How do I Deal with Security?

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:

  1. Identify the risks you might face;
  2. Plan a strategy to deal with any security issues; and
  3. Decide whether it is wise to take legal action in view of the risks.

Conduct a Risk Analysis

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:

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

What Type of Risks Could I Face?

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:

(a) Physical Security Threats

Those who seek justice may be subject to physical threats because of their work. These 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; and
  • Property damage, such as vandalism to your house, office or car.

Key Resources:

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 DefendersFront 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 TrackerThis 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 DefendersThis 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.

(b) Retaliatory Legal Action or SLAPP Suits

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).

  • For example, in response to your legal action, the defendant 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.

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:

  • Apply to a judge to dismiss the case immediately and before any costly pre-trial steps take place;
  • The proceedings against you can often be “stayed” or paused while the judge is considering whether the case is a SLAPP suit; and
  • Judges can usually order the other side to pay your legal costs if it’s found they were bringing a SLAPP suit and sometimes can impose additional financial consequences on organisations that attempt to bring SLAPP suits.

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:

  • Apply for the case to be dismissed because it has no legal basis. This may be called applying for a “summary judgment” or for the judge to “strike out” the case. If a summary judgment is given in your favour or the case is struck out, the party that brought the case will often have to pay the other side’s costs. If it’s clear a SLAPP suit is being brought, it is advisable to apply for such remedies quickly, before the SLAPP suit exhausts your time and resources; and
  • If a company has brought a SLAPP suit and has lost the case, it is usually possible to apply for “adverse costs orders” against the company at the end of the case. If the judge grants an adverse costs order in your favour, this means that the other side will have to pay your costs and, sometimes, will have to pay additional costs as a consequence of being a legal case in bad faith.

Key Resources:

If you want to learn more about SLAPP suits and how to combat them, consider the following resources:

  • Protect the ProtestThis 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 GuideA 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.

(c) Media Attacks and Defamation

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.

  • If you have resources and want to make an example of the company/person that made the untrue statement and receive compensation, a claim in defamation could be an option for you.
  • However, especially if you are already taking an initial legal case, it may not be wise to spend more time and money making a defamation claim in court. But it can still be useful to know what the definition of defamation is in your country as it can strengthen your response to media attacks by demonstrating that what has been published about you is unlawful.

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.

(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.

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).

(e) 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; or
  • Defendants may contest any actions you try to take to progress the case, such as your applications for disclosure of information from the defendant.

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:

  • You may be able to apply or encourage the judge to set strict timelines for the preparation of the case to reduce the opportunity for delaying tactics;
  • You may be able to apply for sanctions or penalties to be imposed by the judge on the Defendant if they are unreasonably delaying the case;
  • You may be able to apply for a “summary judgment” or for the case to be struck out in your favour if the Defendant is unreasonably delaying the case; and
  • At the end of the case, even if you lose, it may be possible to apply for an “adverse costs order” against the Defendant. This means that they will have to pay a greater share of the legal costs for the case than if they hadn’t used delaying tactics.

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.

(f) Corruption and the Obstruction of Justice

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.


What Is the Source of the Risk?

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:

  • 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;
  • Groups involved in organised crime, such as drug cartels or paramilitary groups; and
  • Other community members who are opposed to the lawsuit.

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:

  • If the threat is coming from the Defendant, there may be procedural steps you can take in the process of bringing the case to counter the threat;
  • If the threat is coming from a single public official or individual in a company, there may be reporting and disciplinary procedures that can be followed in the public body or company they work in; and
  • Identifying the group/individual, with evidence, will usually be important if you are reporting the issue to the police or to a witness protection program.

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:


Planning a 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; and
  • Strengthen the areas where you are vulnerable.

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

(a) Strengthening the Physical Security of Your Office and Home

If you are faced with physical security risks, consider the following:

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

(b) Developing Support Networks or a Community Watch Program

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.

(c) Adapting Your Activities

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.

  • For example, you may decide to starting driving or giving lifts to your office instead of walking.

(d) Fitting Security Technology to Your Home and Office

If you are facing physical security threats, it may be helpful to:

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

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.

(e) Change the Ways You Communicate and Travel

Predictability in your routine can increase your vulnerability to physical security risks. It may be helpful to:

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

(f) Anonymity 

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:

  • Depending on the type of case you want to bring, it may be possible to report the issue to the police, another law enforcement agency, or a civil society organisation that may be able to take the case forward on your behalf. They may be able to keep your information confidential when they take legal action for you; or
  • If you want to take legal action, it is often possible to request an anonymity order so your personal details will not appear in the report or on the court file, and that your details will not be disclosed to the public or the other side.

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.

(g) Witness or State Protection

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:

  • Physical security procedures, such as relocation and non-disclosure of information about the witness’s identity details and whereabouts in court; and
  • Evidentiary rules to ensure the witness’s safety during courtroom testimony. This could include allowing them to give their witness testimony in private, out of sight, or through documentary evidence that has their personal details redacted.

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.

Example: Colombia’s Action Plan for the Prevention and Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Social Leaders, Collectives and Journalists

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.

(h) Procedural Safeguards in the Court Process

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:

  • Applying for injunctions to stop the Defendant doing something during the trial/court process;
  • Applying for summary judgments or to strike out a case because it’s a SLAPP suit or because of delaying tactics or unethical conduct by the Defendant;
  • Apply for sanctions to be imposed on the Defendant if they engage in delaying tactics or unethical behaviour;
  • Apply to the judge to set strict timelines to discourage delaying tactics; and
  • Apply for the judge to make adverse cost orders at the end of the case, requiring the Defendant to pay your costs or another financial penalty if they have taken a SLAPP suit, engaged in delaying tactics or unethical behaviour.

Get 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.

(a) 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; and
  • Even members of the company/group threatening you who may be more sympathetic or further removed from the issue.

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.

(b) 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; and
  • In extreme cases, these organizations may assist threatened persons to leave the country.

Considering approaching the following:


(i) International Organisations

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

Example: Special Rapporteur on the Situation of 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.


(ii) 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:


(iii) 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.

Key Examples

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.


Get More Information

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:

  • Are there real security risks in your case?
  • If yes, do you have an effective security security to reduce or remove with their risks?
  • If the answer to the last question is no, taking legal action is unlikely to be appropriate for you.

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

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