The protection of victims, witnesses and other cooperating persons facing threats or reprisals should be of the utmost concern to the field presence. Therefore, HROs should give immediate priority to any individual protection case brought to their attention and make all efforts within their mandate to respond to it appropriately.
Responding to protection concerns

Information on risks or threats against cooperating persons must be subject to a thorough assessment, like any other information used by HROs. A vulnerable person may exaggerate facts or wrongly perceive an incident as threatening, because of previous trauma or exposure to human rights violations. It is therefore important to follow a thorough methodology to gather and verify information regarding allegations of threats or reprisals and, based on that analysis, determine which protective measures should be taken.

On the other hand, HROs may have to respond promptly with immediate protective action before being able to properly verify claims of threats or reprisals. They will have to adapt their methodology to the specific context in which they operate, and develop the capacity to adequately assess and respond to protection concerns within the available time frame.

In close consultation with the person at risk, a protection timeline should include:

  • Verifyi ng the facts surrounding the allegation of a threat or reprisal;
  • Assessing if immediate protective action is required given the nature and seriousness of the threat, the vulnerability of the person at risk and his or her capacity for protection;
  • Mapping the protective measures that may be available;
  • Identifying the best course of action given the specific circumstances of the case (e.g., family situation of the person at risk, his or her educational and professional background, mobility);
  • Determining how measures will be put in practice;
  • Working closely with the person at risk and relevant partners in their implementation, regular review and follow-up;
  • Closing a protection case when it is deemed that the threat no longer exists or the risk has been minimized to an acceptable level.

n Risk and threat assessment

A crucial first step in developing a protection strategy is to undertake a risk and threat assessment. It should be conducted periodically or every time the general context and the specific circumstances evolve.

In order to assess the level of risk faced by a cooperating person (i.e., the likelihood of an event that will harm this person occurring), HROs need to take into account several aspects:

  • The threat received;
  • The person’s vulnerability; and
  • The person’s capacity to improve the security environment and overcome an attack.[1] The level of risk faced by a cooperating person will be directly proportional to the seriousness of the threat and to his or her vulnerability to such a threat. Conversely, the resources and strengths a person can access will reduce the risk.

In determining vulnerability, HROs need to analyse the circumstances or the factors that, in a specific context, make the person at risk vulnerable to an attack or to being harmed.” The degree to which someone is susceptible to harm varies for each individual, even within the same group, and it can also change over time. Even though vulnerability is relative, and it cannot be simply equated to vulnerable groups, HROs need to be aware that some individuals or groups may be more exposed to threats owing to their gender identity, ethnicity, occupation, or social and political status, among other factors (see chapter on Analysis ).

HROs have to consider the different factors of vulnerability and try to strengthen the capacity of the person at risk to reduce the impact of the threat. Depending on the context, increasing that capacity can be as simple as providing the person with a telephone or other means of communication, ensuring access to local protection networks or international advocacy mechanisms. However, building protection capacities can take time. If the person is in imminent danger, HROs should focus primarily on reducing the threat.

When assessing the threat, HROs are analysing the possibility of an individual or group harming another person’s physical or psychological integrity or property through purposeful or violent action.[2] [3] Ultimately, HROs have to establish if a threat can in fact be carried out against a cooperating person. This will determine the response to the protection concern. If in doubt, HROs should act based on the worst-case scenario.

To assess the level of threat, HROs should gather information about:

  • The facts surrounding the threat:
  • When and how was the threat received or communicated? What happened exactly?
  • Was the threat clearly and directly formulated (actual) or implied by its source?
  • How did the person perceive the threat? For example, does the person believe that he or she is in danger because another person in close proximity was threatened?
  • Can information about the threat be verified and corroborated by other independent sources?
  • Have other persons also been threatened?
  • The history of intimidation:
  • Is there a pattern of threats? For example, have previous threats been conveyed using the same means (e.g., by e-mail or over the phone) and at the same time of the day (e.g., only at night)?
  • H as the cooperating person been threatened or harmed before?
  • The objective of the threat:
  • What does the threat intend to achieve (e.g., for the person at risk to stop all communication with HROs)?
  • Is the threat meant to influence the person’s behaviour/attitude or to hinder his or her work?
  • If the threat is carried out, what are the possible consequences?
  • The source of the threat:
  • Is the author of the threat known?
  • Are there any direct or indirect links between the source of the threat and the national authorities or armed groups?
  • Who may have influence or authority over the source of the threat (chain of responsibility)?
  • What is the past behaviour of the source of the threat?
  • What are the motives of the source for making the threat?
  • Does the source have the capacity to carry out the threat?
  • If the source carries out the threat, will there be any political or social repercussions?

