Preventive measures

  • Prevention is key in the protection of victims, witnesses and other persons cooperating with the field presence. It involves respecting fundamental principles and methods of work which enable HROs to undertake human rights monitoring and fact-finding activities in a manner that does not jeopardize the safety of those who come in contact with them. Preventive measures should be taken throughout the monitoring cycle but in particular when gathering information. It is in this phase that cooperating persons may be more easily exposed to risk.
    Preventive measures


In the context of a human rights monitoring or fact-finding strategy, the planning phase entails determining what information needs to be gathered, where, how and from whom. HROs should carefully plan the information gathering process, particularly when deciding to establish contact with victims, witnesses or other sources and proceeding with interviews. This phase requires HROs to constantly balance the potential risk of harm to cooperating persons against the expected benefits of the activity in question, and review and adjust human rights monitoring objectives and methodology accordingly.

Properly planning monitoring activities requires HROs to have an understanding of the national, regional and local context in which the field presence operates. Contextual information will make them aware of the political, social and cultural dimensions, and of the key actors in the country that may have a positive or negative impact on the safety and well-being of victims, witnesses and other cooperating persons (see chapter on Gathering contextual information ).

Another important element to consider is the capacity and commitment of the national authorities, or other duty bearers, to not only respect their human rights obligations, but also properly respond to any protection concerns that may arise from the interaction of HROs with victims or witnesses. It is also useful to be aware of any existing resources at the community level, such as local protection networks, which may be able to provide advice and assistance to HROs when establishing contact with victims, witnesses or other sources of information, and/or support the latter if they face threats or are subjected to reprisals.

In the planning phase, it is particularly important to consider:

  • The victims, witnesses and sources to contact
  • Who should be prioritized during the information gathering process?
  • Is the victim, witness or source to be contacted vulnerable or part of a group with special needs (e.g., a child, a person with disabilities, a detainee)?
  • Is the victim, witness or source accessible?
  • Is there a need for interpretation?
  • The risk of harm
  • Is the victim, witness or source likely to face threats or be subjected to reprisals?
  • What are the security and/or vulnerability factors that may expose him or her to risk of harm?
  • Is there a history of intimidation?
  • Prioritizing among contacts
    What is the capacity and/or commitment of the duty bearers to respond to protection concerns?
  • Can preventive or protective measures be taken to minimize the risk of harm?
  • Can the information likely to be gathered from the victim, witness or source be obtained elsewhere?
  • What self-protection measures is the victim, witness or source able to take?
  • The initial contact
  • What is the most appropriate and safest method to establish contact with the victim, witness or source?
  • Should contact be established directly or through a third party/intermediary?
  • Should interaction with the victim, witness or source be visible or discreet?
  • The interview and follow-up
  • Where will the interview take place?
  • Can the venue guarantee confidentiality?
  • Is it possible to maintain regular contact with the victim, witness or source after the interview?

When deciding whom to contact/interview, HROs should prioritize the victims, witnesses or sources that are likely to provide relevant information to fulfil the monitoring objective and, particularly, those who are likely to be accessible. The fact that victims, witnesses or sources may be part of a group with special needs should also be taken into account. Children, victims of sexual violence, internally displaced persons and, in some contexts, women or rural populations, among others, require particular skills and additional preparation on the part of HROs (see chapter on Interviewing ). HROs should

assess, in consultation with experts as needed, whether it is appropriate and necessary for children, persons with disabilities or victims of sexual violence to have parents, guardians or other persons present (not necessarily in the same room) to provide emotional support and a sense of security.

First, HROs have to determine if it is possible to establish contact with the identified victims, witnesses or sources, based, on the one hand, on the field presence’s human and material resources and, on the other, on the security conditions and physical accessibility of their location. For example, HROs may have the required vehicles to travel to an area where an attack on civilians occurred, but may be unable to do so because it is deemed too risky.

