Tactics and strategies in response to increasing repression and high risk

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Tactics and strategies in response to increasing repression and high risk

Thank you to all the Conversation Leaders for their time and commitment to taking part in this important conversation. Please take a moment to learn about the conversation leaders by clicking on their profile photos. Thank you!

Below is a list of questions to serve as a framework for the discussion in this thread:

  • What patterns of repression are we seeing nowadays? How have defenders been responding to these?
  • How do defenders respond to situations of high risk? What strategies and tactics have they been using?
  • When do defenders try to reduce the risks they face? When do they continue with their actions in spite of the high risks involve?
Making protection personal

Virtually every human rights defender that I have ever had the privilege of meeting has been motivated by strongly personal beliefs. And, when you scratch below the surface these strong motivating beliefs are informed by profound personal experience. Work in human rights is deeply personal, as is defenders' appreciation of the threats to which we are subjected in the course of our work. I consider this a fundamental starting point for thinking about how defenders most successfully respond to the changing risks that they face. 

To be more pragmatic, I find that defenders respond most successfully to the risks involved in their work, when they use personalized protection strategies to reduce their risk and respond to predictable threats. This is not to say that training in security tools and approaches is not valuable, but that until such tools become integrated into the belief structures and daily routines of human rights defenders, their usefulness is very limited.

I hope that this discussion will reveal ways in which human rights defenders have taken tools and strategies for protection, and put them to use in ways that might look a little "different", might even make the security consultants frown, but that make sense given the personal beliefs, goals, strategies and context of that defender's work.

Does this resonate for anyone? Anyone have any good examples to share?

Making protection personal - an example of temporary safe haven

Craig - thank you for starting out this very important aspect of the dialogue.

I'm not sure if this is what you are looking for in terms of examples. But I thought I would share how the organization freeDimensional provides an opportunity for threatened culture workers to continue their creative practice by finding temporary safe haven. This has taken very personalized forms, as you suggest, to meet the unique contexts and circumstances regarding the types of threats, dangers and urgency. freeDimensional worked together with New Tactics to share this innovative way to provide protection for the people, while utilizing available artist residency spaces. This case study example, Art Spaces Hosting Activism: Using surplus resources to provide individual assistance and strengthen community engagement targets for protection a range of human rights defenders - including public intellectuals, activist artists, journalists, musicians, writers, theatre directors, and community organizers, as well as other human rights activists whose work exposes them to persecution as eligible for their Creative Safe Haven program.

I think this example offers some good insights to your observation regarding the importance of both a structure for the protection strategy that is more general, but the personalized aspect to make it actually effective. This is NOT a day-to-day protection strategy - this example provides a TEMPORARY respite for human rights defenders. This case study also shares the need for those providing temporary safe haven to plan for more permanent solutions, such as seeking asylum. Martin shares more about this in his post, "Yes, but what do we mean by protection mechanisms?"

I'm very interested to hear yours and others ideas.  

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A balance between 'Making Protection Personal' and Solidarity

First of all, I would like to thank Craig for starting the discussion by stating that meeting human rights defenders is actually a privilege. It is. I think that such encounters offer an opportunity to ‘us’ – the others, who do not define themselves explicitly as defenders – to reflect on the meaning of who we are, what we do in our daily life and why. Probably, exactly because of the risk that they take, human rights defenders have thought about their role as human being and social actors very deeply and found their answers as to the reasons why they do what they do.

I totally agree that every human rights defenders is motivated by a very strong personal belief. The answers I get to the simple ‘why do you do it?’, ‘why are you risking your safety and that of your family?’ lead exactly toward a strong ethical commitment to ideals of social justice, sometimes motivated by strong religious belief. But, each answer is very personal, as personal is the response to risk.

I think that sometimes we – the others – tend to simplify the reality of human rights defenders, considering them as a homogeneous group inspired by the same principles and reacting to the external threats the same way. They are not (as any other group in society) and, at times, they do not even constitute a group as such. So, I basically agree on the fact that protection strategies should be personalized and, more broadly, localized. As tactics of repression vary according to the social and political contexts as well as individual circumstances of defenders, so should protection strategies.

