Staying Safe: Security Resources for Human Rights Defenders

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Wednesday, July 21, 2010 to Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Summary available

In this dialogue, practitioners that work with human rights defenders developing security strategies discussed how human rights defenders and organizations can improve their safety and security while working in the field under oppressive conditions and under the watchful eye of states and adversaries. Specifically, the participants discussed and shared tactics, strategies and resources on how human rights defenders can create effective security protocols to protect themselves against physical threats and secure their data in the field or office.

Who is a Human Rights Defender (HRD) and what is security for HRDs? Why does security matter?

A human rights defender (HRD) was defined as a person who acceptances the universality of human rights, are defined and accepted according to the rights they are defending and according to their own right to do so, and whose actions are peaceful. HRDs consciously take on risk through their work, thus human rights work might by its definition be about giving up some security.

Security and safety for HRDs is essential to their work: “The key to thinking about security/safety and well-being is first recognizing that we are as valuable as human beings as the human rights work -- and as the people we are fighting for.” A silenced human rights worker, through kidnapping, jailing or intimidation, means a human rights worker not doing their work.  Protecting human rights defenders doesn’t always mean protecting them against physical violence. “slander, smear campaigns, stigmatisation, etc are all serious threats to defenders.”

There are many “non-traditional” HRDs, such as artists, academics and activists, that don’t self identify as a HRDs. They may be unaware they are entitled to protection and one participant suggested they should be informed that they are entitled to the title of human rights defender and that they there is a protection framework that is mandated to support them.

What impact does a defender’s gender (or identity) have on security?

Among LGBT human rights defenders there many challenges to developing effective security measures because many LGBT organizations are marginalized. Lack of funding for LGBT human rights work exacerbates competitiveness between organizations which hinders the creation of strong networks necessary for security. Furthermore because the prejudice and discrimination of people in the LGBT community is based on a moral argument that permeates society many “mainstream” HRDs shy away from issues affecting this community.

One story shared was about how the security of female HRDs in Pakistan increased and threats from their colleagues were reduced when respected male members of society came out using the media in favor of women in leadership roles. Religious leaders signing statements that said Islam does not bar women from taking leadership positions improved female HRDs standing and security in their communities and families.

How does security relate to information, communication and technology?

Ensuring the safety and security of records, resources, and information is essential to preserving HRDs safety and security. Everything done online, on a computer, or with something that involves transmitted data, whether analog or digital, is recordable, copyable, transferable, morphable and redistributable. And thus security considerations should be ubiquitous in all discussions relating to any of the above

Using open source software (software where the programming code is open to the public to verify its security) is the best way to share and disseminate tools and protocols when these very tools and protocols must be shared through often unprotected, unencrypted means. Following best practices with proven tools and platforms, and showing others how to do the same is an example of “hiding in plain site.”

When a group of HRDs are working together, it is important that everyone is communicating using secure measures. If one person in a group of people communicating does not follow recommended security protocols, they can expose the whole group and their clients.

With the many digital security tools available HRDs should incorporate digital security into their larger protection plans and see how it fits into their work. Some HRDs might need or want more or less digital security depending on their situation. Some are mystified at all the choices and need help deciding what tools to use.

The security of VoIP (voice over internet protocol) services like Skype depends on a host on variables and there is no silver bullet. Nothing is totally secure but participants offered a number of helpful suggestions to improve the security of VoIP calls.

For many HRDs in the developing world the only way to access the internet is through internet cafes, which can be insecure. One contributor stressed that choosing a café where you can use your own laptop which has security software on it is an effective way to stay secure. Other tips for staying secure in an Internet Café were added here. Participants gave valuable recommendations on email services that can be trusted and the many factors to consider when choosing an email service to ensure security, here and here.

What can defenders do to protect themselves?

As a starting point new employees of human rights organizations should be informed of the risks involved in human rights work.

Self defense can be defined as a set of physical, psychological, and verbal techniques that can be used to defend one self in situations where one may be a target of verbal assault, physical abuse, or rape. It also involves knowing how to avoiding certain situations where we know we may be hurt.”  Self defense need not to be aggressive, a special art or a mystery. Many HRDs on the front lines instinctually use various methods of self defense against physical violence, verbal abuse or harassment. Sometimes running away is the best defense.

In a number of countries human rights organizations have come together to create joint initiatives focused on HRD protection and this can be an important source of joint training; relocation and emergency funds; and national and international advocacy.

Many organizations and networks of activists use secondary protests at police stations after an activist has been arrested at a rally or while doing human rights work.

Using social media and mobile phones for protection can be dangerous and insecure but in certain situations they can also be used by defenders to broadcast if they are in trouble. Sometimes making a case public or informing your network of your locations can increase your security.  Another way HRDs can use mobile phones is while traveling to check in daily with their organizations. It is best not to talk about specifics such as location when checking in and to use a set of code words because mobile phones should be considered insecure. Organizations should set up protocols if someone fails to check in and can’t be reached.  It is important to know that the location of a HRD using a mobile phone can be pinpointed if the GPS function is turned on, but even if it is off a person’s location can be found less accurately using cell tower triangulation. Taking the battery out of one’s phone is usually the only way to prevent tracking in this manner.

What do the rest of use need to do to protect defenders? What can funders of human rights work do?

With security “we’re all in this together, like a lifeboat,;” one person’s action or inaction affects others in terms of security. Every HRD leaves digital footprints that have the possibility to expose other HRDs. “Security is a set of values to be engendered and shared, not a pizza to be delivered.” Organizations can “be proactive in supporting a security-positive culture, with lots of training and ongoing dialog.” Funders can stay anonymous when necessary; encourage grantees to write security costs into all grant proposals and then fund them. 

Organizations can designate a person/s to be responsible for monitoring new technologies and new security protocols and for updating passwords, and codes, as well as stressing vigilance. Secondly, international human rights orgs can develop relationships with trusted local advisers and meet regularly with them for their assessment of security risks.

Security tools and systems need to be more accessible and usable for human rights orgs. and defenders. Funders should provide additional resources for tech support. It is a challenge finding trustworthy IT support in foreign countries. Sometimes older, and simpler technologies such as a pad of paper and a pen as opposed to a laptop in the field are more secure.

Provide political accompaniment to increase safety. International or national NGOs can accompany local HRDs by acting as a witness and by providing public recognition of a HRDs work. This can involve having a physical presence or writing letters to American politicians or politicians in the host country. The political cost of harming local HRDs then increases if other people are watching and their profile is raised.

Participants noted a number of protection measures to pre-empt the imminent threats to HRDs or respond to threats after the fact. The list included such measures as: temporary relocation, trial observation, emergency grants and relief programs, emergency hotlines, safe houses, protective presence at HRDs offices or homes by internationals or influential nationals, and utilizing organizations that focus specifically on the protection of human rights defenders.

Training staff how to think critically about security rather than only specific tasks using a technology is important. If a HRD considers themselves not well versed in technology this methods helps them realize they know more than they think when it comes to common sense security approaches. They also realize security is an on-going process.


Articles, Manuals, Reports

Resources for Securing Technology

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