Engaging with non-State armed groups

The level of engagement with non-State armed groups is often determined by the international, political and security environment in which the field presence operates and by the framework of human rights and humanitarian law obligations under which the armed group is accountable (see chapter on Interaction with non-State actors ).

The field presence should have a clear policy on the extent to which HROs should engage with a non-State armed group to raise concerns regarding an individual protection case. In any event, the field presence must clearly reiterate its impartiality and be wary of being used by the armed group to legitimize its cause.

Relationships with armed groups may take longer to establish and usually require additional efforts from HROs to ensure that the mandate and activities of the field presence are clearly understood and accepted. Nonetheless, most of the analytical tools, considerations and means of intervention used to engage with the national authorities can potentially be applied when HROs interact with an armed group. For example, the actor mapping analysis can enable HROs to identify key actors within the armed group, potential allies, “forces at work” and channels of influence. Elements of an armed group will also respond to a wide range of motivations, which can create different sensitivities that HROs can explore when seeking corrective action on an individual protection case.

With armed groups that do not have a clear structure, or whose hierarchical lines are kept secret, it may be more challenging to identify who within the group could, for instance, exercise some level of influence over the source of the threat. HROs can rely on their own information gathering on the group’s background and modus operandi, or on the knowledge of local partners to identify potential “allies” that could effect change and support an intervention on behalf of a cooperating person at risk.

When deciding to intervene directly with an armed group on behalf of a person at risk, HROs should consider beforehand:

  • The security situation en route and at the location controlled by the group, as well as measures to minimize potential risks;
  • The consequences for national colleagues participating in the intervention, such as retaliation by the armed group or by the State authorities;
  • The framework in which concerns may be presented. For example, if the armed group has previously expressed a commitment to respecting human rights, or it has signed a relevant agreement, HROs should use those commitments to frame their protection concerns and request corrective action.

As a general rule, HROs should avoid taking unpredictable actions and should always keep transparent relationships with armed groups.

When there is no direct contact with the armed group, HROs have to rely on indirect channels, such as intermediaries or informal contacts through civil society groups or community leaders, to pass on their message and raise concerns regarding individual protection cases. National and international partners can put additional pressure on the armed group to comply with human rights principles and halt acts of reprisal against victims, witnesses and other cooperating persons.

In most countries, there are formal or informal groups, associations or networks that provide assistance or some sort of support to their members, such as youth or women’s groups, religious associations or other civil society organizations. Cohesive and well-organized local networks are extremely important. When faced with a protection concern, these can more easily respond to it directly or access other resources and structures that can help. Ultimately, organized local networks can function as a deterrent and inhibit reprisals against specific individuals or the community as a whole.
^Strengthening civil society networks

HROs can support a cooperating person at risk in making use of the resources available in the community by facilitating contact with local protection networks. They should therefore be aware of the networks in an area and their capabilities and limitations in order to better advise the person at risk. For example, some community networks may be able to enhance the physical protection of an individual by conducting regular patrols in his or her area of residence. Others may have access to temporary accommodation in locally managed shelters or be in contact with networks in a different region that can provide other types of assistance.

Democratic Republic of the Congo
Local protection networks can also play a role in advocating on behalf of specific individuals or in raising protection concerns directly with the national authorities or, more importantly, in supporting the protection of members from their communities who cooperate with national judicial proceedings.

To strengthen the local protection capacity, the human rights component of MONUC established an informal network of civil society partners across the Democratic Republic of the Congo to respond directly to individual protection cases. The programme operated from 2007 to 2009. Staff from MONUC were recruited specifically to identify, train and coach partner organizations in the network to better address protection issues. The national protection officers were also successful in establishing positive working relations with the local authorities and in setting up cooperation mechanisms that enabled the network to respond to many protection cases through dialogue and mediation.

HROs can play a fundamental role in strengthening or supporting the establishment of local protection mechanisms. They can improve the coordination among different local organizations or support them in their efforts to access funding, training or other resources.

OHCHR-Nepal provided technical assistance to a group of local organizations in preparing a project proposal that envisaged the establishment of a safe house to provide temporary shelter to human rights defenders at risk. The involvement of OHCHR was central in identifying and bringing these organizations together, and in facilitating their contact with the donor community.