Said that though, I think that it is crucial for human rights defenders to get together and find some common denominators and some strategies that could be adapted to their circumstances. By coming together and finding what they have in common, rather than emphasizing their differences, human rights defenders can react to the feeling of isolation and fake sense of ‘uniqueness’ that they may experience. That of making them feeling isolated, unique and different from the rest is also one of the strategies adopted by the authorities to silence human rights defenders. If you are alone and you feel that your problems are uniquely yours, you might find the costs of speaking up higher than if you feel part of a group of like-minded individuals.

One of the issues that I have raised in my article is exactly the fact that by joining their individual voices, defenders may feel united and protected. Somehow related to this is a theoretical approach that I mentioned there called ‘rational choice approach’ according to which once a sufficient number of people overtly criticize and defy the government, the cost of dissent drops and mobilization increases.

So, I think that an important strategy to react against repression lies exactly in the understanding that defenders’ individual situation might be different from that of others but that, in any case, is not completely unique. I believe that such an understanding enhances dialogue and creates networks of solidarity which might have both psychological and, at times, practical protective value. Nowadays, in some context, networks are more easily created through the Internet and social media – and, in my experience, looking at the Chinese case, this is possible also under conditions of censorship and control from state authorities. I will probably continue on this topic later but for now I would like to know what you think about the idea of solidarity and joining forces as a possible strategy for reaction against repression? Are there good examples of solidarity networks that you can suggest?

A closer look at that "sense of uniqueness"

Elisa, there is so much in your posting with which I strongly agree. For now, I'll focus on your comments about how human rights defenders often experience a "fake sense of uniqueness", and how this is actually an experience of isolation and and a perceived absence of social support. I think this is so important!

A personal anecdote - A few days ago I got into an intense conversation with my partner about the international responses on social media to the Paris attacks. At one point I burst out angrily with, "Sometimes I feel like I'm the only person on the planet who gets it!" What an incredibly narcissistic thing to say! I know it's not true, but that actually is how it feels sometimes. The fact that in the last month I have spent time in both Lebanon and Jordan, working in centers providing care to refugees from Syria and Iraq, is by no means incidental to my outburst.

I think that work in human rights gives defenders an unusual view on human beings and human behaviour. Most citizens can afford to look away and protect themselves both emotionally and physically when the social realities become too frightening. Human rights defenders choose (and the act of choosing is tremendously important) to bear witness to the darkest sides of human experience, and to not protect themselves in the ways that others do. This wears heavily on the soul (regardless of whether we label it secondary traumatic stress, vicarious trauma, burnout, or compassion fatigue) and makes it harder and harder to stay motivated, connected and healthy. It becomes too easy to feel angry and alone, and to stop reaching out to supportive others.

So, I'd argue that another core component of successful and sustained work in higher risk contexts is emotional resilience and health. And, an important part of emotional resilience and health is staying connected in meaningful ways with colleagues, friends, and family. Too often emotional care is seen as something that becomes important once protection has failed - trauma counselling for those who have been victimized; stress management for those who are burning out after too many years of doing work that is too hard. I think this is the wrong approach. Instead we need to concentrate on the fact that our emotional health influences all our decisions including those that we make in relation to risks and protection. It requires a great deal of emotional health to consistently make good choices in regard to our own safety, as well as those of our colleagues.

For me, those feelings of being isolated and "unique" are a clear warning sign that I am not doing enough to take care of myself. I wonder what warning signs others have identified?

Normalising 'abnormal' experiences

Hi Craig, Again I am in total agreement with your views. Just a couple of comments for now.

I think that very often human rights defenders become the witnesses of experiences that the ‘others’ often prefer to avoid.

I believe that this produces at least one main effect, that in a way contributes to human rights defenders’ unhealthy resilience: experiences that are not ‘normal’ become normalized. For a human rights defender, the fact of being continuously under threat, of being followed or being victims of violence become the norm. Such experiences somehow desensitize them from the ‘abnormal’ and risk-taking. Thus, they feel no need to rely on this external support.