Second, HROs have to determine if the identified victim, witness or source may face threats or be subjected to reprisals as a result of his or her interaction with the field presence, by undertaking a specific risk and threat assessment. For example, the head of a local human rights NGO will most likely face different risks than a person who is relatively unknown. An eyewitness to a human rights incident is likely to be more at risk than a person who is a secondary source.

Several aspects need to be considered to assess the level of risk: the security environment and other factors related, for instance, to the location or the identity of victims, witnesses or sources (e.g., are they part of a group with special needs?), the existing threats and the history of intimidation. The level of risk will also depend on the capacity for self-protection of the identified victims, witnesses or sources, along with the ability of duty bearers to respond to any protection concerns that may arise (see sect. G, subsect. 1, below). Based on these elements, HROs should be able to conclude whether there is a

If there is a risk of harm, HROs should establish whether the information likely to be obtained from the prioritized victim, witness or source can be gathered elsewhere or through means that do not require a meeting in person. If the information is available from other reliable sources and the risk of harm is too high, HROs should avoid establishing contact. If the information is not available from other sources, HROs may be able to collect the information through a trusted NGO based in the same location as the victim, witness or source that could conduct the interview.
risk of harm and if such a risk can be reduced through preventive/protective measures during the initial contact, interview and follow-up.

Even when taking preventive measures to protect victims, witnesses or sources, a risk of harm may still exist and needs to be taken into account. When there is a strong indication that interaction with the field presence could lead to threats or retaliation, HROs should not attempt to make contact.

|3~1 Initial contact

When establishing the initial contact, HROs must keep in mind that the safety and well-being of victims, witnesses or sources greatly depend on them. It is thus essential to assess the conditions in which contact can take place without risk. The focus should be on protecting their identity and ensuring that it is not widely known that they have been in contact with HROs.

In some contexts, the mandate and the activities of the field presence will already be known; in other cases, HROs may have to make an additional effort to clarify these (e.g., when in the public’s perception the human rights component may be blurred with other components within a peace operation). The level of awareness and credibility among the local population of the work of the field presence, alongside its access to a network of partners, will influence how the initial contact may be made.

HROs can contact victims, witnesses or sources directly or through a third party/intermediary, such as a trusted person in the community (e.g., tribal or religious leader) or a civil society organization. They also need to be prepared to deal with situations in which victims, witnesses or sources themselves take the initiative, for example by visiting the office of the field presence, or engaging with HROs during on-site visits. To the extent possible, HROs should quickly assess the risk of harm that can result from such unplanned interaction and be prepared to either conduct an interview on the spot or agree on a follow-up contact according to certain modalities to prevent harm.

When establishing contact, HROs should remember that:

  • Victims, witnesses or sources should be treated at all times with the utmost respect, dignity and professionalism;
  • Preventive and protective measures should be scrupulously adhered to before, during and after contact with victims, witnesses or sources;
  • Upon contact, victims, witnesses or sources should be duly informed of the mandate and activities of the field presence, and made aware of the principle of confidentiality;
  • A cl ear and accurate explanation should be given on the limitations of the field presence to provide protection if those who come into contact with HROs face threats or are subjected to reprisals. No unreasonable expectations should be raised.
  • Direct contact

Direct contact may be established in a variety of ways. HROs may either travel to the location where the victim, witness or source is, or arrange to meet him or her at the office of the field presence or at a third location. HROs also have to decide on the best time to meet and should be reasonably flexible to be available after working hours if this could guarantee more protection. Telephone calls to set up a meeting in person should be kept short, particularly where such calls are likely to be tapped.

National staff may play a crucial role in establishing direct contact as they can discreetly blend in with the community. In some cases, however, victims, witnesses or sources may be more willing to engage with international HROs than with national staff, because of a lack of confidence or other existing tensions, for example, between different ethnic groups. HROs should be aware of these contextual factors to determine who would be the best interlocutor. In this decision, possible security risks to national or international HROs should also be taken into account.

When it has been agreed that a victim, witness or source will meet HROs at the office of the field presence, his or her name should not be registered at the security gate. Outsiders may easily access the information of such records, which may expose those who come to visit HROs to risk of harm. HROs should seek the agreement of the field presence, or of relevant components when in a peace operation, for a victim, witness or source to have access to HROs immediately upon arrival without having to disclose his or her identity.