HROs should establish and maintain contact with national and international NGOs, or coalitions of NGOs, based in the country or in the region, that manage witness protection programmes.[1] Such NGOs can be instrumental in offering emergency medical, psychosocial or other types of assistance, in supporting the development of self-protection plans, in delivering training on security awareness to local community networks, in setting up safe houses and in providing protective accompaniment to cooperating persons at risk.
Cooperation with non-governmental organizations

Human rights field presences can engage with the relevant NGOs to coordinate protection efforts and refer a cooperating person at risk directly to their services. HROs should conduct a preliminary assessment of the range of assistance available and the protection methods used by each NGO (see chapter on Engagement and partnerships with civil society ).

Front Line

Front Line ( is an organization founded in Ireland in 2001 with the specific aim of protecting human rights defenders at risk. It defines these defenders as “people who work, non-violently, for any or all of the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. Front Line provides them rapid and practical support through, for instance: a 24- hour emergency response phone line; grants to human rights organizations or individual defenders; national and international advocacy and lobbying; and temporary relocation and assistance with medical and legal expenses, particularly in emergencies. Front Line also issues reports on the situation of defenders in specific countries, and provides training and resource materials.

For example, some NGOs provide protection through visibility and direct accompaniment, if visibility is considered to be the appropriate strategy. Protective accompaniment is highly targeted and labour­intensive, and it usually involves walking or travelling with a person at risk, living in threatened communities, or being based at the same location as a threatened organization. HROs normally do not undertake direct accompaniment themselves, but they can, when appropriate, identify other organizations with such capacity, to which they can refer persons at high risk (see chapter on Using presence and visibility ).

Peace Brigades International ( was created in 1981. It sends international volunteers to areas of conflict to provide unarmed accompaniment to human rights defenders and communities whose lives and work are threatened by political violence. Peace Brigades International acts on the premise that there will be an international response, such as diplomatic and economic pressure, to the violence or potential violence the volunteer witnesses. The protective accompaniment can take the form of escorting an individual up to 24 hours a day, being present in threatened communities or remaining in the offices of organizations, accompanying defenders when they travel, or regularly phoning to check up on the safety of individuals or organizations.
Peace Brigades International

A human rights field presence’s unique position means it can engage with a wide variety of actors. HROs may enable constructive relationships between local civil society networks or NGOs and international institutions or mechanisms that can have a protective role. For example, HROs can facilitate the interaction with representatives of diplomatic missions, other United Nations agencies or special procedures. Such international partners can carry out independent advocacy and provide types of support that are often outside of the mandate and the capacity of the field presence, but that can have a complementary protective impact.[2]

^Cooperation with diplomatic missions

Foreign embassies may be able and willing to assist field presences in dealing with individual protection cases. They usually follow political and social developments in the country closely and often rely on exchanges with other international partners, such as the United Nations, to gather relevant information and seek advice. Diplomatic missions of member States of the European Union (EU) or the Council of Europe[3] are specifically mandated to monitor the situation of human rights defenders and to take action to protect them.

The European Union Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders, which were adopted in 2004 and reviewed in 2008, can provide a basis for the field presence to engage with diplomatic missions from EU member States. The Guidelines propose practical measures for EU member States to support and protect human rights defenders and can be used in contacts with third countries at bilateral and multilateral levels. Some suggested measures are: EU missions making recommendations to the Council Working Party on Human Rights for possible EU action, including condemnation of threats and of attacks against human rights defenders; protests through diplomatic channels or public statements; urgent local action by EU missions to support defenders at immediate or serious risk; and swift assistance, such as issuing emergency visas and providing temporary shelter in EU member States.
European Union Guidelines

Sources: “Ensuring protection: European Union Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders” (2008) and A/HRC/13/22, paras. 100-103.

Human rights field presences can request the intervention of diplomatic missions in specific situations. The support that the latter will provide will most likely depend on the level of cooperation that they have previously established with the field presence and on their own Government’s policy.

It is good practice for heads of field presences to hold regular meetings with diplomatic representatives not only to keep them abreast of the current human rights situation, but also to create the opportunity to discuss emergent issues and coordinate interventions in individual protection cases. For example, HROs can seek the assistance of relevant diplomatic missions in implementing protective measures if a human rights defender is under imminent or serious risk after cooperating with the field presence. Diplomatic missions can use demarches, usually in the form of confidential letters, or public statements to officially raise issues, express concerns or protest with the national authorities.[4]

In critical situations in which international relocation of the person at risk is the only option, diplomatic missions can be a key partner in supporting requests for asylum/refugee status, in issuing temporary visas or in providing the person with resources to allow him or her to leave the country, for example in the form of a scholarship to study abroad or an internship at an international NGO in a third country.

