognize that in some cases, victims will be very wary of accessing rehabilitation through a State-run facility. For this reason, the General Comment clarifies that as this is a State obligation, the State should fund Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to provide rehabilitation. This is why in some situations civil society has an important role to play in ensuring protection of survivors and victims through civil society groups.

Countries should be encouraged to have victim and witness protection schemes that are independent from the police, so that victims who bring claims against the police feel secure to use them. As victims are inclined to approach NGOs for protection, NGOs ought to be equipped with good protection practices. At times, NGOs who work directly with the victims and witnesses of human rights violations become themselves witnesses and victims of human rights violations and need protection. One way of protecting witnesses and victims is by recognizing the suffering of these victims and witnesses and educating civil society to understand the value of these efforts on society. The media plays a significant role in this.

The international community can play a vital role in applying pressure on governments to provide adequate protection when civil society groups fall short. The role of religious communities to provide sanctuary was also discussed. Broader alliances need to be built between different sectors of civil society to adequately protect the different layers of society.

Effectiveness of Protection Mechanisms

Some countries do not have a victim or survivor protection laws. The government of the day wield much power in every aspect, from amending the country’s constitution, exerting control over institutions that are deemed to be independent and control of the media. The current challenges in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Maldives, India, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan, Sudan, and South Africa were shared.

Sometimes networks are crucial in terms of providing victims and survivors an ad hoc safe house or to flee to another location within the country or to a neighboring country. Communication between human rights defenders and victims/survivors is equally important to give an assurance of protection.

The importance of documentation of human rights abuses and the various methods available were discussed by the conversation participants. Documentation would also assist in analyzing the 'trend of cases' to prepare wider 'advocacy strategy' to deal with the security concerns of survivors and witnesses. However the methodology of communication of results of such documentation may require improvement to be effective.

The importance of support from international NGOs to Human Rights Defenders, victims of human rights violations and witnesses was also discussed.

Managing Risk

The types of risk can be categorized broadly into three types of risk, physical risk, psychological risk and digital risk. Economic risk could also be added. It is important to ensure that victims and witnesses have as much information as possible so that they are in the best position to assess their own risk. Hope, honor and human dignity was put forward as a way to manage risk and to empower victims and survivors. The risk of vicarious trauma and the importance of self care were also discussed.

The role of international organizations such as United Nations and the European Union in protecting survivors and victims were raised. An ensuing discussion was on whether these international organizations undermine state obligations. The state has the ultimate responsibility in providing protection but often times it is the primary source of threat. This is where the role of civil society organizations play an important bridging role between the state and the survivors/victims by advocacy when states fail to meet their obligations.

Recommendations that the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights provide to their Human Rights Officers (HROs) when they travel to different countries to investigate violations provide useful suggestions. The Manual on Human Rights Monitoring has continued to be updated. Chapter 14 concerns Protection of Victims, Witnesses and other cooperating persons.

Protective measures by HROs can include:

  • Strengthening the cooperating person’s capacity for self-protection;
  • Supporting or establishing community-level protection networks;
  • Using visibility strategies with a deterrent effect;
  • Seeking the support of relevant partners and international mechanisms, such as international NGOs, diplomatic missions, United Nations agencies or special procedures;
  • Mobilizing efforts to directly or indirectly provide physical protection to the person at risk, including through relocation;
  • Limiting the capacity of the source of the threat to carry out an attack by reducing the vulnerability factors of the person at risk;
  • Intervening to influence or affect the behaviour/attitude of the source of the threat;
  • Requesting an influential person, for example a religious, community, political or civil society leader, to intervene with the source of the threat;
  • Increasing the political and social costs to the source carrying out the threat through, for instance, public advocacy in partnership with national and international networks. The costs of carrying out the threat should outweigh the benefits;
  • Advocacy and engagement with national authorities, stressing their human rights obligations, including their duty to protect those at risk and to prosecute offenders;
  • Accompaniment of the person at risk during national criminal proceedings, if applicable;
  • Capacity-building and technical cooperation directed at developing or improving national witness protection capabilities, as well as accountability mechanisms.

When weighing the pros and cons of the different protective measures, HROs should consider the following: 

  • The effectiveness of such measures in guaranteeing protection;
  • Their promptness in responding to the security needs of the person at risk, including in emergencies;
  • Their sustainability, particularly for protective measures that envisage long-term changes (instead of just aiming at fulfilling short-term objectives);
  • Their adaptability to new circumstances, such as deteriorating security conditions;
  • Their reversibility when the risk disappears (for example, in case of relocation, the person being able to return home). 

Tactical examples shared


Linhorst and Eckert (2003)

Conversation Leaders

HumRtsMarie's picture
Marie Soueid
Center for Victims of Torture
Toby Kelly's picture
Toby Kelly
University of Edinburgh
Norah.Niland's picture
Norah Niland
CCDP, Graduate Institute, Independent Consultant
Lenin Raghuvanshi's picture
Lenin Raghuvanshi
Peoples' Vigilance Committee on Human Rights(PVCHR)
kamal.pathak's picture
Kamal Pathak
Human Rights Lawyer/Activist
Cferstman's picture
Carla Ferstman
Mandira Sharma's picture
Mandira Sharma
Lutz Oette's picture
Lutz Oette
SOAS, University of London
Steffen dignity's picture
Steffen Jensen
Dignity-Danish Institute Against Torture
dmurray's picture
Daragh Murray
School of Law & Human Rights Centre, University of Essex
Saira R. Khan's picture
Saira R. Khan
Joanne.prudhomme's picture
Jo-Anne Prudhomme
DIGNITY - Danish Institute Against Torture
Panther's picture
Peter Kiama
Independent Medico-Legal Unit
Ahmed Shaheed's picture
Ahmed Shaheed
School of Law and Human Rights Centre, University of Essex
Discussion topic Replies Last postsort ascending
Hot topic Roles of State vs Civil Society (Page: 1, 2) 53
by Activist Knowle...
Fri, 04/22/2016 - 11:54pm
Hot topic Effectiveness of Protection Mechanisms 44
by Norah.Niland
Sat, 04/23/2016 - 6:33am
Hot topic Managing Risk 35
by Lenin Raghuvanshi
Thu, 04/21/2016 - 11:48am
Hot topic Practical Examples and Open Forum 26
by Norah.Niland
Sat, 04/23/2016 - 6:44am