HROs can also attempt to establish direct contact with a victim, witness or source in a manner that may seem coincidental. Some background research may be required to create such an opportunity, but it may be a useful technique to minimize exposure. For example, HROs could participate in the same social event as a source and approach him or her on that occasion to request a meeting at a later time and different location. However, HROs should engage in conversation without ever compromising the safety of the person. When feasible, particularly if such an encounter takes place in a more private setting, HROs may explore the possibility of gathering information at that moment, but the person approached must know why he or she is speaking with the HRO and the location must guarantee confidentiality.

  • Contact through intermediaries

A good network of partners and contacts is essential in any process of information gathering conducted by HROs. Key individuals within communities (e.g., head of the local farmers’ cooperative or local school principal), representatives of local civil society organizations, human rights defenders or journalists are instrumental not only in identifying victims, witnesses or sources involved in human rights incidents, but also in facilitating their contact with HROs and in arranging interviews (see chapter on Gathering and verifying information IH1 ). These contacts are equally essential in providing advice to HROs on the best manner to establish direct contact and on how to ensure the safety of victims, witnesses or sources.

  • Unplanned contact

Victims, witnesses or sources often turn up at the office of the field presence to report a human rights incident or to raise their concerns and request the support of HROs. In such unplanned situations, HROs should discuss with them any harm that could result from their visit. HROs should be able to assess the level of risk and provide advice on any measures that they should take upon leaving the office of the field presence and/or in a follow-up contact/meeting with HROs.

Using discretion or visibility
Unplanned contact with victims, witnesses or sources can also occur during on-site visits or field missions. To the extent possible, HROs should anticipate such situations. When approached by someone, HROs have to quickly assess the surrounding environment and observe the possible presence of anyone who could expose the person to perpetrators or their allies, for example, security agents. When a situation is deemed too risky, HROs should decline to engage with the person who approaches them and agree on a modality for follow-up contact. For example, if HROs have a reliable partner organization on the ground, they can request it to re-establish contact with the person and facilitate communication with HROs at a later stage.

Meetings and interviews with victims, witnesses or sources can be either visible or discreet. Both approaches have pros and cons for the safety of those contacted. For each specific situation, HROs should assess which approach offers the most protection. However, when opting for visibility, HROs must first discuss this with the victims, witnesses or sources concerned and obtain their informed consent.

HROs usually choose discretion as the standard approach to protection. It implies making all efforts to draw the least possible attention to individual victims, witnesses, sources or other cooperating persons. Such an approach is usually followed in all interactions during and after the information gathering phase, particularly when establishing the initial contact, organizing or proceeding with an interview and follow-up. The focus is on protecting the identity of the person concerned and adhering to strict preventive or protective measures to avoid exposing him or her, or the contact with HROs, to others who may pose a threat or cause harm.

In certain situations, visibility is a better option, especially where the field presence is able to intervene with regard to a human rights concern. The promptness and the willingness of the field presence to respond not only have a protective impact – by helping to put a stop to ongoing violations or to prevent future ones – they also build local trust and credibility (see chapter on Using presence and visibility ).

When integrated in a peace operation, HROs should consider, for instance, the human rights impact of conducting joint field missions with other components of the mission in areas where increased United Nations presence can have a deterrent effect on perpetrators of human rights violations and can improve the protection of certain communities. Also, the fact that HROs are actively and visibly monitoring a human rights incident may discourage perpetrators or others from posing threats or retaliating against witnesses. HROs can exploit the potential political cost to a local authority of making public a human rights incident in which it is involved.

