When legal action is used to challenge powerful organisations and interests (e.g. the police, government, big business), the people taking legal action can face very real security risks. People may also face security risks when they take legal action in politically or culturally sensitive issues (e.g. to uphold LGBT rights).
The targets of legal action do not always “play fair” and let their cases to court where justice might be given. Powerful defendants or people that support them may try to abuse their position of wealth, power and influence to threaten those taking legal action. They may use a combination of legal and illegal tactics to prevent you from bringing an effective case.
Everyone taking legal action should be aware of the risks and take action to deal with them. Before bringing a legal case:
The first crucial step toward managing security risks is to conduct a risk analysis before initiating any legal action:
Risk Analysis Questionnaire
Consider the following questions when assessing the level of risk in taking legal action:
Identify the Source of the Risk
- Who will the Defendant be if I take legal action?
- How much will legal action impact the interests of the Defendant? (i.e. how much do they have to lose?)
- Does the Defendant have a history of involvement in corruption, threatening or criminal activity?
- Does the Defendant have links to other groups or organisations that could be affected by your case?
- Do these groups have a history of involvement in corrupt, threatening or criminal activity?
Identify the Types of Risk
- 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 security risks are you not well prepared to deal with?
This page will now take you through common sources and types of security risks. But remember: The fact there are security risks does not always mean you should abandon legal action:
Before taking legal action, it’s important to identify the type of security risks or hostile tactics you may face. Below are some common examples:
Those who seek justice may be subject to physical threats because of their work. These types of threats to your security include:
If you want to learn more about the physical security threats human rights or environmental defenders face in different countries, we recommend the following resources:
- Front Line Defenders: Front Line Defenders are an organisation dedicated to reporting on and assisting human rights defenders to deal with threats against their security. On their website, you can find examples and of threats HRDs face. This can be a useful place to start to help educate you about the possible risks involved with taking legal action for social justice;
- The Defenders Tracker: This project by the Guardian and Global Witness tracks and reports on the security threats faced by environmental defenders in the year of 2017. It provides case studies on the threats faced by certain HRDs and outlines patterns of what countries and industries the threats have come from; and
- Protect Defenders: This is an index on the threats faced by HRDs. It provides information on the different types of threats faced, the countries and industries they come from, and the roles of individuals who receive threats.
We recommend spending some time to understand the global context of threats to HRDs and think about whether this could apply to your case.
When powerful interests are challenged, companies and public bodies often respond with subtle threats rather than physical violence. One example of this is by filing retaliatory legal actions against you (i.e. suing you in court in response to your action).
SLAPPs can exhaust your resources, force you to reveal your identity and expose you to potential financial liability.
Example: SLAPP Suits by Chevron in Ecuador
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 that can be used against companies or individuals that try to take SLAPP suits. Where anti-SLAPP laws exist, it is often possible for people facing SLAPP suits to:
Even in countries where there are no official “anti-SLAPP laws”, sometimes similar possibilities exist in the procedural rules of the country’s legal system. For example, if you are facing a SLAPP suit, it may be possible to:
If you want to learn more about SLAPP suits and how to combat them, consider the following resources:
- Protect the Protest: This US coalition is dedicated to countering SLAPP suits. Even if you’re not based in the US, this can be a useful resource if you want to learn more about SLAPP suits and tactics to respond to them;
- RCFP Anti-SLAPP Guide: A US guide that provides some useful practical tips on how to respond to SLAPP suits; and
- If you want an example of how SLAPP suits and anti-SLAPP laws work outside of the West, here’s a useful article about SLAPP Suits in India; and
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.
Defendants may try to discourage you from taking or continuing your legal case by attacking you in the media and spreading untrue rumours about you. This can drive away supporters, weaken your campaign, and create division in your group.
In legal terms, if someone publishes an untrue statement about you that causes harm to your reputation, you may have a case against them for defamation. If you make a successful claim against someone in defamation, you could be awarded compensation for the damage to your reputation and the person who made/published the statement may have to publicly retract the untrue statement.
Outside of legal action, a useful way to respond to media attacks is having your own media strategy to counter this tactic. For more information, see our Campaigns page.
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.
To help avoid this happening, communities and advocates should choose their key members carefully and have up-front discussions to clarify their aims and objectives. Ensure that you only allow people you trust to join a group taking legal action. For more information, see How do I Manage my Group?.
In addition to physically infiltrating your group, an opposing group could can hack into your social media accounts and ruin your credibility from the inside.
Key Resource: DoubleSwitch Social Media Attack
The organisation AccessNow has conducted research on doubleswitch social media attacks, where activists social media accounts are hijacked to derail their campaigns and undermine their reputation. One tip it suggests it that users of social media use multi-factor authentication on their accounts (for example, connecting your phone to your account and receiving a code every time you try to log in).
Defendants may use obstructive tactics to delay the litigation process. For example:
Example: Legal Cases against Shell in Nigeria
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.” Options include:
Check with a lawyer in your country which of these options are available and how you could make use of them if your opponent is using delaying tactics.
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 further information on how to challenge corruption, see the A4J Anti-Corruption Guide.
Threats to your security will often come from the Defendant or person/organisation you are taking legal action against. However, it may also be the case that threats are made by groups, people or institutions that are associated, connected or benefit in some way from the activity you are challenging.
The people, organisations or groups that make threats include:
In some circumstances, threats can come from a combination of the above groups. For example, in environments where corruption is prevalent, there may be illicit links or collusion between local government officials, organised crime and companies that are working in the areas.
