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How do I Deal with Security?

One of the downsides of bringing a PIL case is the security risks that those taking legal action can face.

Before bringing a PIL case, it is important to be aware of the risks that you might face and plan how to deal with any security issues.


What Security Issues Could You Face?

When individuals, communities and their advocates challenge powerful institutions and companies, they can face very real physical and other threats.

The targets of legal action do not always “play fair” and let their cases to court where justice might be given.

  • Powerful defendants may try to abuse their position of wealth and influence to threaten those bringing the case, or use legal and illegal tactics to prevent you from bringing an effective case.

This does not mean you should abandon legal action when you face security risks;

  • Often the risks involved can be successfully managed.
  • Abandoning legal action can be more dangerous in the long term, leading the powerful abuser to believe they can get away with anything.

In Brazil, big business and government bodies have used tactics such as violence, legal manoeuvres and corruption to try to prevent indigenous people from enforcing their land rights. While much harm has been done in the process, communities have continued to fight and win PIL cases protecting their lands.

But everyone involved in the case (e.g. community members, advocates, family members) should be aware of the risks and take action to deal with them.


Dealing with Physical Security Threats

Those who seek justice may be subject to physical threats because of their work.

The types of threats to your security include;

  • Actual armed attacks against yourself, your family, friends and community.
  • Threatening phone calls and other communications.
  • Intimidation through the surveillance or following of people involved in the case.
  • Unlawful imprisonment.
  • Property damage, such as vandalism to your house, office or car.

Across the world, environmental defenders have been targeted and killed for standing up to governments and businesses that want to take and exploit the natural resources of local people.

These threats can come from;

  • Companies, businesses and financial institutions whose interests are threatened by a lawsuit.
  • Government officials, public bodies and law enforcement agencies who wish to stop the legal action.
  • Other community members who are opposed to the lawsuit.

The risks for human rights defenders are very real and can be very dangerous.

  • When you target powerful interests, especially those linked to security forces, criminal gangs or paramilitaries, the risks may be especially high.

In Colombia, trade unionists and environmental activists who stood up to big oil companies were targeted, tortured, imprisoned and sometimes killed by paramilitary groups used to protect their pipelines.

Before taking legal action, you need to be fully aware of security and safety concerns and how they can be managed.

To do this, consider taking the following steps.


a) Conduct a Risk Analysis

The first crucial step toward managing security risks is to conduct a risk analysis before initiating any legal action.

This involves analysing;

  • Whose interests is my PIL case going to affect?
    – This can give an indication as to where the threats to your security could come from
  • What are the potential threats that could come from these groups?
    – How might they threaten you to protect their interests?
    – What is the risk or likelihood of the threats happening?
  • What are your vulnerabilities?
    – What threats pose the greatest risk to your security?
    – What threats are you least prepared to deal with?

Key Resource
An example of this type of security analysis can be found in Chapter 1 of the Protection Manual for Human Rights Defenders, published by Front Line.


b) Plan your Security Strategy

Once you have identified the risks and areas where you are vulnerable, use your risk analysis to construct a security strategy for your protection.

To do this, think about how you can;

  • Reduce the risks to your security.
  • Strengthen the areas where you are vulnerable.

Depending on the type of risk, your security strategy might involve;

Strengthening the physical security of your office and home

  • Installing lighting around your property.
  • Building walls/fences and fitting secure gates.
  • Reinforce your doors and windows.
  • Get a dog which raises alarm when someone enters your property.

Developing a community watch program

  • This is where local groups look out for risks to each other’s security and report them.

Changing some aspects of your activities

  • I.e. stopping an activity if it is particularly dangerous and not essential to achieving your objectives.

Fitting security technology to your home and office

  • Fit alarms that make noise or alert the police (if this is appropriate) when someone enters your property
  • Fit surveillance cameras and put up signs to advertise this.

Change the ways you communicate and travel

  • Change your route to work or home regularly.
  • Travel and meet in open public spaces when possible.

Hiding your involvement in the case when possible


c) Look for Support

A key part of your security strategy that can help reduce the risk of threats, and strengthen the areas where you are vulnerable, is finding sources of support.

It is often the case that safety comes in numbers, and having more people, groups and organisations supporting you can increase your security.

  • This is especially the case when your support network includes people and organisations that have expertise in dealing with security issues.

If you are likely to face a threat, you should know in advance whom you can call on for support.


i) Build local support networks

The threats you face will often happen in your local community. Having a local support network is important to deal with these security issues.

To create this network, try to build alliances with;

  • A wide range of members within the community.
  • Reach out to other communities, who may struggle with similar issues.
  • Approach civil society organisations who can support you.
  • Local government officials and members of the security forces who are sympathetic to your cause or at least appear neutral (be careful – see below).
  • Even members of the company/group threatening you who may be more sympathetic or further removed from the issue (be careful – see below).

Practical Tip
Within any institution (e.g. public body or company), some individuals may be more sympathetic to your case than others (e.g. those who have personal experience of the problems you are facing).