The choice of one approach or the other should tailor the manner in which HROs engage with communities. For example, they can make use of United Nations vehicles to make it known that they are meeting an individual or organization when parking outside the house or office, or they can seek to minimize attention by walking to the location instead.

|s~lMinimizing exposure

It is very challenging for HROs to go unnoticed when travelling in a United Nations vehicle to a neighbourhood, village or region where the United Nations is not present, foreigners never venture or
vehicles are rarely seen. Without ever undermining their own security, HROs should, in the course of their monitoring activities, take measures to reduce the exposure of communities in general and that of specific individuals in particular, unless a visibility approach would be more beneficial (see subsect. 4 above).

HROs can consider:Not being vocal about the purpose of a visit to a certain location or the person they are meeting/ interviewing;

Parking the United Nations vehicle they may be travelling in at a distance or at a different location, where it may not be conspicuous, and walk to the venue of the meeting/interview;

Blending in with the local environment as much as possible;

Requesting trusted partners or an intermediary in the community to facilitate the meeting/interview by contacting the victim, witness or source directly and accompanying him or her to a predetermined private venue;

Democratic Republic of the Congo
Entering the agreed venue beforehand and separately from the victim, witness or source.

An international HRO from an African country had to meet a witness who was in hiding near the market in Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She had arranged to meet the daughter of the witness at the market and the daughter would then take her to the witness. The HRO dressed in local garb and exchanged greetings with women in the market in the local language to be less conspicuous.

In order to deflect attention, HROs can also plan to interview a wider number of individuals in the same community (even if irrelevant to the monitoring objective), so as not to single out the one person they actually want to contact. This method also prevents a specific individual from being identified as the source of the information. There is some safety in numbers and it follows the assumption that it is easier to retaliate against one individual than against many. Nonetheless, it may be possible that all those who were contacted will suffer reprisals or that one person in the community is subjected to harm to put others off from cooperating with HROs.

Organizing and conducting interviews

A range of preventive measures should be taken when organizing and conducting interviews with victims, witnesses or sources.

Finding an adequate venue to hold the interview is one of the most important aspects. The venue of the interview should protect the identity of the interviewee, ensure his or her safety and guarantee the confidentiality of the information provided. The decision on the venue should be based on a discussion with the interviewee, but also take into account the views of other cooperating persons and partners, such as local civil society organizations, and the experience gained by HROs while working in the country. It is important to ask the interviewee where he or she would feel more comfortable and safe to

HROs can enhance the confidentiality of the interview by arranging it in a place where it cannot easily be overheard, or where there are no video cameras or other surveillance equipment. Participants in the interview should also be kept to a minimum; besides the interviewee, the number of HROs should not exceed two and, when required, an interpreter should be present. All other persons (e.g., friends, neighbours or even family members) should be asked to leave before the interview begins, unless, for instance, the interviewee is a child or specifically requests the person to remain.
talk. If the location suggested is not appropriate – because there is a risk of harm that the interviewee is unaware of or is disregarding – HROs should not hesitate to propose an alternative, safer venue.

Ensuring that other people are not around during the interview, even if they have simply come out of curiosity or because of the novelty of such a situation in the community, may be challenging. However, this rule should be strictly adhered to as it not only ensures confidentiality, but also minimizes the chances of a third person reporting on the interview, with possible consequences for the interviewee. Furthermore, the fewer people around, the less the interviewee will feel pressured or influenced in what he or she should say. When the interviewee is a victim of sexual violence, the need to ensure confidentiality and privacy is even greater, as it will also protect the person from stigmatization by family members or the community.

During the investigation of a highly sensitive human rights case, OHCHR-Nepal took precautions to maintain the confidentiality of the identity of a key witness. For example, the witness was informed at the last moment of the location of the interview and follow-up meetings, which usually took place in hotel rooms. Code names were used during telephone calls. HROs advised the witness to use diversion techniques when coming to meet them, such as riding a motorbike randomly through town until he was certain that no one was following him.

In some instances, it may be appropriate to conduct the interview at the office of the field presence, as, in principle, this environment is easier for HROs to control. Another option would be to meet the interviewee at a larger United Nations compound housing different United Nations agencies, as it would be more difficult for an outsider to identify which organization the person was visiting. If this is not a satisfactory option or if there is no United Nations office, HROs may consider other locations, such as hospitals, hotel rooms, restaurants with private rooms, the offices of local NGOs, or even private houses if deemed safe. When HROs are not familiar with the venue, they should arrive early to assess the surrounding environment and determine if it is appropriate. If not, they should immediately postpone the interview and agree on a different location.