It is important that you identify what groups the threats to your security could come from. This can help you decide what strategy to take to counter the threat:
Identifying the group making the threat can also help you assess the seriousness of the risk. For example, threats linked to security forces, criminal gangs or paramilitaries may be especially seriousness.
Example: Threats against Activists by Paramilitary Groups in Colombia
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. In many cases, these paramilitary groups has links to the government and law enforcement bodies. The combination of actors involved made this a very dangerous situation that was difficult to respond to.
Although not the source of the risk, there may also be investors and financial institutions that are associated with the project or group that is threatening you. If this is the case, it can sometimes be strategic to appeal to the investors or the financial institution to put pressure on their partners to stop their threatening behaviour. These investors and institutions often care about their reputation and may respond if they think their association to the threats could go public.
Key Resources on Investors, Financiers and Threats to Human Rights Defenders
If you want to learn more about the links of investors and financiers to threats to HRDs, and what responsibilities they have, we recommend the following resources:
- Uncalculated Risks: This is a comprehensive report into the role of financiers into threats to HRDs; and
- Safeguarding Human Rights Defenders – Practical Guidance for Investors: This report outlines the role and responsibilities of investors regarding threats to HRDs.
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:
Depending on the type of risk, your security strategy might involve:
If you are faced with physical security risks, consider the following:
A community watch program is where local groups look out for risks to each other’s security and report them. This is a form of support networks. Other support networks could involve getting civil society organisations to publicly support you and provide assistance for your security needs.
If you are faced with physical security risks, developing a support network or community watch program could be useful. Where communities are united and committed to challenging a security threat together, this will could make you less vulnerable to security risks as it may deter an individual or group from making or following through on threats they have made.
If it is not possible to remove a physical security threat, it may be possible to reduce the risk by stopping activities that are particularly dangerous and not essential to achieving your objectives.
If you are facing physical security threats, it may be helpful to:
On one hand, if people know that you have security technology, this could deter people from following through on threats they have made. On the other hand, security technology make it more likely that people that break into or loiter around your property can be identified. This may be helpful if you want to report the issue or adapt your security strategy after you know of the identifies of threatening individuals.
Predictability in your routine can increase your vulnerability to physical security risks. It may be helpful to:
Keeping your personal details secret, confidential or anonymous when you are taking legal action can be vital if there are security risks. This could help protect against physical security threats, as well as SLAPP suits and media attacks.
Check if the following ways of keeping your identity secret exist in your country:
Example: Mexico’s Integral System of Anonymous Complaints (SIDEC)
This mechanism allows any person that has reasonable grounds to prove that a federal public servant or a private entity has been involved in a corrupt act to make a complaint for bribery, influence peddling, abuse of functions or any administrative offence. Through this platform anyone can submit anonymous complaints, videos, photos, documents, witness statements or any other document that can prove the wrongdoer’s corrupt act.
If you report an issue to law enforcement and are going to be a witness, it may be possible to get witness protection. This could involve the following measures:
In some cases, where there is evidence of very serious physical security risks against lawyers and people taking legal action, it may be possible to get police protection or protection from a court appointed officer.
As part of the Colombian government’s plan to protect HRDs, who are regularly threatened and killed in Colombia, there is a special police unit that can intervene to provide protection to HRDs, social leaders and journalists that are most at risk of security threats in Colombia. The scheme is not perfect and the article attached outlines a number of problems with the scheme. However, if such an option is available in your country, it could provide a way of responding to serious physical security risks.
Where the security risks are not physical threats, but are SLAPP suits, media attacks or attempts to obstruct justice, there may be procedural steps you can take to combat these risks.
These have been demonstrated earlier in this page, but examples include:
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.
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:
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.
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:
Considering approaching the following:
International organisations, such as the United Nations, sometimes have bodies dedicated to protecting human rights defenders.
The Special Rapporteur can:
- Visit countries to collect, receive and respond to information on human rights defenders; and
- Negotiate with and submit complaints to governments if human rights defenders are not being protected.
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:
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:
- Front Line Defenders: FLD is an NGO with the specific aim of protecting human rights defenders at risk. On their website, they have key resources on how to protect your security and they have an emergency contact line to contact when you are facing immediate threats. They can conduct advocacy on your behalf, provide grants for the practical security needs of HRDs at risk, and provide training;
- Peace Brigades International: PBI supports local HRDs at risk or in conflict. PBI carries out protective accompaniment (international volunteers accompany HRDs in their country), international observation, targeted advocacy and workshops and training; and
- Not1More: 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.
Based on your risk analysis and possible security strategies, you need to think carefully about whether it is wise to bring or continue with legal action. Ask yourself:
To help you conduct a risk analysis, create a security plan, and answer these questions, it will usually be vital to get advise from local partners. It may also be helpful to read some of the following resources:
Key Resources: Front Line Defenders Materials
- Workbook on Security – Practical Steps for Human Rights Defenders at Risk: The workbook takes you through steps to producing a security plan and assessing your security risks.
- Protection Handbook for Human Rights Defenders: The handbook is intended to give HRDs simple and practical advice on how to deal with security threats, intimidation and attacks.
- Protection Manual for Human Rights Defenders: The manual provides in-depth informal and advice on how to deal with security threats, intimidation and attacks.
- Protection Grants: FLD provides grants to HRDs that need financial assistance to deal with security risks. They also highlight other organisations that provide similar types of funding.