The matrix below establishes the link between some of the elements mentioned (these are not mutually exclusive) and can help HROs assess the level of threat.[4] The knowledge and understanding HROs have of the local context and actors, and their dynamics, are still paramount and should always be factored into the threat analysis.


Death or serious physical injury

Minor physical injury Damage to property

Damage to reputation

No injury or damage to property

For example, a threat in a letter with the source clearly identified is more serious than an anonymous threat that exists as a rumour. However, HROs may reach the conclusion that, based on the content of the letter and on the history of intimidation, the signature on the written threat is false and it is aimed at preventing the identification of the source. This may signify, for instance, that the source of the threat is concerned about the political cost of openly acting against the cooperating person, choosing therefore to disguise his or her intention. Nevertheless, the threat will probably instil fear in the recipient. It is extremely important to understand what the threat intends to achieve (objective), as this is often linked to the cooperating person’s behaviour/attitude or knowledge regarding specific events. Following that thread may lead HROs to establish who is behind the threat.

^Devising a protection strategy
In summary, to strengthen the protection of a victim, witness or other cooperating person, HROs should focus their efforts on decreasing the level of risk by, on the one hand, reducing the threat and the vulnerability factors and, on the other, increasing protection capacities.14 They should aim at bolstering the position of the person at risk and weakening that of the source of the threat.

HROs should not raise the expectations of the person at risk, nor be unrealistic about what they can do to protect him or her and what can, eventually, be achieved. Following the risk and threat assessment, and always bearing in mind the participatory approach to protection, HROs have to clearly inform the person at risk of the range of protective measures available and discuss their possible implications for his or her safety and well-being. They have to obtain explicit consent before taking any action on behalf of the person at risk.

Protective measures by HROs can include:

  • Strengthening the cooperating person’s capacity for self-protection;
  • Supporting or establishing community-level protection networks;
  • Using visibility strategies with a deterrent effect;
  • Seeking the support of relevant partners and international mechanisms, such as international NGOs, diplomatic missions, United Nations agencies or special procedures;
  • Mobil izing efforts to directly or indirectly provide physical protection to the person at risk, including through relocation;
  • Limiting the capacity of the source of the threat to carry out an attack by reducing the vulnerability factors of the person at risk;
  • Intervening to influence or affect the behaviour/attitude of the source of the threat;
  • Requesting an influential person, for example a religious, community, political or civil society leader, to intervene with the source of the threat;
  • I ncreasing the political and social costs to the source carrying out the threat through, for instance, public advocacy in partnership with national and international networks. The costs of carrying out the threat should outweigh the benefits;
  • Advocacy and engagement with national authorities, stressing their human rights obligations, including their duty to protect those at risk and to prosecute offenders;
  • Accompaniment of the person at risk during national criminal proceedings, if applicable;
  • Capacity-building and technical cooperation directed at developing or improving national witness protection capabilities, as well as accountability mechanisms.

In consultation with the person at risk, HROs should devise a protection strategy, not only mapping appropriate protective options, but also establishing a course of action with measures that should be taken in parallel and those that should follow a sequence. For example, the person at risk may prefer to address the threat by first taking self-protection measures before wanting the case to be raised with the authorities. Alternatively, the protection response can be carried out at different levels simultaneously by, for instance, relocating the person at risk to another region for a short time while the field presence and relevant diplomatic missions intervene with the source of the threat. It is fundamental that both HROs and the person at risk act in accordance with the agreed protection road map. [5]

When weighing the pros and cons of the different protective measures, HROs should consider the following:[6]

  • The effectiveness of such measures in guaranteeing protection;
  • Their promptness in responding to the security needs of the person at risk, including in emergencies;
  • Their sustainability, particularly for protective measures that envisage long-term changes (instead of just aiming at fulfilling short-term objectives);
  • Their adaptability to new circumstances, such as deteriorating security conditions;
  • Their reversibility when the risk disappears (for example, in case of relocation, the person being able to return home).