Moreover, I think that more numerous human rights defenders work in environments where external structures of support (counselling or psychological support etc) are basically non-existent. And, where some of these exist, in some places, defenders are either not aware or have never being exposed to the idea that psychological health is crucial to any effective work. 

On the whole, I think that this is an extremely important issues on which more resources should be channeled into. Any other views on the matter?

"Emotional support/Emotion work"

I think Craig makes a very interesting point when he says that psychological aid and trauma couselling often come too late: after protection has failed. Besides seeking support from solidarity networks, I was wondering what types of emotional support is given inside human rights organizations and NGOs if external psychological aid is not readily available?

Academic research on burnout and emotional support

Hi Freek, Gemma Houldey, a friend and former colleague, is researching just these issues. She's blogging about her work here and has some really interesting insights on burnout specifically in the context of humanitarian work.


Hi Laura, This looks like a very interesting and insightful blog. Thanks for sharing the link to Gemma Houldey's work!

Solidarity and Self Care: protection and resistence

Elisa and Craig,

I agree with the points you have both raised regarding a "fake sense of 'uniqueness'" that "is actually an experience of isolation and a perceived absence of social support".I would like to add to the mix that these are underying barriers to both building strategies of solidarity (collective) and self care (personal/collective). I also agree with Craig's assertion that "another core component of successful and sustained work in higher risk contexts is emotional resilience and health." In my experience with HRDs and in my own personal experience, I believe that a significant emotional barrier to building protection and self care strategies is guilt.  

Elisa, I full-heartedly agree with your statement, "an important strategy to react against repression lies exactly in the understanding that defenders’ individual situation might be different from that of others but that, in any case, is not completely unique. I believe that such an understanding enhances dialogue and creates networks of solidarity which might have both psychological and, at times, practical protective value.

I would also like to add that the "culture" of the solidarity network is critical for fostering a network that can enhance both the psychological (mental and emotional resilience aspects) and the practical protection (physical) value. Again, I believe that guilt has played a significan roll in some of the solidarity networks I have witnessed that promote a personal security type of recklessness as a "badge of honor".

In response to your question, "Are there good examples of solidarity networks that you can suggest?"

Yes, I think this women's human rights defenders network, Meso-American Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders, provides a positive example of self care as a act of resistence and to build networks for "protection and to promote joint actions to respond to situations of violence." Analia Penchaszadeh from AWID, shared this powerful statement in a 2012 online conversation that particularly resonates for me:

"The first step has been to build a common identity as WHRDs [women human rights defenders], understanding the common threats and contexts in which we work but also building solidarity networks with collective self-care as the center-point...In a regional online dialogue about self-care a few months ago, we also reflected about self-care as an act of resistance to patriarchy. Self-care is not about survival but about active resistance. Reclaiming joy, dance, laughter in the face of pain and sadness is an important way of fighting back. Perhaps this is theoretical or rhetorical; for the WHRDs with whom we work it is a very practical way of overcoming the feelings of guilt associated with self-care."
Are there other examples of ways HRDs are overcoming similar or other barriers to self care and protection?
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Can detachment create safety?

Thank you Craig, Elisa, and Nancy.

I think an important point is raised here: that all international protection programs need to be personalized, or "translated", to fit local needs. I also believe that most responses to risk will be personal. Nancy's safe haven example is a very interesting example of how a program is adopted by taking into account local resources and interests of local communities.

That being said, could the personalization and deep commitment of HRDs also be a source of further risk? In Russia, for instance, HRDs are often well-known public figures who have been working in the human rights communities since the 1970s-1980s. They are all highly committed individuals who have built their lives on a human rights career and have never left the leadership positions they occupy. While this makes them visible and gives them leverage, this might also make them more vulnerable to individual criminalization. In that sense, depersonalization and detachment might create further safety.