As mentioned above, the field presence can also bring together civil society organizations and diplomatic representatives to encourage the latter to fund or otherwise support local protection initiatives.

Cooperation with United Nations agencies

United Nations agencies in the country may have programmes that can support the field presence in responding to an individual protection case. HROs should engage with United Nations agencies to exchange information and coordinate activities which may be complementary and fill in protection gaps for which a field presence does not have the capacity or resources. Furthermore, joint advocacy by United Nations agencies can serve to focus attention on a protection concern and put pressure on the national authorities to take action.

HROs can use the United Nations country team inter-agency coordination mechanisms, such as the Protection Cluster or the regional protection working groups, to engage with United Nations agencies on a protection case. HROs should be aware of the scope of United Nations agencies’ activities, as well as the constraints faced in the country of operation, in order to better target requests for specific support.

For example, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN­Women) may support local NGOs in establishing shelters for women at risk, to which HROs could refer a female victim or witness facing threats. If international relocation is required for a cooperating person at risk, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) may be able to provide legal assistance in claims for asylum abroad. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) may have resources available to train law enforcement agents and judicial officials in witness protection or to support State institutions in developing and establishing a national witness protection programme.

The United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture

HROs can support cooperating persons at risk to obtain assistance through the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture. The Fund was established by the General Assembly in 1981[5] and is administrated through OHCHR with the advice of a Board of Trustees, composed of five members acting in their personal capacity and appointed by the Secretary-General. It awards grants to NGOs that provide psychological, medical, social, legal or economic assistance to victims of torture and their relatives.[6]

HROs can make use of the Fund when seeking protection for victims of torture (including of rape and enforced disappearance) and for their relatives who are under threat for having cooperated with the field presence. Assistance granted through the Fund should be linked with the direct consequences of the act of torture and is mainly provided in kind. In searching for such assistance, HROs can establish contact with the NGOs managing grants from the Fund and refer the person at risk to their services.

For example, NGOs working with the Fund can facilitate the social and financial integration of a person at risk who was relocated to another region in the same country or abroad through vocational training. The Fund can also pay for legal assistance to victims and their relatives claiming asylum.[7]

In countries where there are no projects financed by the Fund or the projects are not relevant, a victim of torture may, exceptionally, apply directly for emergency assistance.[8] HROs can facilitate contact between the victims of torture who are at risk of retaliation and the secretariat of the Fund, as well as support victims in preparing all the background documentation for their applications.[9] Even though emergency grants are a one-off option, assistance in such cases can be delivered reasonably quickly. Long-term assistance through the Fund is possible only via an NGO-managed project.
In the aftermath of the visit by the International Commission of Inquiry on Guinea (Conakry), set up by the United Nations Secretary-General in 2009, OHCHR established a temporary presence in the country to follow up on protection concerns related to persons who had cooperated with the Commission. When responding to those concerns, OHCHR acted as a bridge between persons at risk and organizations or institutions that could provide protection. The United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture was used to facilitate the international relocation of a group of human rights defenders who had been detained and mistreated in custody and faced ongoing threats. An NGO financed by the Fund facilitated their integration and supported their claims for asylum.

Protection within peace operations

In peace operations, the presence of other United Nations components, such as political affairs, civil affairs or child protection components, or of United Nations police and military can have both positive and negative implications for the efforts of HROs to ensure the protection of cooperating persons.

HROs need to be aware that in the public’s perception their presence can easily be blurred with those of other components within the peace operation. As much as possible, HROs should make additional efforts to establish separate contact networks and to inform communities in general of their role and activities vis-a-vis those of other components.

This holds particularly true if United Nations police or military observers are present, or if the human rights component is located in a United Nations military compound. Victims or witnesses may be hesitant to approach HROs, or may even refrain from doing so, because they associate HROs with armed peacekeepers. Similarly, HROs need to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of travelling with United Nations police or military escorts, although if the security situation is unstable they may not have any choice.