During the interview, HROs and the interpreter, if present, should never refer explicitly to statements made by other victims, witnesses or sources. Such an error may endanger previous contacts and make the interviewee worry about the confidentiality of the information he or she provides. In fact, the identity of previous contacts should never be revealed, even if the interviewee was referred by one of them to HROs. The only exception would be if those contacts had given specific consent for their identity to be disclosed. It is good practice to record if the interviewee has consented to his or her identity being revealed as the source of referral to other contacts in such cases (see chapter on Interviewing ).

When concluding the interview, it is essential for HROs to:

  • Obtain informed consent on the use of the information provided; the type of consent given by the interviewee should be clearly stated on the report of the interview;
  • Discuss with the interviewee what preventive or protective measures he or she may take to avoid any reprisals as a result of the interaction with HROs. For example, HROs can advise the interviewee to always inform someone about his or her whereabouts, or to take other self-protective measures (see sect. G, subsect. 3 below);
  • Clearly inform the interviewee of the limitations of the field presence in providing protection if he or she faces threats or is subjected to reprisals;
  • Provide the interviewee with useful contacts in the community that could offer different types of assistance (e.g., protection networks) and/or of local authorities, if these can be trusted;
  • Di scuss with the interviewee a method to keep in touch; HROs should give a contact number (preferably a mobile phone number) that is accessible at all times and inform the interviewee of the location of the office of the field presence;
  • Arrange for a follow-up meeting when required and/or possible.

^Visits to places of detention

Preventing threats or reprisals against persons deprived of their liberty is particularly challenging as they have limited access to the outside world. When planning to conduct interviews in places of detention, HROs need to take additional preventive measures, particularly when selecting interviewees and deciding where the interviews will take place.

It is of the utmost importance to properly plan such visits by gathering information on the functioning of the facility and on any known human rights incidents involving inmates in advance. When possible or practical, it is advisable to conduct a first visit, or a series of initial shorter visits, to have an idea of the general conditions at the facility and assess the potential risks to inmates who provide information on violations. A series of introductory visits may also provide an opportunity to HROs to build on their relationship with the guards or the authorities in charge of the detention facility, which could prove useful when requesting authorization to interact with inmates in conditions of confidentiality (see chapter on Visiting places of detention ).

HROs may identify beforehand whom they want to contact or select interviewees more randomly (e.g., on-the-spot selection, request for volunteers or selection by the authorities). In any case, the guards/ authorities will always know with whom HROs interacted and, therefore, from whom they received information on possible human rights issues that they may report later. Consequently, inmates may face threats and be subjected to reprisals without HROs being aware of such incidences.

A possible technique to minimize the exposure of inmates with whom HROs interact is to interview a large group of inmates for a similar length of time, particularly if it does not increase the risk of harm to the group, as a means of deflecting the attention from a pre-identified inmate. In focus-group discussions, HROs should never pursue a line of interviewing that can lead to the exposure of one inmate in front of others. For example, they should avoid asking precise questions on a specific human rights incident. Group discussions are not confidential; some inmates may report the conversation to the guards or authorities.

HROs also have to consider where the interviews will take place. Usually, the prison warden, or whoever is in charge, is the person who decides on the venue. HROs need to assess if that venue can guarantee confidentiality. If it is not adequate, because, for instance, there is a reason to believe that surveillance cameras are installed or guards can overhear the interview, HROs may propose an alternative venue. Ideally, such a venue should be at a reasonable distance from guards, for instance, an exercise yard. When interviewing victims of torture or ill-treatment, it may be necessary to ensure that guards are not within view so that they do not see the detainees showing their injuries. Regardless of the venue, HROs should always start an interview by asking the inmate if he or she believes it is safe to continue. Whenever the confidentiality of an interview with an inmate is in doubt, HROs should stop the interview immediately.
In places with few detainees, such as small police cells, HROs should choose between interviewing all those in custody or none. The risk of reprisal may be higher if only few are interviewed, although, as mentioned, collective reprisals may also occur. Human rights officers’ experience and knowledge about the facility, along with their capacity to follow up with future visits, should inform the decision.[1]