^Supporting self-protection strategies

When at risk, individuals in a community will try to find ways to protect themselves and their families as best they can. Self-protection strategies usually attempt to reduce immediately one’s exposure and vulnerability to a real or perceived threat. These strategies can be of many different types depending on the environment in which the person at risk lives (e.g., urban or rural, conflict or post-conflict), the type of threat, the existence of social networks and the level of access to financial, legal or other resources. Most self-protection strategies are, however, implemented in response to short-term objectives and are often not sustainable in isolation.[7]

Self-protection strategies can include:

  • Strengthening protective physical barriers by, for instance, hiring bodyguards, installing alarms or electronic devices, or travelling with armed escorts;
  • I mplementing rapid response mechanisms, such as having access to a phone and a contact person on call, or being able to access safe havens within a community;
  • Changing behaviour by reducing or halting activities that may encourage the threat to be carried out, adopting different and unpredictable routines, changing certain attitudes or hiding relationships;
  • Afghanistan
    Creating a distance with the source of the threat by going into hiding or fleeing a location temporarily, or visiting friends and family out of town; or when working with a national organization being temporarily or permanently transferred to an office in another location.

In the aftermath of the 2009 presidential and provincial council elections in Afghanistan, a journalist who was under serious threat for having reported on fraud and vote rigging by the local authorities contacted the human rights component of UNAMA. After receiving the threats, the journalist decided to stop his professional activity by closing down his radio station and go into hiding away from his hometown.

An important component in an overall protection strategy is therefore to support a person at risk to increase his or her own capacity for self-protection and to reduce his or her vulnerability to harm. HROs can both strengthen and complement self-protection strategies already being implemented by the person, or support him or her in developing and setting up a feasible plan. They can reinforce individual protection plans by, for instance, making use of visibility strategies or accessing resources that can provide additional physical protection to the person at risk.

When visibility is considered to be the appropriate protection approach, for example in the context of peace operations, the United Nations police and military may be able to patrol the area where the person lives or works, or be on alert in the event of an emergency (see subsect. 11 below). When appropriate, HROs can raise the profile of the person at risk by visiting him or her regularly at home or at work, using United Nations vehicles and their presence as a deterrent against attack (see chapter on Using presence and visibility ). Depending on the context, HROs may also be able to respond to a call for urgent help from a person at risk by, for example, promptly travelling to where the person is (if within reach) or triggering other protection capacities within the local police (if appropriate) or the community.

^ Engaging with the national authorities

The national authorities are duty bearers with obligations to respect, protect and fulfil human rights. However, in situations of conflict, civil strife or overall economic and social instability, the authorities may either not exist or not function. In other circumstances, the State may simply refuse to meet its responsibility to ensure the protection of all persons within its territory.

To understand to what extent the national authorities can effectively ensure the protection of a cooperating person at risk, HROs need to be aware of the capacity of the national authorities (their human, financial or organizational resources and knowledge), and also of their commitment, particularly of the police, the prosecuting authority and the judiciary, to fulfilling human rights obligations. The field presence can support the national authorities in addressing capacity shortfalls by, for example, offering technical cooperation and training on witness protection, strengthening national expertise and providing advice on the development of legal frameworks. However, other types of action would be required to overcome a potential lack of will from the national authorities to deal with protection concerns.

When engaging for protective impact, HROs need to assess the integrity and credibility of the relevant national authorities, in order to decide if an intervention could help to resolve a protection case without further endangering the person at risk. Therefore, it is important that HROs maintain numerous channels of communication with the national authorities, as well as develop relationships with decision makers of all ranks, across the territory and in a variety of professional functions. They also need to take into account that their ability to intervene with the national authorities may differ from one region to the next and from one institution to another. For example, the police commissioner can be supportive in one province and an obstacle in a neighbouring one (see chapter on Engagement with national authorities and institutions Hil).

In Afghanistan, the Taliban and other anti-government groups used a wide range of intimidation techniques, such as threatening phone calls, night letters or placing improvised explosive devices in offices or private houses, to deter women from occupying public positions or being active in advocating women’s rights. As the field presence did not have direct contact with those groups, the advocacy was directed at the local, regional and national authorities to ask them to provide additional security and protection to women who were more prominent.

  • When the source of the threat is a non-State actor

HROs are more likely able to rely on the support of the national authorities if the source of the threat is not part of the State apparatus, for example, a warlord or an armed group opposing the Government. If the person at risk agrees, HROs can express concerns regarding an individual protection case and seek corrective action from the relevant authorities on behalf of that person. The latter may not want to report the case directly to the authorities for a range of reasons, such as for fear of further exposure to the source of the threat or a general lack of trust in State institutions. HROs can discuss with the relevant authorities what protective measures would be suitable. For example, HROs can obtain the agreement from the local police to conduct regular patrols in the area where the person at risk lives or have a police officer on call.