Other components of the mission can play a positive role in the implementation of protection measures. For example, HROs can work closely with the United Nations police or military when intervening with national security agencies to raise an individual protection case. A police commander may be more willing to engage with a United Nations police officer, because of their professional affiliation, than with an HRO. Likewise, HROs can request the head of the United Nations office to raise the profile of a specific protection case and to exert pressure on Government authorities to take action.As much as possible, the human rights component should institutionalize the cooperation with the mission’s other components, particularly with the United Nations police and military, in order to ensure that their support is not merely based on informal and personal relations. Together they can develop official guidelines clarifying the role and responsibilities of each of them with regard to protection cases and setting out clear procedures to respond promptly to urgent situations. The issuance of such guidelines would prevent duplication as well as action that might further jeopardize the safety of a person at risk. It will also allow for a more comprehensive United Nations response, involving a wider set of skills and resources.

When integrated in peace operations, human rights components also benefit from a wider range of logistical and transport resources. An agreement can be reached to facilitate the use of United Nations resources for persons at risk, while ensuring a high level of confidentiality and protection.

United Nations flights

The human rights components of some peace missions make regular use of United Nations flights to guarantee the safe relocation of persons at risk within the country. This allows for a rapid response to some of the individual protection cases that are brought to their attention.

For example, the field presence could obtain a blanket authorization for HROs to transport cooperating persons at risk in United Nations vehicles without having to go through an administrative procedure. Other protection measures could include an authorization to have the names of persons at risk travelling in United Nations aircraft being known only to the responsible HROs and not appearing on the passenger manifest or for the person at risk, accompanied by HROs, to have direct access to the aircraft without passing through airport security checks (e.g., the security check could be carried out by United Nations staff before boarding the flight).

^Shelter on United Nations premises

Cooperating persons under serious threat may seek shelter on United Nations premises. HROs have to deal with these situations mainly in an ad hoc manner, bearing in mind the logistical and human capacity and the mandate of the field presence.

Should such a situation occur, HROs should immediately seek legal advice. They should also contact the relevant United Nations security staff to jointly assess the level of threat posed to the cooperating person. In the context of peace operations, other components, such as the United Nations police and military, can also be involved in that process.

HROs should consider several aspects:

■ Understand if the presence of the cooperating person seeking shelter will have an impact on the perception of impartiality of the field presence or on the security of others inside the United Nations premises;

  • United Nations shelter for persons at risk
    The protective and security measures to be put in place while the person stays on United Nations premises, particularly if it concerns a woman or a child, to ensure the person is safe and cannot be harmed by others present on the premises;
  • Access to emergency medical care and the provision of shelter, water and food for the person while he or she remains on United Nations premises, and how those expenses will be covered;
  • The relocation of the person and the legal and logistical implications of that decision. For example, if a decision is made to transport the person in a United Nations vehicle or aircraft, security and administrative clearances have to be obtained in advance;
  • The l ength of the stay, particularly if the threat continues for an extended period of time and other protective measures are not available.

In some circumstances, the United Nations has committed to providing shelter to persons at risk:

  • According to the DPKO/DFS Guidelines: Integrating a Gender Perspective into the Work of the United Nations Military in Peacekeeping Operations (March 2010), military components can provide initial protection to victims and witnesses who report perpetrators of acts of sexual violence. Such cases should be referred to United Nations police or human rights components of the mission for follow-up with the national authorities (p. 26).
  • In “Addressing conflict-related sexual violence: an analytical inventory of peacekeeping in practice” (United Nations, 2010), the provision of temporary accommodation in mission stations to civilians in danger is included as an example of a task/tactic in “transporting threatened women to safety” (pp. 36-37).

Protection may be required only for a short time, for instance, while negotiations take place with the source of the threat or until the authorities are able to take action. When intervening with the source of the threat, HROs should seek assurances that the person at risk will not be harmed upon leaving United Nations premises and will be treated in accordance with relevant human rights standards. The person at risk may be required to leave United Nations premises as soon as the threat subsides or when other protective measures are available.

^Protection in national judicial proceedings

The ability of a victim, witness or other person to cooperate with national criminal investigations or to testify without fear of intimidation or retaliation is an essential element in the fight against impunity and in the protection of human rights.

HROs can support and accompany the persons through a judicial process. They should, therefore, have a good understanding of the legal framework and the overall functioning of the national judiciary, including of its level of independence and professionalism, and adherence to international fair trial standards. They can enhance the protection of the cooperating person by engaging regularly with the judicial authorities responsible for the case and by monitoring the investigation and trial proceedings.At the same time, HROs can assist the national judicial authorities in developing or strengthening their capacity for the protection of witnesses, making use, for example, of existing technical cooperation programmes. This is a highly technical area and the following guidance and information for HROs is in no way intended to replace the specialized expertise that would be required to advise national authorities on effective measures and programmes to protect witnesses.

