Protection of national staff

National staff play a crucial role in facilitating access to key contacts, gathering information on human rights incidents, and analysing the complex political, social and cultural realities of a country. For the same reasons, they are also more vulnerable to risk, as they are often, along with their friends and families, part of the communities in which they work.


National staff working with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) faced constant risk of intimidation, abduction and execution by anti-government groups that accused them of being spies and of collaborating with the international presence. To protect themselves whenever they travelled to unsafe areas, they did not carry their United Nations identification or any other documents that could easily link them to the United Nations presence.

In Kosovo, the United Nations mission transported national staff of one ethnicity from their homes to the workplace in United Nations vehicles to ensure their safety.

In Darfur, Government security agents often harassed national staff at checkpoints, even though they were travelling with international HROs and the Status of Forces Agreement with the Government provided for freedom of movement for the United Nations.

Field presences should consider:

  • The likelihood of national staff facing threats or being subjected to reprisals as a result of their involvement in human rights monitoring work or simply for being part of the field presence;
  • The possible impact national staff can have on the protection of victims, witnesses or other sources who come into contact with the field presence.

Addressing these issues requires better defining the role of national staff within the work of the field presence so as to minimize their exposure to risk, by following thorough recruitment procedures, and properly briefing them on the methods and tools used to protect victims, witnesses and other sources.

The field presence is responsible for ensuring that national staff are not exposed to harm and for regularly assessing the risks they face and the measures in place to protect them. Usually, the risk to national staff is directly related to the degree of insecurity and instability of the country or region where the field presence operates. In conflict situations, national staff may face threats because the warring parties perceive the field presence as lacking impartiality. In other contexts, national staff may be pressured to divulge confidential information or to undermine the work of the field presence. Every time circumstances evolve or the political and security environments change, the role of national staff in the work of the field presence, particularly in human rights monitoring and fact-finding, should be reviewed taking into consideration the capacity to provide protection.
Involvement of national staff in human rights monitoring

Where national staff may be at risk, the field presence should revisit the division of labour between national and international staff. For example, it may be preferable for national staff to focus on capacity-building during unstable periods. Other strategies can include minimizing the visibility of national staff by having international HROs accompanying them during monitoring activities or taking the lead in meetings with the national authorities and other prominent actors. More stringent rules on data protection, for example, restricting access to human rights databases or hard copies of case files, may also minimize the risk that staff may be pressured to divulge confidential information to which they are perceived to have access.

At OHCHR-Nepal the general practice is that when intervening or holding meetings with the authorities, national human rights officers and assistants are always accompanied by international HROs. Furthermore, depending on the alleged perpetrator or institution involved, or on the ethnicity of the staff, national colleagues are either included or excluded from working on specific human rights cases, accessing detention facilities or conducting missions to some regions.

National staff should be encouraged to report any actual or perceived threats they may face to other colleagues in the field presence so that an adequate protective strategy can be jointly devised and implemented (see sect. G below).

Protection of interpreters

If interpreters are required, they are the interface of HROs in all their interactions with different actors, from national authorities to local communities. Interpreters, who are in most cases national staff, may be put at risk of harm for being associated with the field presence, but through their actions they can also endanger victims, witnesses or other sources in contact with HROs (see chapter on Interviewing HU for more information on the use of interpreters during interviews).

Owing to the nature of their work, interpreters usually have access to confidential and sensitive information without necessarily being trained to handle it. Interpreters need to be briefed on the nature of human rights work and on their role in ensuring the protection of victims, witnesses or other sources

Interpreters also need to be clearly informed of the potential risks of working with the field presence. Perpetrators of human rights violations may believe that they are able to easily intimidate interpreters into divulging information that affects them. To protect interpreters, HROs should take appropriate mitigating measures, such as rotating interpreters when interacting with the authorities (although it may prove more useful to use the same interpreter when engaging with the same community), and not disclosing interpreters’ personal or contact details.
and of the information they provide. It is of the utmost importance that interpreters respect at all times the principle of confidentiality, and carefully follow internal guidance on the protection of confidential and sensitive information (e.g., safe storage and handling of their notes) (see sect. F below).

At the end of an interview, interpreters should be requested to hand over all their notes to the HRO, both to protect themselves from potential risks (for example, when they go through checkpoints) and to protect the information in the notes. The notes should be destroyed at the first opportunity.

When interpreters are required to provide assistance in particularly sensitive human rights cases, HROs should discuss how they could minimize any potential harm (e.g., self-protection measures). Interpreters should also be given the opportunity of deciding not to assist HROs in specific human rights cases if they deem that the risk to their safety is too high.

