Author: Yara WHRD Center
Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) across the MENA region are working to address and mitigate the impact of an interwoven set of legal and cultural discriminations and social restrictions against women. WHRDs are doing critical work through informal groups, initiatives and organizations designed to change discriminatory practices and laws, end violence against women and promote the concept of equality. In doing so, women human rights defenders face increasing threats and obstacles. Growing authoritarianism in the region has increased pressures on WHRDs and civic space is rapidly shrinking or closing across MENA. We also see an increase in reprisals against women human rights defenders engaged in rights advocacy.
Given these realities, it is critical for women human rights defenders, their groups and organizations to take their security seriously by discussing and planning for potential problems. WHRDs need to develop strategies for mitigating risks and threats in times of crisis.
We all have the right to engage in peaceful activism in support of social justice aims. We can only do this if we are aware of and plan in advance for the risks that may face us. The following is a series of strategies and steps that can help WHRDs and their groups plan better for their security.
- All groups should take the security of their team members seriously, early on and openly. In this way, all individuals in the group or organization are fully aware of possible security risks and are able to plan for them accordingly.
- In many countries in the region, it is difficult and may even be impossible for some to register as a formal group. Additionally, economic concerns and limited budgets often mean that many groups do not have the means to rent formal offices or common workspaces. In such circumstances, you may decide to gather in public spaces, like cafes or libraries in order to coordinate activities. While doing so, please be aware of your surroundings. Don’t speak loudly so that others can listen in to your conversation and learn about your activities and plans. Also, do not use the same meeting space repeatedly. Try to hold your meetings in different locations and spaces. Regular routines and meeting spaces allow for easier surveillance of your meetings and activities.
- If you use your private homes to hold meetings, make sure to hold meetings on a rotating basis in the homes of other members as well. Do not hold all or the majority of your meetings in one person’s home, as this may create a security risk for that person or for the group as a whole.
- Mobile phones are often used as listening devices and they make it easy for security forces to surveil you. Also, GPS on your phones will show that several persons were in the same location at the same time, which may result in increased sensitivities toward your activism. As such, try using two mobile phones. You can take your 2nd phone that is not associated with you to your meetings, making surveillance more difficult. If it is not possible for you to have a second phone, we recommend that you do not take your mobile phone with you to your planning and coordination meetings. Your main number is known to many including security agents, and as such it is easier to surveil your conversations through that phone. If you must take your main phone to your meetings, then take precautions which make surveillance more difficult, such as wrapping your mobile phone in aluminum foil before you reach your destination, to prevent it from serving as a listening device. Keep in mind that you cannot stop your phone from being used as a listening or surveillance device simply by turning it off or placing it at a distance from you.
- To the extent possible try not to use your mobile phones on the street. The experience of many rights defenders across the region who have had their phones stolen, indicates that thieves stealing mobile phones may be associated with security forces. Through access to your phones, the security agents can begin learning more about your relationships and your activities making it easier for them to build cases against you because of your human rights work.
- Save the meeting minutes, photos, writings, and everything related to the group’s activities on a hard disk and keep it in a safe and secret place. Clearly rights defenders are not working underground and are not doing anything wrong, still given the pressure on rights defenders, and in a context when even a critical tweet may land a person in prison, it is best to protect your information as much as possible with a view toward preventing unfair sentences and security charges such as “spreading of propaganda or false news” or “collusion and conspiracy to commit crimes against national security.”
- Share the contact number of a close family member, who can legally follow up on your case in the event that you are arrested, with all members of your group.
- Talk to one of your family members about your activities and convince them that you have chosen the right path, that you are committed to working to improve human rights, and that your demands are just. It is important that family members are aware of your positions and activities in case of arrest so that they can advocate for you. If you believe that your family is not willing to advocate for you and your activities, consider alternative support. Our advice is to give one of your friends or group members the authority to follow up on your case in case of arrest or detention and to decide on the best strategy for publicizing news about your situation.
- Discuss and agree on how to share info and publicize the possible arrest of group members. Do you want to be in the news as soon as you are arrested? Or do you wait 24 hours, or 48 hours, or another predetermined length of time, before news of your arrest is reported? What should be emphasized in news reporting about your work, background and your ideas? Who would decide on who and when to share news about you, in case you are arrested? Is it your family, a lawyer, your friends or your colleagues within your group? Our advice is that if the person is not released within the first forty-eight hours after detention, then the news about their situation should be publicized.
- In situations such as strikes, uprisings, and revolutions, where rights activists are more likely to be arrested, develop an agreed upon protocol for communicating about the safety and whereabouts of each of the team members in a secure manner. Some of the members of your group may live alone, or their families may remain silent about their arrest due to promises of quick release or because of threats by security forces. In such cases, it is important to have an alternative plan, to allow for group members to find out about the arrest of another member as soon as possible. In this way, the rest of the group can take steps to ensure the safety of those outside. For example, if you are all in group texts on whatsapp or signal or other applications, where you are coordinating your actions, then the arrested person should be taken out of the group texts. In this way, you can prevent access of security forces to your group texts and info. One strategy may be to have everyone check in on a daily basis at a said time. If one person misses that check in, then they should be removed from the group texts and communication, until it is clear that they have not been arrested.
- All members of your group should have a solid understanding of the rights of those being interrogated, detained and accused. While many security forces don’t abide by their rights and often don’t adhere to legal protections for those being accused, your awareness of rights will help you during interrogation and detention. You can continually remind interrogators, prison officials, judges, and other authorities of your rights and in this way you can prevent them from exerting illegal pressures on you with the aim of forcing you into false confessions against yourself or your colleagues.
- It is important that group members agree, as much as possible, on the level of risk and danger they are able to take on. As such, try to build consensus, where and when possible, within your team, on the more risky activities of the group. For example, one or a few members of the group may agree to publish an article that seems sensitive or perhaps some members agree that the group should hold a protest, while others may disagree because they view the activities as too risky. Making decisions on how to move forward in such cases may prove difficult. Not all members of the group may be willing to accept security risks. Or at a minimum the degree of risk that members are willing to accept may vary, depending on each person’s circumstance. It is important to agree on the process for making decisions on such critical and risky actions in advance. Should these decisions be taken only when there is full consensus or will a majority vote suffice? Agreeing on processes in advance will help address potential disagreements that could otherwise harm or stymy your group’s continued collaboration.