Even though some types of protective measures are not widely available and require a higher level of expertise and resources (e.g., formal witness protection programmes), national authorities can adopt effective measures at every stage of a judicial process regardless of the available resources (e.g., measures to protect the identity of a witness, barring the media during the testimony of the witness or ordering the media not to disclose his or her identity). Despite possible constraints, the national authorities have the obligation to protect cooperating persons from acts of intimidation and retaliation from the initial investigative phase through to the actual court proceedings and conclusion of the trial.

  • During the investigation

The risk of disclosing the identity of a witness in a criminal investigation at the investigative phase needs to be carefully considered, particularly in cases directly implicating law enforcement agents or other State actors. This risk may be mitigated if, for instance, there is an independent investigative unit to deal with cases involving police officers or other security agents, or whenever the prosecuting authority is deemed credible.

In some situations, it may suffice to have the case dealt with at a different location or at a higher level to ensure the protection of the complainant. If the offender is a police officer at the regional level, the case can, for instance, be followed up at the national level by a supervising officer at police headquarters.

When appropriate, HROs can suggest that certain measures should be taken in the early phases of the investigation to limit the exposure of a cooperating person, such as:[10]

  • E nsuring that it is not widely known that the person is contributing to the investigation;
  • Not disclosing the person’s name or address to the public. Safeguarding the identity of a victim or witness at the early stage of a judicial process increases the potential for safely obtaining that person’s testimony during trial proceedings without resorting to stricter protection measures;
  • Notification to the local police, when appropriate, that a cooperating person may be subjected to reprisals. A contact police officer should be identified so that any intimidation can be reported and acted upon immediately;
  • When a cooperating person believes that he or she will be at risk for visiting the police station, police can contact that person discreetly in a different location. For example, a plain-clothes police officer can visit him or her at home and conduct a number of other house visits in the area to prevent the person from being singled out;
  • Availability of close protection in extreme cases;
  • The police should use physical screens to hide the cooperating person from the suspect in identity parades.

As mentioned earlier, an analysis of the different channels of influence and conflicting interests and

agendas is useful to prevent a situation in which a victim, witness or other cooperating person is placed

at greater risk because his or her identity or location was communicated to the wrong State agent.

  • During trial proceedings

To the extent to which it does not prejudice the rights of the defendant, including his or her right to due process, a range of procedural measures may be adopted in national criminal proceedings to better protect victims, witnesses and other cooperating persons, such as:[11] [12]
The manner in which trials are conducted has implications for the level of protection that may be granted to a cooperating person. For example, the schedule and venue of sessions can have an impact on the participation and protection of witnesses. There are more opportunities for intimidation when trials are repeatedly delayed, or when witnesses are summoned to appear in court on days that they are not scheduled to testify. Similarly, the venue of the trial should accommodate the need of witnesses to remain at a distance from where the alleged perpetrator or his associates live.

  • Using statements given during the preliminary phase of the proceedings as evidence in court;
  • Disclosing information that enables the victim, witness or other cooperating person to be identified at the latest possible stage of proceedings and/or releasing only selected details, and/or disclosing information only to the accused and the defence counsel;
  • Exclud ing or restricting the media and/or public from all or part of the trial, or allowing the media, but preventing it from publicly identifying the person;
  • Obtaining a court order to protect the identity of the victim or witness throughout the trial and afterwards (normally used in cases of sexual violence);
  • Using devices to prevent the physical identification of the cooperating person, such as screens or curtains, disguising the face or distorting the voice;
  • Using video-conferencing with the victim, witness or other cooperating person testifying from a different room in the court building or from a different location.
  • National witness protection programmes

National witness protection programmes have been established in a variety of countries to provide physical protection and psychological support to persons at risk who cooperate with judicial or non­judicial proceedings (e.g., truth and reconciliation commissions).

The protective measures they offer may range from providing the person at risk with a police escort to and from work or setting up a rapid response alarm that would alert the police if any threat materializes to providing temporary accommodation in a safe location. In certain situations, national programmes may also facilitate the relocation of a person at risk under a new identity to a new and undisclosed place in the same country or abroad (see subsect. 16 below).