In our article we give the example of the Joint Mobile Group. The JMG was organized after targeted personal attacks on the office of human rights organization Memorial in Grozny, the killing of Memorial activist Natalia Estemirova, and the trial in which Chechen President Kadyrov accused Memorial's director Oleg Orlov of defamation.

After these personalized attacks, a group of lawyers established the JMG to travel to the North Caucasus to give legal aid to victims of torture and family members of the disappeared. They have trips of one to three months at a time and the members change on every trip. Their aim is to be able to give legal aid whilst minimizing the chances of individualized attacks on their members. Changing members and having short trips also enables them to minimize the emotional stress and burden on the members. While the JMG's members are all committed HRDs who are emotionally involved in their work, the flexible work method also seeks to detach them from personal risk and involvement, and targeted attacks. The JMG is, in my opinion, an example that shows how local HRDs are creative in managing local risk.


Networks: Yes, but...

Hi Nancy, the idea of guilt that you mention is something I have never thought about before but I think it is certainly extremely important. If I can generalize, the attitude among defenders is, more often than not, ‘I am the one who is going out there to help the others, to protect others’ rights; I am not the one in need of help’. This is particularly evident in defenders who are well-known and maybe leaders in their own group of peers (I don’t really know whether there is also a gender component here).

This makes me to the risk inherent into networks as a protection mechanisms: on the one hand, individuals feel protected by the group; however, on the other, if the well-being of each individual member is not so crucial for the group and its leaders, then it may create that sense of guilt among those who would like to claim for their individual protection, thus causing more harm than benefit.

In terms of networks as protective mechanisms, I think I would also add a couple of points on virtual networks and international networks.

With virtual networks I refer primarily to the powerful Internet. When defenders work in very remote areas or when getting together in person becomes highly risky, virtual gathering is the only solution. I saw the Internet playing a key role among defenders in China: they can exchange facts, tactics and ideas. Yes, they are also censored and detected, nevertheless they know that there is somebody out there that knows about them and what is happening to them in real time.

The Internet is crucial also for those who are outside the country and monitor their peers within, these include also foreign NGOs and international organizations working with human rights defenders in difficult places.

A number of human rights defenders are in fact connected with international actors – including diplomatic communities working within a country – and foreign journalists who can report about their stories. Whether these latter two forms of connection actually offer protection in circumstances of high risk is quite debatable though. Indeed, it may even create false expectations among defenders and a false sense of security. 

NETWORKS and networks

Networks... the word is so familiar that we all use it without making a difference between two kind of networks. The formal, established networks with a name (such as "Coordination of HRD of XXX", or "Alliance for the protection of HRD", etc), and the myriad of informal and often unvisible social networks that contribute to the protection of defenders. I think that both kind of networks are embedded in each other (as when established networks draw on personal and social relationships, and when informal social networks crystallise in formal networks), but in terms of proteciton of defenders probably we cannot understand ones without the others...one more challenge but also an entry point for devising ways of contributing to HRD protection ... any experiences about working with/on these networks to face repression and increasing risks?

what can we do better to address the importance of self care?

It is good to read the discussions developing on this thread around solidarity and networks, there are complimentary discussions on another thread in this new tactics conversation (effectiveness of protection mechanisms) exploring networks operating as a protection mechanism.  

Your discussions move to the personal situation for defenders, and raise an area of enquiry in my mind:

-          How do defenders practice self-care?

-          How prevalent is post-traumatic stress in their work, and do defenders know how to identify warning signs and steps to de-stress, to limit the damage stress can cause?  

-          Are we embedding in our work with defenders the consideration and importance of allowing space for addressing stress-related issues and associated concerns - making time for sharing personal responses to difficult substantive work, and the associated environment defenders work in?


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On self-care again

Good questions Karen!

I just respond straightly to your questions on the basis of my experience in China.

Unfortunately, my answers are quite on the negative side.

Practice of personal self-care: I see almost nothing in this respect. As mentioned in a previous comment, I feel that there is the perception that defenders should go out and help, rather than being helped. They know that they are somehow ostracized by others members in society and they accept it as part of the game.

