by Renato G. Mabunga

(This article has been presented by the author to the delegates of the 6th Asian Human Rights Defenders Forum (6th AHRDF) held in Quezon City, Philippines on 3-5 December 2014)


Though use inter-changeably and oftentimes carries the same meaning, intent and even connotation, there is a THIN LINE DISTINCTION between Security of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) and the Protection of Human Rights Workers.

Coming from an Organization Development (OD) perspective: Security of HRD speaks more of the assessment of the Slide2internal realities of individual defenders and their organizations vis-à-vis their actual experience and perceptions in the conduct of doing human rights work. It is an evaluation of perceived risks and threats that directly impacts on one’s personal commitment (to the cause of human rights), involvement (to organizations), and sustainability of seeing through some changes in the external situation. It also defines the degree of threshold for organization indicating critical shift or change in the conduct of operation – from a normal, acceptable level of usual activities to conscious weighing of the impact and dangers of particular action to the lives of the implementers and/or the target communities.

Protection of HRDs, on the other hand, is a response or measures derived from the assessment of risks and threats. This could either be personal or at the individual level, or organizational. And, may take the form of internal policies of the organization or personal disciplinary measures and precautions of individual HRDs. All of which are aimed at lessening risks and threats.

From individual or organizational internal measures, all lines of security questions become impetus to many forms of advocacy issues and concerns for the Protection and Recognition of the rights of Human Rights Defenders.

From my Research , there are several significant variables both internal and external that characterized the foundational elements of a human rights defender. For the internal factors, I grouped them into two- system categories to provide clearer focus and define the boundaries; namely: (1) the Individual and (2) the Organizational.


There are three significant variables that characterize the individual’s internal foundational elements (of a human rights defender): a) Commitment, b) Involvement; and, c) (the question of) Sustenance. Commitment – is defined as the internalized value and source of inspiration of HRDs in doing human rights work. It is accentuated by positive responses to help and empathize with the victims thereby creating deep sense of fulfillment for HRDs. It is defined by an active self (stable set of self-meanings) and not by work roles. Involvement – on the other hand, is the actual engagement of HRDs in human rights work. This engagement may be through membership to a human rights organization or participation in a particular human rights project or action for the protection, promotion and fulfillment of human rights. Lastly, Sustenance – are activities and actions, group dynamisms, moral and material benefits that feed on HRDs needs for belongingness and enhance HRDs’ desire to continue working for human rights.

These foundational characteristics are resonated too in the internal dynamics in many, if not most, of non-governmental organizations, charity institutions and trade unions. They are expressed internally in organization’s: a) vision and mission, b) leadership; and, c) cooperation. Vision and Mission – are the guiding principles of a human rights organization, which define their aspiration and dream as a group, and provides basis for their collective human rights action. Leadership – are the officers (Council of Leaders, Board, Executive, and Management Committees) of human rights organization in change of directing and leading the organization using skills, characteristics, abilities and styles with which to influence HRDs. Cooperation – are the actual dynamics within organization, teamwork, camaraderie which signify unity and oneness of HRDs along organizational and interpersonal framework. This influences the quality of programs, activities and relationship within human rights organization.

Finally, there are external factors that shaken or put to test HRD’s internal foundation: the Risks and Threats – they are the perceived and factual human rights violations against HRDs in connection with their works for human rights. These violations range from simple harassment and intimidation to gruesome extrajudicial execution.

Slide4In the survey conducted among HRDs, the three most common possibilities and danger they FEAR in relation to work are: (1) Life, (2) Harassment, and (3) Stigmatization and vilification of their organization. It is interesting to note that even as most of them have concrete knowledge of the risks for working on human rights issues and convince that the perceived risks are real, most of them responded that these risks and threats are non-deterrent to their commitment and involvement to human rights work.

The interplay of the internal factors with that of the external risks and threats produces an imbalanced and antagonistic relationship – leading us to work on counter-measures, platforms and mechanism to secure and protect HRDs; and, thereby, continue the struggle for human rights. Slide5

The question finally boils down on How to minimize or lessen perceived Risks and Threats? How to reduce the vulnerability factors? And, How to increase protection capacities of HRDs?

