Protection Networks: a lifeline for embattled human rights activists


Magda Adamowicz and Sharan Srinivas


On 23 October 2020, unidentified gunmen shot 65-year-old South African environmental and human rights activist Fikile Ntshangase dead at her home. Ntshangase had courageously led a grassroots campaign against the expansion of a coalmine that threatened to displace members of her community from their ancestral lands. Fikile is just one of at least 303 human rights defenders who were killed in 2020. Countless others receive death threats from both state and non-state actors, and face criminalisation and stigmatisation.

Because of these attacks, we have made it a priority to help establish and develop networks of support – known as protection networks – to provide much-needed security and assistance to rights advocates at the frontlines.

What are protection networks?

We often use a trampoline analogy in order to explain what networks of protection are. As activists and human rights defenders perform their daily duties in the air, protection networks are there to provide support, or catch them when they fall, in a moment of danger, uncertainty and emergency. Strengthening investments in such nets of support is necessary to mitigate the risks that activists like Fikile Ntshangase and hundreds of others face.

One such net is the recently established South Africa Human Rights Defenders Fund. Its inclusive governance structure counts representatives of grassroots environmental organisations and social justice movements, as well as human rights and environmental lawyers and academics. In 2020, this network was able to provide protection in an agile and rapid manner to over a dozen activists. This included temporarily relocating women human rights defenders and their children to another part of South Africa and organising psychosocial support for members of a community based environmental justice movement resisting a mine that threatens their land, health and environment.

We have observed firsthand the unique contribution that the South African Fund and other similar networks have made to strengthening protection of activists and breaking their isolation. We would like to highlight two ingredients that enable networks to provide effective protection for activists.

Locally grounded and holistic protection

For protection to be effective, it needs to be holistic. It must respond to the multifaceted needs of local activists at risk, and must be provided in an appropriate form and in a timely manner.

The Brazilian Committee for Human Rights Defenders exemplifies what it means to be a local and holistic network. It brings together several lawyers, rural and grassroots activists, feminist activists, indigenous and ethnic communities. Its presence on the ground allows them to react quickly to relocate an activist that faces death threats in regions such as the Amazon or work with urban activists to implement protection protocols that address their physical security. Similarly in Malaysia, a coalition of local human rights groups and press freedom organisations recently launched the first ever national legal defence fund with the aim of rapidly connecting an activist who has been jailed or prosecuted for exercising their right to free speech with a Malaysian lawyer who can secure their release on bail and represent them at their trial. 

For the protection work to be holistic, it needs to address the emotional and wellbeing dimension of security threats. Many human rights defenders and journalists have developed a culture of sacrifice and commitment, where taking care of one-self is perceived to be a luxury and often comes with guilt. Many find it difficult to talk about the side effects of their work, the vicarious trauma they undergo after helping victims, years of non-stop stress and the constant fear of being arrested, attacked, or harassed. Finding a way to alleviate that stress – even temporarily – can help rights defenders stay longer in the field and thereby increase their impact.

Groups behind rethinking this dimension of protection are the Ulex project in Europe, Aluna Accompanimento Psychosocial in Latin America and the global Human Rights Resilience Project. They have developed resources, tools and methods for resilience building that are easily applied across various contexts.

Breaking isolation and fostering solidarity 

Many threats that activists or their communities face is a result of isolation, lack of resources or sufficient infrastructure. Many female activists supported by the IM-Defensoras network, also known as the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders, live in rural and isolated areas. The Network provided them with special spaces for support, tools for wellbeing and care, or just online spaces where they can voice their fears and hopes. Working from home for many local defenders would not be possible if not for support from this network. For women activists coming from indigenous or rural communities in Honduras, Nicaragua, or Mexico, solidarity often means top up internet cards, additional equipment, and technical assistance to stay connected, and operate safely and securely online.

In the post pandemic context, it will be essential for the human rights community to work together in solidarity to address new challenges and protect those at the forefront of activism. We see networks as critical in making sure that the net of protection is dense and serves as a lifeline for embattled human rights activists.

Magda Adamowicz and Sharan Srinivas are Program Officers with the Human Rights Initiative of the Open Society Foundations.

Tagged in: Law philanthropy and justice

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