The prevalence of post-traumatic stress etc.: I think a lot of defenders experience it, especially those who have been exposed directly to torture or “have been disappeared” by the authorities for long period of times. You can see how they change in their daily life after such experiences. But, in my experience, they are not able to identify themselves the signs of PTSD (who could in such circumstances?) and again they tend to consider it as part of the same game. Unfortunately, there are no structures of support that can help them in this regard and it is extremely difficult even for foreign organizations to help setting up supporting mechanisms of this sort. And, I think that there is very little discussion on the matter, maybe also because of the cultural approach resistant toward ‘showing your inner self’ to the outside world.

So, I would be extremely curious to know how psychological support, counseling has been established and works in other difficult context where defenders oprate. Any good example to share? And, any idea about tactics on how establish it completely from scratch? 

An program that integrates emotional care

It is so gratifying to me to see the place that emotional functioning has in this conversation, not only as caring for traumatized people but also recognizing that emotional health is fundamental to all other kindss of protective strategy and action. We just can't do it unless we have our heads fully in the game. One interesting program that has worked hard to integrate emotional care into security work with journalists and other human rights defenders is the SAFE program (Securing Access to Free Expression) (https://www.irex.org/projects/safe) run by the International Research Exchange (IREX). They have done this in several important ways:

1. They have engaged mental health professionals to design a large psychosocial domain for inclusion in their broader security training curriculum. This professioanls have also worked on linking the mental health material to relevant aspects of digital and physical security. So for example, discussions of how to use social media are not restricted to how to use the tools and technologies safely and to good effect. They also look at the need for affiliation and recognition that is so much a part of how and why HRDs use various social medias. Discussions about how best to handle oneself if one gets caught up in a violent conflict discuss the kinds of cover that can protect one from high caliber firearms, but also includes exercises on keep calm when feeling frightened.

2. SAFE have also used mental health professionals to provide training and supervision to their security trainers. These trainers learn to recognize people who might be too traumatized to benefit from security training until such time as they have received some counseling, how to talk to traumatised people about their emotional health and offer support within stigmatising or seeming judgmental, how to deal with distress that emerges during training exercises, and so on. I believe this kind of knowledge and skill makes people much better trainers.

3. SAFE are also concerned with establishing secure hotlines that can be used by journalists and other HRDs who feel that they are in danger. These hotlines are able to offer emotional support, provide information that can be useful to a person who needs to make themselves secure and get support in an urgent fashion. They are also developing the facility to refer people for trusted professionals for further care if needed.

Self-care, beyond psychological aid?

Thank you, Karen, for formulating these important, but difficult questions. I am not a psychologist, so I do not know much about post-traumatic stress, but I can imagine that it is a problem faced by HRDs working with traumatized victims, those who are victims themselves, or those who travel to conflict zones. However, PTSD can perhaps only be diagnosed with the help of a professional trauma therapist. So perhaps it is a term to use carefully. As Elisa pointed out so clearly, if such a help is not readily available is it possible or even advisable for HRDs to self-diagnose this?

It also seems that PTSD is caused by a past traumatic experience that triggers stress in the present. If an HRD is exposed to potentially traumatic experiences through his/her daily work, how does one cope with those experiences that happen in the present? Perhaps post-traumatic stress is not a useful category here and at least one we should use carefully.

Which leads to the question of self care. How can HRDs use coping mechanisms to deal with dangerous and traumatic experiences in the present? Perhaps those coping mechanisms go beyond psychological aid?