In other cases, HROs can support and accompany the cooperating person at risk in reporting the case directly to the appropriate national authority. When a complaint is made to the police or prosecuting authority, HROs should closely monitor the measures taken to investigate the case and protect the person at risk during national judicial proceedings (see subsect. 13 below).

The greater the influence a field presence has on the national authorities, the more leverage it will have for intervention.[8] HROs should build on the relationships developed with State actors to ensure their prompt and effective response to the threat posed to the cooperating person. They should monitor the response and assess its level of adequacy regularly in order to propose adjustments if circumstances change.

  • When the source of the threat is a State actor

If the source of the threat is a State actor, HROs will have to plan their intervention more strategically. However, it should not be assumed that the person at risk will not be able to receive any type of protection from the State. National authorities are politically and socially complex organizational realities, staffed with individuals who are affected by a variety of factors and motivations. HROs can build on this diversity to intervene.

To determine the most appropriate course of action, HROs need to map the key actors to:

  • Position the alleged source of the threat within the State apparatus;
  • Identify those actors that are more sensitive to calls to fulfil human rights obligations and can potentially support the field presence in seeking protection for the person at risk (“allies”); and
  • Understand institutional relationships and identify those who can exercise influence or intervene for corrective action (see chapter on Analysis ).

Moreover, an actor map will help identify the underlying “forces at work” (i.e., those actors that can have a positive or negative influence on a particular issue, such as political or economic interest groups, the media, religious institutions, donors or embassies), which should also be considered when HROs devise their intervention strategy.

When attempting to reduce the level of threat, HROs should determine if it is preferable, for instance, to make use of influential actors, potential “allies” or intermediaries to affect the behaviour and motivations of the source of the threat or, instead, to intervene directly with the person posing the threat or with the institution the person belongs to. If HROs decide to intervene with the source of the threat, it is generally advisable to raise the issue first at the local level before taking the matter higher up. Local relationships are often stronger than national ones. For example, if the source of the threat is a low-ranking police officer stationed in a locality, HROs can raise their concerns directly with his or her police superior. If the latter is unwilling to take action, or there is some level of collusion, intervention by HROs should proceed along the chain of command.

The advantages, limitations and possible repercussions of each intervention will always have to be measured. For example, intervening with the source of the threat may permit HROs to prevent a threat from being materialized immediately, but it can also place the cooperating person at higher risk. Similarly, supportive “forces at work” or institutional allies can have a positive impact on the protection efforts, but at the same time their action can also put them at risk and in need of protection.

HROs have to decide which advocacy and intervention strategies should be pursued to achieve prompt action for the safety and well-being of the person at risk, while keeping communication channels with the authority at which their intervention is targeted open. In some situations, it may suffice to inform the local authorities that the field presence is aware of the case and is actively monitoring it to ensure the protection of the person at risk. In other cases, intervention may require more thorough planning and the involvement of more actors, for instance when issuing a joint public statement with other United Nations agencies.

When developing an advocacy and intervention strategy, HROs need to take into account the level of engagement between the field presence and the national authorities, the specifics of the individual protection case at hand, the informed consent of the person at risk, as well as the overall local context (e.g., cultural sensitivities). Furthermore, an intervention on a specific case can be made by the field presence alone or in coordination with others, such as representatives of diplomatic missions or United Nations agencies (see chapter on Advocacy and intervention with the national authorities Hil).

To seek corrective action on protection cases, field presences can use several advocacy methods to intervene with the national authorities or other duty bearers, such as:Intervening with State actors

  • Meetings
  • Confidential or public discussions
  • Direct or indirect communication through intermediaries or influential actors
  • Written correspondence

Publ ic statements and reports

[1]     Eguren, Protection Manual, pp. 17-29. A similar analytical tool applied to human rights problems – the human rights risk equation – is presented in the chapter on Analysis.

[2]      Vulnerability can be related to geographical and physical aspects of the person’s home or place of work, access to communications equipment, management of information, links to specific groups, such as political parties or parties to a conflict, access to national authorities, the judiciary or to international networks, etc.

[3]    Eguren, Protection Manual, pp. 17-29.

[4]     This model does not consider the psychological and emotional impact of a threat on a victim, witness or other cooperating person. Nevertheless, the assumption must be that a threat will always have some impact on a person, even if from an operational point of view the threat may be negligible. The matrix was adapted from John Ralston, “International practice on witness protection: Gaps and strategies in international witness protection from an organized crime and policing point of view” (2008).

[5]   Eguren, Protection Manual, pp. 17-29.

[6]    Ibid., p. 23.

[7]    Ibid., p. 22.

[8]   Mahony, Proactive Presence, pp. 13-35.