HROs should become familiar with the national legislation or programmes for the protection of witnesses where they exist, as:

  • Such a framework may provide alternative protective measures for persons who are at risk after cooperating with the field presence; and
  • Persons in contact with HROs and who cooperated with national judicial proceedings may require formal protection at some stage.

In particular, it is useful for HROs to be aware of the procedures and criteria for admission into and exit from the national witness protection programme, the eligible crimes, the mandate to protect and assist, and any other operational aspects of the programme. They should assess the integrity and effectiveness of the programme in ensuring the safety and the physical and psychological well-being of the cooperating person, as well as in preserving the confidentiality of his or her identity.

A national witness protection programme may also have available to it safe houses and other structures for temporary accommodation to which HROs could refer persons at risk because of their cooperation with the field presence. It is thus essential to establish contact with the institution managing such shelters before a problem arises to ensure that they can effectively guarantee protection.

HROs should encourage and, to the extent possible, support the structure responsible for the witness protection programme in conducting regular threat assessments in order to determine if the protective measures in place are adequate for the level of risk faced by the cooperating person. Furthermore, as the ultimate goal of a witness protection programme is for its participants to leave it safely and securely when appropriate, HROs may be able to propose other measures that can effectively replace the formal protection given through the national programme.[13]

In the specific context of prosecutions for human rights violations, HROs have to keep in mind that it may be inappropriate to refer a cooperating person to a national witness protection programme, particularly if it is not managed by an independent agency.

Dangers of police-operated protection programmes

In some countries, the national witness protection programme operates under the total control of the police, with protection provided by police officers. This leaves victims and witnesses of human rights violations perpetrated by the police vulnerable to threats and at risk of harm.

P^Action by special procedures[14]

HROs can request the intervention of the special procedures of the Human Rights Council on behalf of victims, witnesses and other cooperating persons at risk.

Intervention by special procedures can take the form of:[15]

■ Written communications to the State and other duty bearers about any past/ongoing/actual or anticipated human rights violation that falls within their mandate. The main purpose is to obtain clarification about the alleged violation and, where necessary, ask for preventive or investigatory action to be taken. Communications can be sent either by one or by several mandate holders. These are usually in the form of (i) urgent appeals, if the alleged violation is time-sensitive and

may involve loss of life, life-threatening situations or imminent or ongoing damage of a grave nature, or (ii) letters of allegation, mostly used when the alleged violation has already occurred or is not urgent;

  • Public statements or press conferences, by one or by several mandate holders, particularly if a Government has repeatedly failed to provide a substantive response to previous communications;
  • Periodic or annual reports to United Nations bodies, particularly to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, which may include information on acts of reprisal, action taken by mandate holders and their observations on the State replies they have received.

When requesting the intervention of a special procedure, HROs must first discuss in detail with the person concerned the potential impact that action can have on his or her safety, particularly if his or her identity will be communicated to the national authorities – if these are the source of the threat – or mentioned in a public report.

Special procedures have established work methods in this regard. While the source of information is never mentioned in communications sent by a special procedure mandate holder to a State, nor is it disclosed in the public communications report submitted to the Human Rights Council, the name of the alleged victim is usually included in both the confidential letter sent to the State and the public report. This report is normally published a few months after the communication has been sent to the State.

Victims and persons acting on their behalf, including HROs, may request that the names of victims remain anonymous in the public communications report, if privacy or protection concerns so require. This request should be clearly communicated when the information is submitted to the relevant special procedures.

Names of minors, trafficked persons or persons who were allegedly victims of sexual violence, sexual torture or violations linked to their sexual orientation are not revealed in the communications report of special procedures. Exceptions to this rule are possible, if the victim, the guardian or the person acting on the victim’s behalf, explicitly requests that the name of the victim be mentioned in the report.

Persons cooperating with the field presence may also be subjected to reprisals for having provided information to special procedures during country visits. As specified in the terms of reference for fact­finding missions by special procedures, prior to the visit, the Government must provide assurances “that no persons, official or private individuals who have been in contact with the special rapporteur/ representative in relation to his mandate would for this reason suffer threats, harassment or punishment or be subjected to judicial proceedings”.[16] Even though this guarantee is formally accepted, it may not be fully respected in practice.