Try to identify, engage with and influence these people. They may be able to influence the institution’s actions and the people responsible for the threats to your security. This can also open up dialogue and reduce hostility between the two parties.

Be very careful when doing this. While it can be an effective way to reduce the risks you face, approaching the institution responsible for the threats to your security can itself be very dangerous. It is very important you only approach someone in an institution who you believe is actually sympathetic or neutral to your case.


ii) Get international support

An excellent way to improve your physical security is to build international support.

A number of bodies and organisations offer support to human rights defenders who are threatened by physical violence or intimidation.

Support can involve;

  • Putting pressure on governments to provide protection.
  • Visiting the affected areas and physically accompanying activists to court hearings or other events.
  • In extreme cases, these organizations may assist threatened persons to leave the country.

Considering approaching the following;

International Organisations

International organisations, such as the United Nations, sometimes have bodies dedicated to protecting human rights defenders.

A key example is the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, which can;

  • Visit countries to collect, receive and respond to information on human rights defenders.
  • Negotiate with and submit complaints to governments if human rights defenders are not being protected.

Regional Organisations

Most regional organisations have bodies with a similar mandate to the UN Special rapporteur. Additionally, some of these bodies can take legal action against the government in regional courts for their failure to protect human rights defenders.

Depending on your region, one of the following may be able to offer you support;

Non-Governmental Organisations

Some NGOs dedicate part of their work to protecting local human rights defenders.

This involves campaigning for their release when imprisoned, raising awareness about the issues they face, challenging governments to offer protection, and offering practical support and advice to people facing threats.

A couple of examples include;

In response to the risks faced by environmental defenders across the world, NGO “Not 1 More” seeks to support at risk defenders by raising awareness on threats, providing practical support, and pressuring governments to protect against and investigate crimes committed.

International support reduces risk to local activists and provide some level of security and reassurance in case of threat or attack.

But a disadvantage of international support is that association with “foreign” organisations could generate undue attention and provoke backlash.

You have to weigh up the costs and benefits of international engagement, in relation to the threats and vulnerabilities in your case.

Practical Tip
Compare the vulnerabilities of your community or organization with its capacity (e.g. its sources of support) to handle any threats it is likely to face (See Chapters 2 and 3 of the Front Line Protection Manual).


Dealing with Other Hostile Tactics

When powerful interests are challenged, companies and public bodies often respond with subtle threats rather than physical violence.

Communities should be aware of these tactics and prepared to respond.


a) Retaliatory Legal Actions

Defendants can try to discourage you from bringing a PIL case by filing retaliatory legal actions against you (i.e. suing you in court in response to your action)

  • For example, they could charge the plaintiffs with defamation, trespass, or conspiracy (even if there is no real evidence).
  • These lawsuits are often referred to as SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation).

SLAPPs can exhaust your resources, force you to reveal your identity and expose you to potential financial liability.

In response to PIL cases against its alleged environmental pollution in Ecuador, Chevron have brought SLAPP suits in US courts (for corruption and conspiracy) against the lawyers who brought legal action against them. This has distracted the lawyers, and put pressure on their time and resources.

Some countries have anti-SLAPP laws but most countries do not.

If your lawsuit may provoke a SLAPP, you should seek legal advice before bringing your case and line up legal defence in advance if possible.


b) Delaying Tactics

Defendants may use obstructive tactics to delay the litigation process.

For example;

  • Defendants may file multiple motions or requests to overwhelm the applicant with paperwork.
  • Defendants may seek mandatory disclosure of marginally relevant information from applicants in an effort to intimidate and use against them.

In response to efforts by local communities in Nigeria to hold Shell accountable for environmental pollution in the region, Shell have used delaying tactics (e.g. abuse of appeals) to make legal cases stretch out for years, seeking to exhaust and discourage their opponents.

You should be aware of these tactics and explore procedural options to quash attempts to “drown them in paper.”


c) Media Attacks

Defendants may try to win their case in the media by attacking you and spreading untrue rumours about you.

Or they can hack into your social media accounts and ruin your credibility from the inside. If this happens, look for support here.

This can drive away supporters, weaken your campaign, and create division in your group.

Communities should develop their own media strategy to counter this tactic.


d) Infiltrating your Group

Defendants may try to infiltrate your group to gather information on your strategies and create division.

  • They may try to buy off elements within the group, and turn communities against each other, causing the legal action to fail.

Communities and advocates should choose their key members carefully and have up-front discussions to clarify their aims and objectives.

Consider contingency plans if you learn that your information security has been compromised.

For more information, see “How do I Manage my Group?


e) Corruption

Powerful defendants with a lot of resources may try to buy the legal system in order to protect their interests.

  • They might try and bribe judges or put pressure on “connected” politicians and officials to change the laws in their favour.

Watch out for any signs of corruption. Use the media and any criminal or administrative remedies to challenge any public bribery.

  • For example, many Latin American countries have judicial commissions that are charged with removing corrupt judges.

For further information, see “Corruption”

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