Staying Safe: Protective Strategies for Activists
Organisations like Protection International (PI) and Peace Brigades International (PBI) work in different countries with HRDs on protective strategies that can lower the chance of attacks and threats. Working together with activists and HRDs, these organisations have built a body of techniques that people can access and apply to their own work.
Knowing how to stay safe as an activist and human rights defender (HRDs) has become ever more important. According to Frontline Defenders, more than 1000 human rights defenders were killed last year alone,1 and although many governments have welcomed the UN declaration for human rights defenders, not many have put into place adequate strategies to prevent attacks on activists defending human rights. In many cases, this job is left up to activist themselves on knowing how to stay safe in their work, but depending on resources and lack of training, taking security seriously is challenging work.
Here are some quick tips on staying safe in a politically charged world.
Analyse yourself and your surroundings.
A good context analysis can be an amazing resource for understanding where someone stands in this tectonic shifting world. It helps in being able to take the time to try to foresee potential consequences of actions that are being planned. Sit down, just you or with your collective and start analysing the work you do and who it affects. Who do you affect indirectly? Put it in the context of your community. Has anything that happened locally recently affected the work you do? What about nationally or internationally?
Start small and then look at the bigger picture.
Actor mapping is a great technique in understanding who your allies are, who might be an ally and who definitely is not an ally. Write down the organisations that you know are friendly, then the ones that your not sure about. Finally write down the people you are trying to target with your actions. It’s okay to not know where each actor is on the spectrum, gathering more information and completing the actor map is ongoing work. Now you know who you can rely on and who you should avoid.
Mapping your ‘enemies’ can also help you understand and have an idea of the response they’ll have if you do certain actions. Having your allies mapped out can be very useful when you are in need of support. Creating connections with collectives that can mutually help each other is part of building resilience and solidarity. If you find your self a target of digital surveillance, knowing that a group of friendly hackers are allies can be very helpful. And remember to help out when you can as well.
Start a security incident register. These are easy and practical in seeing the number of incidents you and your collective have had over a set time frame. These are used widely and help in analysing the type and frequency of threats that people receive. Nothing is to small to register. Someone suspicious outside your meetings? Your phone been calling strange numbers? Saw someone from an opposing group taking photos at a rally? Write them down. It helps to have the time, date, description of what happened, who could have been the perpetrators and who might be the target. Just like everything else, don’t worry about having all the information. Not having information on this at least tells you what you need to be looking for next time.
Communication is vital. Having the numbers of people you trust on your phone can be a life saver. Fostering these connections with allies can make emergencies responses quick and effective. Even just as an individual, putting in the number of trusted allies on your quick dial can help in emergency situations. Just make sure you don’t make it to obvious who they are on the quick dial, in case your phone gets snatched or taken by police. Try memorising important numbers, and if you can’t, write it down in between random numbers on a piece of paper. In some cases, think about having lose change on you to make a call on a public phone, just in case something has happened to your mobile. Calling in on friends and allies can help keep track of your movements and whereabouts, especially if you think you are heading into troubling circumstances. Even in non threatening moments, doing a check in helps everyone feel safe.
Having a phone tree for your cause can be very useful to get messages out for a quick response. Tying that in with the actor mapping, you can have a great overview of who are the best people to contact under what conditions. This can lead to a more effective response to emergencies and mobilisations.
It’s not all about staying safe in the physical world. Do a quick analysis of the information you work with and see if it could be considered sensitive information. Name, numbers and addresses of activists should be considered sensitive. Remember to consider time frames. Maybe information you have now is not considered sensitive but in a few years, it might. Depending on the amount of information you handle that is sensitive, will determine the measures you should take on protecting it. There are great detailed guides on digital security but here is some very quick tips:
- Try to keep your digital information safe by encrypting your devices. There are great guides out there on how to do it on all platforms.*
- Next would be encrypting your communications. On mobile devices Signal Messenger can encrypt your messages to other Signal users, and it’s for free.
- E-mail encryption can be more complicated than using Signal, but PGP encryption has come along way in being more non-tech friendly.
- Always make backups!
Staying safe is all about looking after yourself, and that includes your mental health. It’s no secret that activism can be hard on peoples mental health, and many have had the all to common burn out symptoms.
Debriefing and looking for support amongst your allies can help mitigate accumulating feelings of mental uneasiness. Speak to people you feel comfortable with after actions and demonstrations. Try to have an understanding with this person that you don’t necessarily want answers or advice, but instead just want someone to listen and provide empathy.One of the more common consequences of activism work for HRDs is working through fear and stress. Many HRDs fear not only for their own well being, but also of their families and people close to them. Taking the above actions on security is one way to address this fear. If you can analysis and try to understand the threats and potential consequences of the threats, you can at least know you are doing what you can to mitigate the risks.
A bit of stress is usually a good thing, it helps us from getting bored, but too much of it can be overwhelming. If we are stressed for too long of a time, we can get down and depressed. This is as much about asking for help as it is trying to foster a culture of looking after yourself and one another.
This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but it’s a start. It’s up to us to start looking at security in a more holistic sense and put into practice techniques that help us do our work better and safely.
Some Resources on Security for Activists
The Holistic Security Manual
Human Rights Defenders Training & Learning Publications from Protection International
Integrated Security Manual and Workshops
Risk Analysis & Protection Planning, Frontline Defenders