HROs should note that the criteria and the procedure for submitting a communication vary according to the specific requirements established by each mandate holder. However, in general, minimum information must be provided to all special procedures for a communication to be assessed, specifically: (i) identification of the alleged victim(s); (ii) identification of the alleged perpetrator(s) of the violation;

Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances
(iii) identification of the person(s) or organization(s) submitting the complaint; (iv) date and place of incident; and (v) a detailed description of the circumstances in which the alleged violation occurred.[17]

The Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has a dedicated mechanism to deal with reprisals. Cases of intimidation, persecution or reprisal against relatives of missing persons, witnesses to disappearances or their families, members of organizations of relatives and other NGOs, and human rights defenders or individuals concerned with disappearances are transmitted to the States concerned with an appeal that they take steps to protect all fundamental rights of the affected persons. Cases which require prompt intervention are transmitted to the State as urgent actions.

Source: E/CN.4/2005/31, para. 3.

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders (originally called Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights defenders) was mandated to “seek, receive, examine and respond to information on the situation and the rights of anyone, acting individually or in association with others, to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms”. This definition of human rights defenders encompasses a wide range of persons. It covers all those who voluntarily or professionally work with their local communities, in national or international organizations, or in the public administration and private sector, in a non-violent manner towards the realization of human rights principles. Most persons cooperating with human rights field presences, or with other United Nations human rights mechanisms, can be included in this definition. In fulfilling the mandate, the Special Rapporteur presents an annual report to the Human Rights Council on all the cases transmitted to Governments, including cases of reprisal and intimidation, and the responses received.

Sources: Commission on Human Rights resolution 2000/61. It followed the adoption, in 1998, by the General Assembly of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals,

Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (resolution 53/144).

Note: Some regional protection mechanisms for human rights defenders are: the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights; the Office of the Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders within the Executive Secretariat of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights; the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe; and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

The annual report of the Secretary-General on “Cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights” is a useful channel to bring to the attention of the Human Rights Council information regarding reprisals against persons cooperating with United Nations human rights bodies, including human rights field presences.
nnual report on cooperation with United Nations human rights bodies

Each year the report is meant to present a compilation and analysis of any available information, from all appropriate sources, including special procedures, on alleged reprisals against individuals and groups that:

  • Seek to cooperate or have cooperated with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights, or who have provided testimony or information to them;
  • Avail or have availed themselves of procedures established under the auspices of the United Nations for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and all those who have provided legal or other assistance to them for this purpose;
  • Submit or have submitted communications under procedures established by human rights instruments, and all those who have provided legal or other assistance to them for this purpose;
  • Are relatives of victims of human rights violations or of those who have provided legal or other assistance to victims.[18]

Through this report, actions by specific Governments and non-State actors against persons who seek to cooperate or have cooperated with United Nations human rights bodies and mechanisms can be exposed and condemned, and recommendations can be made to address acts of intimidation and reprisal.

tel Relocation

When there are protection concerns, relocation should be considered only as a last resort.

Relocation is an option in the context of witness protection programmes of national or international courts, particularly if the person providing testimony may be at considerable risk in his or her own community and the measures available are insufficient to ensure the person’s safety. Nevertheless, HROs, too, may have to deal with an extreme situation for which relocation may be the only solution to guarantee the safety of a cooperating person at risk.

As best practice, a person should be relocated from his or her region, and ultimately from his or her country of origin, only after all other measures to strengthen protection have been exhausted, including setting up a self-protection plan, cooperating with community networks or international organizations or, when appropriate, engaging with national authorities.

Relocation can take place either within the same country (particularly if it is large) or to a foreign country. In addition, it should be considered as a short-term or a long-term measure, depending on the nature and duration of the threat. For example, a cooperating person at risk can be relocated to another region during a volatile and tense run-up to elections, but be able to return home at a later stage.

Relocation within the country poses a range of challenges, but it is often easier than relocation abroad. While offering the highest level of protection, international relocation brings about a dramatic change in the life of a person and involves a level of hardship which many may find detrimental and impossible to sustain. The biggest drawback is the potential loss of contact with family and friends, removal from familiar cultures and the stress of living with a new identity.

