Building the Capacity of WHRD: the experience of Front Line Defenders

In a context where the debate around digital security tends to be focused on national security and counter-terrorism measures, civil society faces the important challenge of claiming a space for women human rights defenders (WHRD). Margarita Salas of spoke with Wojtek Bogusz and Tara Madden of Front Line Defenders to discuss some of the key challenges they have identified in their work supporting WHRDs.

Margarita Salas (MS): Why did Front Line Defenders develop its digital security and training products for Human Rights Defenders (HRDs)?

Wojtek Bogusz (WB): It was actually the result of HRDs asking us for training and help. More and more people were using digital tools, computers, the internet, and mobiles to communicate and they felt they were putting themselves at risk. Their computers, information or devices were being stolen or infected and their accounts were being hacked. Many suspected that their phones were being tapped and they wanted to know what they could do about the situation.

We started helping with suggestions on how they could protect their information and online accounts and in 2004 we started writing guides for digital security. We have worked with lots of different HRDs, from social, political, environmental and gender groups. We cut across all the issues of the human rights spectrum, and we’re active in a lot of countries.

MS: Which barriers have you encountered to building the capacity and strengthening the security of WHRDs?

WB: Regarding capacity building, a challenge is that we don’t have many trainers specifically within the WHRD network. We are starting now to train women trainers, since the issue has been brought up in numerous discussions. It will be very useful to have trainers that come from the network, because they understand the context better. Apart from this, the barriers are the same for any HRD: awareness of the threats, knowledge of the tactics to protect yourself, the language and the user friendliness of the tools, and general IT skills, these are all the same challenges for everyone.

In our training we evaluate the risk of the HRDs first and develop the course from there. For example we prefer not to implement some of the strategies in the context of some countries, like Iran, where some of the tools that we usually recommend for digital security can’t be used because they are simply too risky. In some cases, just having the tool on your computer can put HRDs in danger.

We work in many different ways with HRDs. We can’t always do trainings in the specific countries we’d like to work in, as just doing a workshop there would bring too much risk to the HRDs, so sometimes we invite HRDs to have the workshop outside of their country. Other times we invite a single person from a specific country to a regional training, who then returns and slowly shares the knowledge in small groups. There are several countries where we work in this way. We are very careful with these decisions because this puts most of the risk on the HRDs themselves.

MS: Have you perceived differences between the realities and demands of WHRDs versus those of other HRDs?

Tara Madden ™: We have a security grants program which can provide support for temporary relocations for HRDs in emergency situations and sometimes WHRDs will refuse to leave unless they can take their children or they can’t leave because they have to think of their family. Through the Stress Management Program we can support women human rights defenders and their families to take a short break. So that’s the most obvious difference, that they tend to worry about their families more or it’s more difficult for them to leave.

WB: In all the trainings that we do we try to maintain gender balance, equal participation from men and women and with the digital security trainings it’s extremely difficult to achieve it. This happens across all continents and countries. I don’t know what this means exactly, you could trace the root of it in the unequal access to education, or perhaps other reasons, but the reality is that we typically have less participation from women. And also among trainers that we cooperate with there is very little participation from women and it’s not that we’re not looking for women trainers, on the contrary, our eyes and ears are open to cooperate with any IT specialists who are women, but obviously there are far fewer of them.

MS: The Cordaid report calls attention to the appearance of a false choice between security or human rights in the debates around security? What is your take on this division?

WB: It has to be debated in the specific context of a given country or issue. But yes, it’s true that the apparent opposition is something we’ve noticed. For example, they oppose freedom of expression and child pornography, so they will tell you: if you want to fight against child pornography you can’t have freedom of expression. The other element they oppose is freedom of expression and intellectual rights: if you defend freedom of expression you are against intellectual property. From my perspective this discourse is completely wrong and it’s propaganda for specific agendas. And it’s worth discussing why this is being done. Why are there initiatives like ACTA, PIPA or SOPA? Unfortunately, these kinds of proposals are very common.

We support the human rights approach, the individuals that are at risk, and we keep human rights at the centre of our focus. Everything we do is around this perspective.

MS: Do WHRDs participate in the forums and debates about cyber security? Are these issues important to them, beyond the level of training?

WB: We do know some WHRD that participate, for example some of the trainers we work with are also involved in digital security issues. Most of the ones I know are already part of the WHRDs network or part of APCs WNSP.

TM: We have also taken up cases of WHRDs who are bloggers or journalists and face threats. The Front Line Defenders Award 2012 went to Razan Ghazzawi, a HRD from Syria who blogs and tweets in her own name, had been arrested at the airport on her way to a freedom of expression and media conference and was facing charges at the time we gave her the award so she was unable to travel. We have also taken up other cases in China, Thailand and Iran of female bloggers and journalists who receive threats for their human rights work.

The WHRDs’ International Coalition is starting to have conversations to identify particular issues that WHRDs face in relation to digital security. It’s important for the Coalition to explore the gender dimension further and look at the complexities faced by WHRDs.

MS: How has Front Line Defenders contributed to the discussion of these issues?

TM: We have a gathering every two years called the Dublin Platform where approximately one hundred human rights defenders come to Dublin to discuss their challenges and needs, and we take the lead from what they tell us during the conference proceedings and also in their testimonies where they relate their experiences and the particular challenges they face in their home countries.

Each context brings its own concerns, but HRDs do face similar challenges and we try to address those concerns through our advocacy, training and security grants programs, and by trying to bring recognition to HRDs through our website, and trying to support networking among defenders themselves so that they can share their experiences and their strategies. A lot of people tell us at the Dublin Platform that it’s great to listen to the stories of other people, to feel that others are also dealing with challenges and awful circumstances.

All the members of the Coalition work with WHRDs, we’re all in contact with them on a daily basis and that informs our work and then together as a coalition we try to address some of the needs we have heard from WHRDs.

This article is a part of APC’s “Connect your rights: Internet rights are human rights” campaign financed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency .

_Photo by Michał Sacharewicz. Used with permission under Creative Commons licence 2.0