Using the advocacy strategies described in this guide to defend the rights and interests of affected communities often means challenging the interests of local elites and powerful corporations. As such, these strategies may involve security risks for you, your organization and the communities that you serve. These can include risks to the privacy of your information, the legal status of your organization, your own legal security and sometimes even your physical security. The risks of doing corporate accountability work vary widely from country to country, and as human rights advocates you will know best what the risks are in your legal and political environment.
Sometimes these risks are unavoidable when you are challenging powerful people, but other times they are the result of not being careful enough and a lack of planning. While there is no way to completely avoid the risks that accompany this work, there are ways you can reduce the risks. The following tips can help make you and your group more secure:
Be aware of risks: It is important to ensure that you, your team and the community advocates are all aware of the risks of your actions. Before you take any new actions, such as conducting research, filing a complaint, talking to the media or holding a protest, consider and discuss the range of possible security risks. Assess the likelihood of possible security problems and take this into account in deciding whether it is worth proceeding with the planned activity. Make a plan for dealing with any security issues that do arise, including agreeing on several contact people (who are aware of your plans in advance) to alert immediately. Ensure everyone has the list of phone numbers and other contact details.
Keep confidential information safe: In some countries, government agencies are able to listen to your phone calls and read your emails and text messages. If you suspect this might be the case in your country, and you want to discuss sensitive information with partners, including advocacy strategies, you should try to meet them to talk face to face. If that is not possible, conversations on Signal or Jitsi are usually a more secure way to chat and talk, although surveillance technology is constantly evolving, and they may not be completely secure.
If possible, get a second mobile phone with a different SIM card that is not registered in your name and use that for sensitive conversations. Store sensitive documents in a secure place, such as a filing cabinet with a lock, and keep back-up information, copies of computer files and paper files in a secure place. When talking directly to people about something sensitive, make sure that you know and trust them and be careful that there isn’t anyone listening nearby. Access Now, a non-profit organization, offers free advice to human rights activists and journalists on digital security.
Know the law and act within it: It is important to know what the law is in your country and make sure that you respect it, both in your words and actions. Sometimes human rights defenders are falsely charged with criminal offences or served unjustly with civil lawsuits in an effort to keep them silent, but the best way to avoid legal risks and to defend yourself if you are unjustly sued or prosecuted is to follow the law at all times.
One of the most common legal risks that human rights advocates face is being sued for defamation. The laws on defamation are different in every country and you should find out what they are in your country. Typically, defamation laws prohibit people from making false statements about another person in public or to a third party that cause injury or damage to the person’s reputation. Libel and slander are different types of defamation. Slander refers to verbal statements, while libel usually refers to statements made in writing. In most countries that have these laws, only statements that claim to be facts — not opinions — can be considered defamatory. In many (but not all) countries, the truth is a defense against defamation, though proving the truth can often be more costly and difficult than often assumed.
No matter what the law is in your country, you should always speak the truth in public. If you are not absolutely sure about the facts, or you don’t have the evidence to back it up, you should not make an accusation against another person or company in public or to any third party. If the truth is not a defense under the defamation laws in your country, or if there is weak rule of law, you should carefully assess the risks of making any critical statements about powerful people and corporations in public. If you are threatened with legal action, you should immediately consult a trusted lawyer.
Respond calmly and proactively to threats: If you or your organization identify a serious security threat, it is important to respond calmly but proactively:
- Make a detailed record of any threats you experience immediately afterward, so that you have a record if you decide to report the incident to the authorities.
- Mobilize support from your colleagues, partners and others who support your work, including local and international organizations, as appropriate.
- Monitor the situation carefully and seek external monitoring support, if necessary.
- Maintain security precautions, like changing your routine each day so that it is harder for people to follow you and find you. If you fear for your safety, you may want to stop your advocacy activities for a while and even consider physically moving to a safe location.
- Sometimes, rather than staying quiet, it is better to raise the profile of a threat by telling the media about it. However, only do this if you think it will improve your security. Sometimes it can be effective for your NGO or a group of supportive NGOs to issue a collective statement about the threats.
If you, your colleagues or your organization face serious threats to your security, the following international organizations may be able to provide support:
- Frontline Defenders provides 24-hour support to human rights defenders facing immediate risks. Details about the emergency service and other support, including contact information, can be found here.
- ProtectDefenders.Eu operates a permanent and rapid response mechanism to provide urgent assistance and practical support to Human Rights Defenders in danger, their families and their work. Details can be found here.
- The Lifeline Embattled CSO Assistance Fund provides emergency financial assistance to civil society organizations under threat or attack and advocacy support responding to broader threats to civil society. Details can be found here.
- Access Now has a Digital Security Helpline which can help you improve your digital security practices to keep out of harm’s way. They also provide rapid-response emergency assistance for activists who are already under attack. Details can be found here.