I3! Recruitment of national staff

National staff should be recruited with care. Particular attention is required in the selection of staff who interact directly with victims, witnesses or other sources, and who have access to confidential and sensitive information (e.g., national HROs, human rights assistants, interpreters and language assistants). Similar considerations should apply when recruiting support staff (e.g., administrative assistants, computer assistants, security personnel or drivers). The assessment of their suitability to work for the human rights field presence or during a mission should include checks on any past political involvement, past employment with security agencies, affiliation or link with the authorities, political parties, opposition groups or other similar entities. In general, the selection of national staff should avoid political and ethnic bias, which may have an impact on the security and credibility of the field presence. The recruitment of national staff should also guard against possible infiltration, that is, the presence of persons who deliberately pass on information on the work of the field presence to the State or other authorities. Depending on the local context, it may be necessary to avoid the recruitment of local staff who previously worked in State security agencies.

When possible, national staff should be recruited from diverse communities, ethnic groups and religious backgrounds to facilitate access to a broader range of communities and avoid situations where national staff may be perceived as biased. HROs need to be aware that national staff working in the region from which they originate can also further expose them, and their families, to risk of harm. As with many other aspects, field offices will have to assess what would be the most appropriate in a given context.

The general practice of the OHCHR-Nepal office was not to recruit national staff from the area where they were expected to work. This practice was meant not only to protect national staff, and their families, from being exposed to reprisals, but also to better guarantee their impartiality and independence during their monitoring activities.

Once recruited, all national staff should be duly informed of any internal guidance and policy, and trained on the protection of victims, witnesses and other sources. It is the responsibility of senior HROs to ensure that all national staff are aware of the field presence’s basic principles and methods of work.

  • The protection of information is closely related with the protection of victims, witnesses and other cooperating persons. Secure information management systems, with controlled access, should be set up to store, manage and protect confidential and sensitive information. Only staff who require access to such information for their work should be authorized to do so. The OHCHR standard human rights database should be used as a tool to register, store and archive information and documents related to human rights incidents or individual protection cases by the field presences.
    Protection of information

Safe recording of information

Information on human rights incidents can be recorded using notebooks/written notes, computers, digital cameras or audio and video recorders. HROs need to consider which of these methods can ensure the highest level of security given the overall context in which the field presence operates.

As a general rule, HROs should ensure that the identity and the personal details of interviewees are protected and kept separately from the interview report and other information on the human rights incident. The standardized use of codes for the identification of victims, witnesses or sources is a means of achieving this purpose. For example, if the account of the human rights incident is recorded in a notebook, the personal data of the interviewee should be recorded on a separate sheet of paper and a code (e.g., V1) assigned for the person. This code would then appear at the beginning of the information recorded in the notebook.

Sri Lanka

A human rights officer gathering information about an incident in Sri Lanka recorded the information in Kinyarwanda, his mother tongue, so that no one else could understand it. When soldiers stopped him at a checkpoint and read through his notes, they could not make sense of them and the identity of the sources was not exposed.

HROs normally use notebooks, as this is often more practical and also less inhibiting for interviewees. Cameras and audio or video recorders may be used only with the express consent of the interviewee, and in situations where they do not present additional security concerns. Normally, audio or video recorders are used when there is already some rapport between the HROs and the interviewee (see chapter on Interviewing ).

When using an audio recorder, HROs should never record the name of the interviewee; his or her personal details should be registered separately and in code so that no connection can be made between the recording and the interviewee. HROs should be wary that the interviewee could be traced through his or her voice, through the use of specific expressions or terminology, or through the description given of certain places. Extra care is needed in such situations to protect the audio recording and prevent it from being accessed by unauthorized persons or confiscated.

Even though cameras and video recorders can be essential tools in human rights work, their use can also easily lead to the identification of a source of information. When using a camera or a video

recorder to register the injuries sustained by a victim, witness or other source, HROs should avoid photographing or filming the face or any other images that may disclose the identity or the place of residence of the person. However, a victim, witness or source facing a high level of threat may want to be photographed or filmed as a means of self-protection. In such situations, HROs should discuss with the person concerned the best manner to guarantee his or her safety and the possible safeguard and use of the recording.

^Safe storage and handling of information

The security of information may be breached because of improper storage and careless handling.