Removing a person at risk from a potentially hostile environment usually requires specialist personnel and logistical arrangements. International relocation will also involve a formal agreement between the requesting State or organization and the host State, which should set out the obligations of both parties and the procedures to be adopted. The requirements of the requesting State or organization must be consistent with the national laws in the host country. In certain cases, the host country may still be required to provide additional assistance or make other security arrangements, such as integrating the relocated person in its national witness protection programme.[19]

OHCHR-Nepal facilitated the international relocation of a human rights defender who was under serious threat because he was a key witness in a human rights case being monitored by the field presence. The defender was initially moved by national NGOs from his region to the capital and there helped by other organizations to maintain a low profile and stay safe. OHCHR facilitated coordination among the different actors providing protection to the defender. However, as the level of risk remained high, a foreign embassy eventually arranged international relocation. The defender and his family were safely resettled abroad.

Most likely, HROs will be involved in such a process mainly as a facilitator, referring a person at risk to an organization or institution that can protect them through relocation. In this context, it is extremely important for HROs to have a good network of contacts among national and international NGOs, diplomatic missions and other United Nations agencies, and be completely aware of the options available and their limitations. However, HROs must remember that discretion is essential. The more people and agencies involved in the process, the higher the risk of disclosure of the whereabouts of the person, accidental or otherwise.[20]

Democratic Republic of the Congo

The human rights component of MONUSCO facilitates the relocation within the Democratic Republic of the Congo of victims, witnesses and human rights defenders at risk. Sometimes, relocating such a person does not guarantee protection. The human rights component dealt with a case in which a witness, who had provided testimony in court and suffered reprisals from family members of the accused, had to be relocated twice. After being first moved to a remote location, the witness was, however, recognized and once again faced threats, which led to a second relocation to a different region.

This will probably be easier if the relocation occurs within the same country. In such cases, HROs can contact key partners that may be able to provide different types of support. For example, a United Nations agency or NGO may have a project to distribute income-generating grants that can allow the relocated person to start a business. Other agencies or organizations may be instrumental in providing medical or psychosocial assistance. To the best of their capacity, HROs should regularly check on the safety and well-being of cooperating persons who have been relocated within the same country.
One of the challenges of relocation programmes is ensuring that a person at risk can be effectively and safely resettled and integrated into a new community either within the country of origin or abroad. To this end, it is important for the person to have access to economic and social support, and opportunities for developing new professional skills and entering the workforce.

In situations of international relocation, HROs should clearly explain that their responsibility towards the cooperating person at risk ceases as soon as relocation occurs. Nevertheless, HROs can provide advice and reiterate to the entity facilitating the relocation the importance of having a structure for receiving the relocated person and supporting his or her integration in the new country. Organizations working with communities in the diaspora or with asylum-seekers may be important support structures. As relocation is complex, this protective option is considered only in exceptional circumstances and when other options have not been successful.

[1]     Some examples of regional NGO networks are: the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia); the South Caucasus Network of Human Rights Defenders; the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project; and the Arab Human Rights Defenders Union (A/HRC/13/22, paras. 84-91).

[2]    Mahony, Proactive Presence, pp. 81-89.

[3]      See Declaration of the Committee of Ministers on Council of Europe action to improve the protection of human rights defenders and promote their activities (2008).

[4]     The Front Line Handbook for Human Rights Defenders: What Protection can EU and Norwegian Diplomatic Missions Offer? (Dublin, Front Line, 2007) provides practical advice on how defenders can use relevant EU guidelines to improve their security.

[5]    Resolution 36/151.

[6]      NGOs can submit applications for grants on an annual basis or, in exceptional circumstances, apply for emergency grants. For more information, see

[7]    A/HRC/13/75, para. 4.

[8]    United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, “Guidelines of the Fund for the Use of Organizations” (2010).

[9]     Ibid., chap. X, sect. B.

[10]  A/63/313, para. 16, A/HRC/12/19, para. 33, and Ralston, “International practice on witness protection”.

[11]  A/63/313, para. 20.

[12]    For more information on protective measures that may be adopted during trial proceedings, particularly allowing witnesses to give testify anonymously, see A/63/313, paras. 20-29.

[13]   A/HRC/12/19, para. 54.

[14]    According to the “Manual of operations of the special procedures of the Human Rights Council” (2008), the term special procedures includes individuals designated as special rapporteurs or independent experts and members of working groups appointed by the Human Rights Council.

[15]  For more details, see “Manual of operations of the special procedures of the Human Rights Council”.

[16] E/CN.4/1998/45, appendix V.

[17] For more information, see

[18] Human Rights Council resolution 12/2, para. 1.

[19]  A/HRC/12/19, para. 55.

[20]  A/63/313, para. 42.