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What are the risks you might face for engaging with the UN?

Find out more about the potential reprisals you might face when working with UN human rights mechanisms and how you can plan for and mitigate such risks

This section highlights the risks that defenders can face from interacting with the UN human rights mechanisms, and sets out some questions for defenders to consider as they assess the level of risk, and consequently whether or not to engage with the UN.

It is important to note that the considerations and suggestions set out below are not comprehensive. This assessment should be undertaken in conjunction with a more comprehensive security plan.

Potential Risk of Reprisals

Defenders should be fully aware that, as important as it is to pursue international and regional human rights work, doing so could increase their exposure to significant danger. Because the UN system in particular can seem remote, there is perhaps a tendency to underestimate the risks that can be faced from engaging with it. Those seeking to engage with the UN should be aware of the importance some States place on being able to control what information is heard in international and regional fora, and therefore of the potential risks associated with that engagement. The following sections explain the nature of these risks and point to resources to help you respond to the dangers.

Learn about reprisals, in particular the potential risks facing human rights defenders when they cooperate, or attempt to cooperate, with UN human rights mechanisms. This video features the personal accounts of defenders detailing the plight of targeted individuals who face life-altering consequences after cooperating with the UN.

It would be extremely detrimental to the effective functioning of regional and UN human rights systems if, as a result of the risks faced, human rights defenders avoided interacting with them. Defenders have crucial information regarding human rights situations on the ground, and international and regional mechanisms depend on that knowledge and input to make informed decisions.

There are unfortunately cases where State institutions are simply unable, willfully neglectful, or deliberately obstructive when it comes to ensuring that defenders can cooperate safely with UN and regional human rights bodies. In those situations, defenders who dare to speak out face heightened risk of retaliation or reprisals. Reprisals can include travel bans, stalking, personal threats or threats against the family, detainment and in many cases, even conviction.

Reflection Questions

Reflection question thought bubble

Think about the UN mechanism you are considering engaging with, and consider:

Q1. What risks do you face if you interact or try to interact with the mechanism?

  • How does your State react to criticism at the international level?
  • What have been the experiences of other colleagues who’ve engaged with the UN?
  • Is your government particularly sensitive to the human rights issues that you are aiming to bring to the UN?
  • Are there actors other than the State that you are worried about?
  • Are there other people (family, colleagues, etc) who could be impacted by you engaging with the UN?
  • How visible will your engagement be? Will the State know that you are doing it?

Q2. How can you mitigate the risks?

  • What practical steps can you take in advance, when in Geneva or at home (if engaging with a UN mechanism there) to prevent those risks?
  • What can you do to be ready to react if something does happen?
  • Network: who will you inform about your trip? Who will you inform if something goes wrong? What action do they need to take? Do you need to warn someone within the UN system? How will you record the incident (within the UN system)? Do you need allies outside your country?
  • Can you engage with the UN through another organisation?
  • Can you create a safer space to engage (video conference, email, ask for secure forms of communication, have names omitted)?
  • Long-term: some reprisals don’t come immediately. Not always neatly labelled, and there doesn’t have to be a direct causal link

If it’s too dangerous, don’t do it. Remember that the decision of whether or not to engage has to take into account the potential impact on others – it’s not just about whether the risk to yourself is one you’re willing to take.

Producing a Security Plan

Frontline Defenders' Workbook on Security takes you through the steps to producing a security plan – for yourself and for your organisation. It follows a systematic approach for assessing your security situation and developing risk and vulnerability reduction strategies and tactics.