Field presences operating in countries in conflict or where security is volatile or where staff may be suddenly relocated, should consider keeping paperless offices. More than in any other environment, all confidential and sensitive information should be securely stored, preferably in encrypted format, on a shared drive or another secure system linked to a server from where information could be retrieved remotely. If there is no such system and the office needs to be evacuated, confidential and sensitive information should be either transported securely or destroyed. Information on computers should be properly deleted with the support of IT staff.

HROs should pay particular attention to the safe storage and handling of notebooks/written notes, including those of interpreters. They have to ensure that notebooks are always securely stored and not left unattended on top of office desks or inside United Nations vehicles. After typing up the interview notes, it is good practice to scan them and attach them to the electronic file on the human rights incident being documented. The written notes should then be shredded or burned. Similarly, photographs or audio and video recordings should be transferred to a secure encrypted storage system as soon as possible and the originals erased.

When hard copies of documents and information on human rights incidents need to be kept, these should be stored in lockable filing cabinets and access restricted to those HROs who need to use them. For additional security, the filing system for documents should not be displayed on the outside of drawers.

The same level of care needs to be applied to computers used by HROs. Computers can be stolen or accessed by unauthorized persons or the information stored on them can be modified or retrieved. Security safeguards, including passwords or encryption, should be used to protect all confidential and sensitive information on computers. Moreover, offices should always be locked when left unattended.

Not all confidential and sensitive human rights-related information in the notebooks of HROs may be fully transcribed electronically. The field presence may want to consider establishing the practice of keeping used notebooks relating to particularly important cases so that the notes remain accessible after HROs leave the country. Sufficient secure storage would have to be allocated and, most importantly, the field presence would have to determine who would manage this information. For easier reference, at the beginning of each notebook, the time period it covers and a quick index of the main issues documented should be written. Alternatively, such notebooks may be scanned and archived electronically.

Confidential and sensitive information needs to be handled with care at all times, including when circulated among the staff of the field presence. Internal reports or briefing notes on human rights incidents should conceal or delete any information that could lead to the identification of the sources or of the victims and witnesses. The names and contact details of victims, witnesses or other sources should be included only in the corresponding case file, which should be securely stored in the field presence’s information management system. When writing human rights reports, HROs should use either code names or initials, instead of the full names.

Sharing of information
The same level of care should be taken during telephone calls among HROs. Even when there is no suspicion that such calls are being tapped, HROs should never exchange confidential or sensitive information over mobile phones; internal United Nations telephone extensions or password-protected e-mails should be used instead.

When engaging with other organizations or participating in any type of coordination working groups, HROs are often requested to share human rights-related information. Even though HROs may rely on others for information gathering or when intervening in individual cases, confidential and sensitive information should not be shared under any circumstances before informed consent has been obtained from the source. Once information is transmitted to an external organization, even if it closely cooperated with the field presence, HROs will no longer be able to control its use and determine who can access it. The negligent disclosure of information can put a cooperating person at risk. However, field presences produce a wide variety of reports (e.g., briefing notes, analytical reports on general trends and patterns, public reports) or have access to other information that could possibly be shared without breaching confidentiality. The field presence should develop internal guidance clearly outlining which kind of human rights-related information could be shared with external partners. Such guidance would complement its policy on confidentiality (see sect. C above).

Careful consideration should be given to the disposal of confidential and sensitive information. Draft interview reports, handwritten notes and excess copies of documents that are not required or that cannot be stored safely should be shredded or otherwise destroyed. A range of people (e.g., cleaners or maintenance staff) can easily have access to such documents if they are simply discarded in a waste-paper basket or recycling bin. Likewise, HROs should take care when disposing of disused computer equipment, as merely deleting files may not be sufficient to prevent recovery of confidential information. When required, HROs should seek advice from IT personnel to ensure that all information is properly erased from computers.

Besides ensuring that confidential and sensitive information is safely recorded, HROs need to consider how it can be securely transported when they are on field missions. When possible, they should transmit confidential information via a secure Internet connection to the office of the field presence and not carry it with them. Based on previous experience and knowledge about an area, HROs should attempt to anticipate any situation that may result in the forced disclosure of information. Field missions to unsafe areas or where it is expected that there will be roadblocks or checkpoints can be particularly challenging. Usually, United Nations vehicles and staff cannot be searched, but it may happen regardless of the United Nations agreement with the host country. HROs need to plan possible action to protect information when faced with such situations. While on mission, HROs should also keep their laptops with them at all times.

Finally, HROs should not peruse confidential and sensitive information in public places, such as in a restaurant or at an airport, as it could be read by others or be inadvertently left behind.