When an inmate expresses human rights concerns during a private interview, HROs should not publicly disclose that fact unless the inmate gave consent and it is strategically opportune to do so.[2] It is also important that HROs do not create expectations regarding possible corrective actions (e.g., release) and that they always apply the principle of do no harm before, during and after visits to places of detention or any interviews with inmates.

One measure that could help to mitigate risks of reprisals against detainees is to inform the authorities that there will be a follow-up visit within the next few days or weeks. In some situations, this may decrease the risk of ill-treatment. However, it is important that the follow-up visit does indeed take place.

Regular monitoring

For the protection of victims, witnesses or other sources that have come into contact with HROs, it is essential to monitor their safety and well-being regularly. However, limited resources and difficulties in accessing certain areas may mean that HROs are not able to be in regular contact with, or easily accessible to victims, witnesses or other sources. HROs should identify those who may be more at risk and, at the initial contact and interview stages, develop a mechanism to maintain regular contact. Besides providing the cooperating person with their complete contact details and properly informing him or her of the location of the office of the field presence, HROs should, when feasible, also agree on a schedule for regular visits or phone calls (e.g., contact to be made once a month). Alternatively, HROs may be able to request a local civil society organization to check regularly on the well-being of the person and report to them. In the case of detainees, the HRO may, with the consent of the person, pass on his or her details to the International Committee of the Red Cross, local NGOs or the national human rights institution, so that they may undertake follow-up visits in the context of their own work.

The best manner to establish contact and regularly engage with a victim, witness or other source, as well as any other important considerations regarding his or her protection, should be recorded in detail in the corresponding file. This information is useful to ensure that follow-up contact is maintained without risk of harm and to inform HROs who may take over the file.

Establishing a protection team

The head of the field presence may decide to appoint a specific team dedicated solely to protection concerns involving persons cooperating with the field presence, and possibly other victims, witnesses and sources who may face threats for having provided information about a human rights incident. The establishment of such a team may allow for a more focused and timely response to protection cases, targeted fund-raising for protection activities and the development of expertise on such protection issues. If this approach is taken, care should be exercised to ensure that protection concerns continue to fully inform monitoring activities at all stages. The establishment of a protection team will have to take into account the field presence’s mandate, capacity and resources.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

In 2005, the human rights component of the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) established the Victims, Witnesses and Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit in the context of its mandate to fight impunity and to respond more appropriately to protection cases brought to its attention. The Unit continued to operate when on 1 July 2010 the mandate of MONUC changed and it became the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO).

To guide HROs in their response to protection cases, the Unit set up a standard operating procedure outlining the criteria for beneficiaries and specific measures to protect them if they are under imminent threat of physical harm. Some of these measures involve a regular presence of or patrolling by HROs and/or other components of the Mission at the beneficiary’s home or place of work; HROs having their phones switched on 24 hours a day; protection through the physical presence of the national police or army; intervention with the source of the threat; and public advocacy. As a last resort, persons at risk can be internally relocated using United Nations vehicles or aircraft.

This initiative was the first of its kind in a peace operation. It guarantees a certain level of continuity in the support given by the human rights component to victims, witnesses and other persons in need of immediate protection. It also strengthens the protection capacity of local civil society organizations and that of the national institutions. However, the implementation of the Unit’s programme faces many challenges, such as managing the expectation of beneficiaries, providing them with long-term solutions, overcoming the shortcomings of a weak national legal framework for witness protection, and coordinating action by the Mission’s components.

[1]      Association for the Prevention of Torture, “The selection of persons to interview in the context of preventive detention monitoring”, Detention Monitoring Briefing No. 2 (2009), p. 5.

[2]     Ibid.