HRDs being interviewed by journalists


15 Years of the Risk Approach for Protection: Evaluating Successes and Shortcomings

15 January 2021

Experts gather in online consultation to assess the effectiveness of this method and produce a set of minimum standards for the protection of HRDs

In 2005, researchers from Protection International first conceptualized the idea of applying the risk approach for women and men human rights defenders (HRDs) and, subsequently, elaborated the first Manual on this topic. Since then, the risk approach has become a cornerstone of protection strategies for HRDs all over the world. It is repeatedly used and considered by HRDs, the United Nations General Assembly, UN Special Rapporteurs, the Inter-American Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, regional human rights organizations, as well as constitutional courts in various countries.

In celebration of the 15th anniversary of the first thematic manual, we wanted to take the opportunity to reflect critically on how this method has been applied in practice until now. Therefore, a team of PI protection officers, senior advisors, and researchers worked together to organize an online consultation among experts from a variety of civil society organizations (CSOs), donors, institutions, protection mechanisms, and defender coalitions. The ultimate goal was to produce a set of agreed-upon principles about risk analyses and protection plans for HRDs to be used as a reference and benchmark by HRDs, State and government officials, civil society, and all other key stakeholders contributing to the protection of HRDs.

The final list of principles will be publicly presented and discussed during the virtual launch event that will be held by Protection International on 27 January 2021 from 9:00-10:30 ET / 15:00-16:30 CET. Speakers include:

  • Joel Hernández García, President, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)
  • Brian Dooley, Senior Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders
  • Luciana Peri, Coordinator of the European Union Temporary Relocation Platform (EUTRP) and the “Shelter Initiatives” program, Secretariat of
  • Magda Adamowicz, Program Officer, Human Rights Initiative, Open Society Foundations
  • Ricardo Neves, Human Rights Officer, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras
  • Paola Pacheco Ruíz, Coordinator of Comprehensive Accompaniment to Human Rights Defenders and Migrants of the Scalabrinianas Mission with Migrants and Refugees, Espacio OSC, Mexico
  • Islam Al-Khatib, Project Officer, WHRD MENA Coalition
  • Salome Nduta, Director of Programs, Defenders Coalition (Participating as an independent expert)
  • Jorge Ruiz del Angel, Director General for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, SEGOB Mexico
  • The kick-off event is free of charge and open to the public, and we invite you to join us by registering here.
  • It will take place via Zoom. Simultaneous interpretation in English, Spanish, and French will be provided.  
  • The event will be moderated by Luis Enrique Eguren and Meredith Veit, from Protection International.

Tune in to learn about the importance of using the Risk Approach when it comes to the protection of HRDs as well as why we need minimum standards when doing so. During the event, we will discuss how we can understand a defender-centered, gendered, intersectional, psycho-social approach when working with HRDs to support their protection. Key questions include:

  • What are the successes and failures of how the Risk Approach is currently being implemented?
  • What is the role of the State in implementing The Risk Analysis and Protection Plan Principles? Donors? Civil society? Human rights practitioners?
  • How can we work together as a community to bring these principles to life?

Ground-breaking Methodology with Room for Improvement

The risk approach has been adopted rapidly since it offers simple and easily applicable tools for conducting a situated analysis for HRDs under threat, which informs effective decision-making. However, its simplicity, applicability, and indiscriminate use have also allowed for shortcomings and limitations. For example, conducting a risk analysis has become an objective in itself, as opposed to what it should be, which is merely a step toward creating an actual protection plan. In other words, in many situations, a diagnosis is made, but no treatment is given.

In addition, some Protection Mechanisms provide HRDs with a “quantification of their level of risk” using arbitrary figures calculated within spreadsheets. This falsely reduces the complexity of reality into one-dimensional numbers that subsequently determine the action or inaction of the State. This lack of contextualisation together with the absence of a gender and intersectional approach have been flagged as some of the most pressing shortcomings of current risk analyses conducted by Protection Mechanisms that use the risk approach.

Redefining the Risk Approach in 2021 and Beyond

Despite the global pandemic and the situation of isolation, PI managed to collaborate with diverse panels of experts via online consultation surveys and live virtual meetings. These experts came from different professional backgrounds—including lawyers, psychologists, human rights defenders, academia, civil society, protection mechanisms, inter-governmental bodies, HRD observatories, HRD national or regional networks, and more – and cultural contexts—including representation from the Americas, Africa, Europe, MENA, and South East Asia. As a final outcome of our deliberations, we collectively produced a list of principles specifically for how protection mechanisms, and protection actors in general, should change the way we approach HRD protection for the better.

Why are these Principles Important?

HRDs around the world continue to be threatened and attacked at astronomical rates, and ensuring their protection is no easy feat. Security situations can be both extremely complex and volatile, and, even after many years of working with HRDs, many protection mechanisms and key stakeholders still have more questions than answers. We must work together as a human rights community to discuss common issues, advocate for the most progressive solutions, and share knowledge about what we have learned from our own mistakes, successes, and overall experiences. These principles are meant to serve as pragmatic and tangible statements that can help guide practitioners in the right direction. As a group, we have pulled together our knowledge and know-how from decades of experience supporting HRDs into a concrete list of recommendations that we hope will best empower defenders throughout the protection process.