The research came up with multiple suggestions and possible platforms of protection. In the interest of making it simple and understandable, it is categorized in five levels: (1) Individual or personal level; (2) Organizational Level; (3) Governmental Level; (4) Institutional Level; and, (5) In conflict-situation level.

At the Personal/Individual Level:

  • Taking extra-precautionary measures; Ensure that somebody knows your whereabouts, contact numbers and schedules specially when in missions; Ask permission and leave information to trusted companion/s, family member/s and/or organization. If possible, work by teams especially when conducting investigation, documentation and other actions.
    • Always assert the legality of your person, work and organization. Make it a habit to scan and analyze the situation before diving into action. As the saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” (Benjamin Franklin, 1735.)

On Organizational Level: (This level of protection should be guaranteed by the organization whether local, national, regional, or international. There must be organized approach to security.)

  • Create and Be Part of a Strong and Consolidated Network. Human rights are duties and responsibility of all. Thousands of organizations and institutions have a heart for human rights if not at least a hint of humanity. Invite them to take part of the cause.
  • Do Continuing Education. Make it a part of your internal organizational processes to capacitate membership on security and pre-cautionary measures.
  • Conduct risk-assessment and analysis often and make it a standard procedure for assignment and deployment of staff.
  • Do Not Renege from the Task of Documentation. Written accounts, videos, photos and recorded messages are important in putting up pieces of evidence and following up of cases.
  • Provide Insurance Benefits. Be cautious of what may become of your HRDs in the line of work. Project the future. Accidents may happen anytime. Every organization should remember that the HRDs, staff, the membership are the soul of the organization. They are the workforces that keep the organization going. Investing on them is investing for the organization. Caring for them is loving the organization; putting them in further insecurity is killing the organization slowly.
  • Provide Legal Services.
  • Form Quick Response Teams.
  • Be Accredited by Government Institutions if possible and warranted.
  • Conduct Regular Dialogue with Various Stakeholders.
  • Institute Organizational Security Policy. Organizations like NGOs, institutions, and business corporations have well-defined management policies. These pertain to the actual conduct of operations, office and use of equipment and supplies, receipts and other financial requirements for reimbursement and requests, daily time record, etc. However, seldom can there be a security policy attached to the well being of the defenders (staff and members). Organizational security policies deal with non-normal circumstances of an organization, its membership or its staff. Don’t make risks and threats a normal phenomenon in the organization.

On Governmental Level: “Each State has a prime responsibility and duty to protect, promote and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms, by adopting step necessary to create all conditions necessary in the social, economic, political and other fields, as well as the legal guarantees required to ensure that all persons under its jurisdiction, individually or in association with others, are able to enjoy all rights and freedoms in practice” (HRD Declaration, 1998, Art. 2)

  • Legislate Measures. Legislative measures are needed to lay the foundation of human rights in so-called civilized countries.
  • Mainstream Human Rights Work. The obligations attached to the government on human rights demand that it mainstreams human rights in all its branches, agencies and programs.
  • Work for an Independent Judiciary.

On the Institutional Level: (This level is a proposal to social institutions whose have powers to exert influence on government and on contending parties. In the Philippines, they are the Church and the media.)

  • Strengthen Media Integrity.
  • Strengthen Social Action Centers and Programs.
  • Provide Sanctuary. At the center of any religions’ involvement in social actions and pastoral care is a realization of the sanctity of life and the needed protection for people and human rights defenders at risk of their lives. It is imperative for religious institutions to open up their doors and resources for those that need utmost protection.

On Conflict Situation Level:

  • Negotiate and lay down agenda for human rights and the protection of civilians including defenders in the course of political actions.


It is ideal to have a mixture of the 5 levels in the consciousness of HRDs and their organizations. But taking time and seriously discuss and map-out protection platforms based on our local situations would definitely lead us to secure the dignity of HRDs and the integrity of our organizations.