Policy response from Human Rights NGOs to COVID-19: Front Line (tips for human rights defenders working from home)

April 10, 2020

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, many human rights organisations have been formulating a policy response. While I cannot be complete or undertake comparisons, I will try and give some examples in the course of these weeks. Here one by Front Line Defenders on the “Physical, emotional and digital protection while using home as office in times of COVID-19

Ideas & tips for human rights defenders

….. Front Line Defenders has experience advising HRDs working remotely and part of its own team has been working remotely – and securely – for years. Below is some of our thinking and learning around the challenges of this modality of work. It is hard to put down one size fits all solutions, especially for physical and emotional protection. This is offered as inspiration to evaluate and improve protection of your particular situation. And if you are a HRD or HRO at risk in your country, you may always reach out to Front Line Defenders for help – the organisation is at work and fully operational during this time.

We encourage you to communicate clearly and promptly with your donors and partners regarding your particular situation. Donors in the human rights space are highly sensitive to the difficulties this crisis is posing to its partners and grantees, even as they face a variety of unprecedented challenges. We believe it makes situation much more manageable if they know what is possible and impossible at this moment for you and your organisation regarding your work or cooperation with them. They also may be able to help you with your specific needs right now, things like portable equipment to work from home or additional at-home security measures.

Physical protection


Consider which place or room is best to be working on sensitive issues. Is, for example, a basement a best option? How easy is it to get to your work space from entry doors to your apartment or house? Can people see your computer screen or desk/papers from the outside? Do you want/can you avoid house-mates see you working? Or overhear sensitive conversations on the phone or over the internet. You can try to talk quietly if neighbours can overhear conversations, use a headset, close windows when you talk, or use veiled/coded language.

Try not to leave your work around the house (leaving USBs & documents around). Stay organised and protect sensitive information. Think about getting locks on drawers, or lockable cabinets etc. Consider locating some good hiding places (or some kind of safety box) for your valuable information if you need to quickly hide them. Be creative eg. taking out a brick or tile in the floor or wall, in the rooftop, under a floorboard, taped inside a shower drain, etc. At the end of each day, put everything away in a safe space including documents, computers and phones. Keep a clean desk policy. Turn off computers, don’t just put them to sleep or leave them on. Have a system for destroying sensitive information and files. This could be shredding it, tearing into small pieces, burning it, etc.

Consider using a simple surveillance system of the space at times when you are not there. This could be simple traps to detect if someone has entered has the house or room, or opened a drawer. Alternatively, there are digital solutions such as mobile phone applications such as Haven app which you could use with an old Android phone to monitor your work space.

Make sure you have a good ergonomic set up of your work station so that you are sitting comfortably without straining your back, neck or other parts of your body – and take regular breaks.  Reduce tripping hazards. Have first aid kits and sufficient medications. Have enough water for 4 days, and some hibernation kits.

If you share accommodation with others (family, friends, room-mates), have a meeting to make sure everyone is aware of the security rules you want to apply ( i.e. don’t open the door without first checking who it is, don’t touch the laptop, etc.) It is good to have a security check-in meeting with them everyday to see how situation is changing and if they notice anything new or out of place.

Prepare emergency numbers and have them handy such as written/printed and stuck up on the wall, saved in your phone, and kept in your wallet. Consider having a household communication planin case you need support. This means calling one or two people, and then they themselves know who to call and what to do to give you support.

Have an evacuation plan prepared, with different exits and an outside meeting point. It is recommended that you practice it. Sometimes simply placing a ladder near a fence can make a big security improvement in your home. Some people also have a pre-packed bag that they keep next to the exits, that contains copies of sensitive documents, some cash, phone charger, torch/flashlight, medication and other items you would want to have with you.

If you consider the risks are increasing as an HRD and you might need to relocate, review your relocation plan. Are the travel arrangements and end destination still feasible? How can you adapt your plan to reduce your visibility and physical presence?

If you are considering having sensitive in-person meetings in your home, be aware of the restrictions in place and comply with health advisories. Prepare a cover story with your visitors, including who are they and why are they visiting you, in case your neighbours or somebody else asks. Also, it can be a good idea for visitors not to tell taxis (including ride-hailing apps) your exact address, but somewhere close like a well-known place of worship, park, shop, etc. If they come in their own vehicle, it is better that they not park out the front of your house – they can park further down the street so they are not immediately connected with you. Make sure you give very clear instructions so visitors do not have to ask anybody how to find you.

Always consider safety risks like fire in homes. You might be cooking more indoors, using more electricity outlets, smoking indoors, children might be more housebound, and your neighbours will also be home, increasing the risk of them starting a fire. Have a fire plan. Consider things like woollen blankets as fire blankets, smoke detectors if possible, manage your electricity usage and try to use surge protectors, reduce fuel load, etc.

Consider having a personal alarm with you in the home and when you leave to attract attention if you need, this could be something like a whistle.

Keep your doors locked, with the key in the lock on the inside of the door – unless someone on the outside can reach through to open it. In this case, keep the key in a set location, away from the door (and out of sight) ready in case it is needed in an emergency. Consider what is a pattern of criminal attacks in your area. Rates of home burglaries generally fall when more people are at home, but other crime (against offices or shops) may increase. Protect (or take with you) the valuable information from your office before leaving. Consider how your adversaries will try to benefit from you working from home and then mitigate that.

Avoid regular routines especially in leaving and travelling around. When leaving your home to go shopping, consider the risks of leaving your devices in the home vs taking the devices with you. If you leave home, switch off devices and hide them. When leaving, ensure that someone knows where you are going, how you will get there (the route), what time you are expected to return, how to contact you if there is any reason, etc. You may also use things like live location sharing, check-in procedures (“I’ve arrived”, “I’m leaving now”, “should be there in 20 minutes”, etc.)

Be discreet and avoid being targeted by police or security forces by violating any legal local rules.

It is easier said than done but try to plan for economic security or sustainability, this situation could go on for longer than currently envisaged. If possible discuss this with donors or supporters. Try to identify an emergency fund you can establish or have access to – perhaps in cooperation with others. Connect online with your local communities to see what are possible self-organizing strategies for mutual support.

Let Front Line know of your protection ideas or suggestions based on your experience that may benefit other HRDs or HROs at risk, it will develop this guide further.

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/04/10/policy-response-from-human-rights-ngos-to-covid-19-civicus-protocol/

One Response to “Policy response from Human Rights NGOs to COVID-19: Front Line (tips for human rights defenders working from home)”

  1. […] taking necessary measures to ensure that our support to HRDs at risk can be maintained. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/04/10/policy-response-from-human-rights-ngos-to-covid-19-fron…….And to continue providing a platform for HRD voices, even when convening is not possible, […]

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