Closing civic space and attacks, harassment, and censorship place considerable individual and collective burdens on us as human rights defenders. Understanding these risks is an important but often misunderstood part of security planning. Our safety and security team has set out four steps you can follow to better understand the risks that you face.
- Understand the capabilities and intentions of your adversaries so that you can better judge the threat that they pose.
- Consider how your identity, mission, and the places that you live and work increase or decrease the risks to you.
- Maintain awareness of what is going on around you and be alert to any changes to the people and things in your environments.
- Understand the level of risk to you and your family that you are prepared to accept.
1. Understand the capabilities and intentions of your adversaries so that you can better judge the threat that they pose.
It can be useful to identify the individuals, organisations, and institutions that are your allies and adversaries.
Adversaries may try to undermine or attack you or your organisation. They are likely threatened by your activities and stand to lose something if your work is successful. They may be criminal gangs, armed groups, corporations or business people, or government officials and politicians.
You can better understand the threat that these adversaries pose by considering what their likely intentions are and the capabilities that they have. For example, a troll on social media may intend to shut you down but have limited ability to actually do so; whereas local security forces may both wish you harm and have the means and impunity needed to realise that intent. When considering this, it is important to understand the civic space that you work within, as these physical, digital, psychological, financial, and legal conditions will undermine or enhance an adversary’s capabilities.
In contrast, allies are people who you trust and who stand with you or your cause. They may have networks and other resources, including funding, that can be used to improve your safety and security or be leveraged in your defence should you be attacked or harassed. Understanding what these resources are and appealing to each ally’s individual motivations and priorities will help you engage more effectively with them.
2. Consider how your identity, mission, and the places that you live and work increase or decrease the risks to you.
Risk exists where the threats against you overlap with your vulnerabilities. In risk terms, ‘vulnerability’ is your exposure to a threat; it has nothing to do with weakness! While most threats are external, factors that increase your exposure to them are generally internal.
Some of these factors will be related to your work: the issues that you campaign on or the tactics that you use, for example. You will generally have a degree of control and choice over these factors. Other factors may be related to your personal identity, and include your sexual orientation, gender identity, age, ethnicity or nationality, for example. While you cannot control these characteristics, it is still important to understand how they may increase or decrease your exposure to the threats against you.
In our defender-at-risk assessments, we generally consider factors relating to person, purpose, and place.
3. Maintain awareness of what is going on around you and be alert to any changes to the people and things in your environments.
Our minds instinctively seek to quickly normalise changes in the world around us. This can be very positive from a wellbeing perspective. But, from a security perspective, it means that we can miss or dismiss changes that may indicate an increased risk to us or our work.
To counter this, be mindful of the people and things around you and maintain a state of relaxed alertness. Be alert to individuals appearing in or disappearing from your daily routine or changes in the behaviour of those around you. This can include changes in the tone or frequency of harassment or an escalation in the attacks against you and co-workers. Likewise, be aware of new objects in your surroundings, such as vehicles or devices, or items in unusual or unexpected places. If in doubt, go with your instincts – if something does not feel right, it may well not be.
Maintaining this situational awareness may help you anticipate actions against you and give you time to react appropriately. This will be more effective if you remember the specific threats against you, and consider in advance what changes might indicate that these things are about to happen.
4. Understand the level of risk to you and your family that you are prepared to accept.
Each of us has a different level of risk that we are prepared to accept in order to achieve our goals. In risk management, this is referred to as our ‘risk appetite’. Those fighting for human rights and social justice often have higher risk appetites than others. But even within the same organisation – or family – there will be different personal risk appetites. For each of us, though, there is a point beyond which the risk – to ourselves or others – simply becomes too great to accept.
It may be entirely valid for you to accept extremely high personal risk to further your cause, but it is usually only responsible to do so if you, or your support network, have the capacity to respond effectively should an incident occur. When considering your own risk appetite, it is also important to take into account the impact on your friends, family, and co-workers should you be detained or worse.
Be mindful that your risk appetite will likely change over time. This may be following a major life event, such as the birth of a child, getting married or the death of a family member. Or it may follow an incident or near miss that affects you or a co-worker. Whatever the reason, it is important to recognise, understand and communicate to others any changes in your risk appetite. Do not be afraid to ask for help or pause your work if the situation becomes riskier than you are comfortable with.