Beyond personal self-care, toward collective approaches

This a thoughtful conversation and touching on such an important and sometimes difficult issue. The referral to the work of the Meso-American Initiative  is a very good one - they are leaders on this issue. The comments made above regarding WHRDs and the importance of the shared identify, the acknowledgement of trauma and stress, and self-care reasonate. Urgent Action Fund published WHRD's voices on trauma, stress, and the need the for self-care its 2007 book "What's the point of revolution if we can't dance?" And in the 2008 publication by Jane Barry, "Insiste, Persiste, Resiste, Existe" -- these have been translated into Spanish, Russian, French, Bosnian, Serbian, Albanian, and Arabic as well and can still be downloaded free of charge from our website: http://urgentactionfund.org/resources/publications/

Most fundamentally, as Nina Jusuf (a self-care/integrated security faciliator/trainor from Indonesia), wrote to us recently: 

"To support women and their activism, it is imperative to introduce self-care as a strategy, not as a luxury. Self-care means understanding the impacts of current, recent past, and historical traumas on women’s bodies and finding pathways to healing. Women activists are also inevitably leaders, and as such, are expected to appear strong and be supportive of others. The biggest obstacle is integrating the practice of self-care on daily basis and not feeling ashamed or perceiving it as an indulgence."

Nina also makes the point that for some defenders, their experiences of oppression (whether currently, or in the historical context of their community) compound the stresses encountered in their activism for human rights and require additional support to address and heal. She echoes the points raised in several comments already that self-care must fundamentally be seen also as one's right, and, as an essential part of being an effective activist, not as an indulgence. In short, as Elisa said, this is not easy work. It is hard. For some, this kind of healing is the work of a lifetime. 

In our work now, we are responding to feedback from WHRDs that they also want to identify collective strategies of care. This means looking at practices that support the sustainability of activism at the organizational level and at the network level -- not merely at the personal level. We are supporting pilot efforts at developing organizational and/or alliance/network level collective care strategies in Turkey, Indonesia and China with some potential to expand the pilot. So far, in the pilot, we are seeing efforts that aim to build support networks (setting up phone/text trees, cultivating local networks of resource people, lawyers, digital security experts and/or social workers based locally that can be available to an organization's staff or to organizations within a network) and efforts to develop policies or to provide training and technological resources that support self care and security across groups of human rights organizations that can be accessed by all.

What other collective approaches to self-care are you seeing? How do you see human rights organizations tackling this issue at the organizational level?

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Self-care as a right and a duty

Many thanks for the useful insights and examples from the field!

I really love something that Caitlin mentioned: “self-care must fundamentally be seen also as one's right, and, as an essential part of being an effective activist, not as an indulgence”. Probably, we should promote more widely and strongly this idea of self-care as a) a right, b) a key component of the definition of defenders and even c) as a duty to ourselves as defenders.

How to promote this idea more widely and effectively?

Insights & resources on well-being, self-care & security of HRDs

Agree with Craig -great to see this conversation also highlight issues around self-care and well-being. And I don't wish to dampen the enthusiasm at all, but just want to point everyone to the New Tactics conversations and resources that have already been documented in past Community Conversataions which generated stacks of helpful insights and resourcs on well-being, self-care and HRD security. As there's only a day left of active moderation and discussion, perhaps check these out first and either jump off from some of those, or take the discussion on into another aspect of tactics and strategies?

Self-care and community

Hi everyone

Thank you for your insightly and valuable posts!

Indeed, there has been a lot of emphasis on self-care amongst those of us engaged in discussion and practice concerning the rights of defenders. The strongest calls for self-care have come from the women HRD's movement. I have found the work of Jane Barry and colleagues on integrated security particularly helpful. This article by IM-Defensoras is also excellent (see the Journal of Human Rights Practice, 5:3, 446-459).

Nevertheless, I think it is true still that many defenders don't prioritise self-care. Indeed, I would even suggest that we hold certain norms and expectations that 'push' us towards burnout. For example, I think it is common for human rights defenders to work overtime, to not take holidays, and to not take break on weekends. I have heard activists say that they feel guilty when they switch off their phones, and some saying that those who want to take time off in the evenings as people who are "just doing their human rights work as a job" (i.e. that they are not "committed enough" or who are "unreliable" as activists).

I think it is important for us to think about how we inadvertently support a culture of activism / human rights work that doesn't promote self-care and personal well-being. I think this occurs through small daily practices and expectations, often without us being conscious of it. We need to be aware of these expectations and take proactive steps to change them.