As human rights defenders, we rarely work alone: in developing a holistic approach to security, it is helpful to recognise how our groups, organisations and communities collectively respond to threats and how group dynamics change in the face of danger. This will help us to identify difficult aspects of our group dynamics and strategies for improving our communication in order to build solidarity, trust and better security practices.
What happens to groups in times of threat?
Like individuals, group dynamics also change when one, some, or all of the members find themselves under threat, marginalisation, or violence (including economic, gender-based, institutional, or structural violence). Exactly how the group dynamics change depends greatly on the group in question. Some predictable group responses include the following:
Harder group boundaries
The group hardens boundaries, making it more difficult for members to leave or others to join. This shutting down can also restrict members' access to information or reduce their opportunities to compare their perception of events with those of outside parties.
A second predictable change is that patterns of behaviour become more fixed and harder to change. Thus it becomes harder for members to question the status quo. It is important that groups regularly revisit and discuss their shared values in an honest way in order to stay fair and inclusive.
A third predictable change relates to leadership and power dynamics within groups. When groups feel unsafe, members tolerate greater authoritarianism from leaders or other more powerful members of the group. In extreme cases, powerful members of the group may become abusive, and the increased rigidity of group boundaries may prevent victims from leaving.
Looking at the links between decision-making and security, we should not underestimate the positive effects of having fair and transparent decision-making processes. The danger of adversaries targeting leaders of a group is less pronounced if a group has shared responsibilities and knowledge.
It may be that you can recognise some of these behaviours in your own group – or perhaps your group responds entirely differently. In any case it's a good idea to reflect on any changes your group experiences when under threat – keeping in mind that peoples' perceptions of this may differ greatly – and identify any common issues which you may be able to improve. Maintaining open channels for conversation and communication will improve your chances of avoiding these and other damaging behaviours. We will go into more detail on fostering a healthy culture of communication about security in the next Chapter.
Mistrust and infiltration1
Infiltration is unfortunately a common problem for activist groups or organisations. Similarly, stress and trauma can increase feelings of mistrust between human rights defenders. In our work, we have to consider the possibility that some members of our group or community are or become informants. Demonising them is not helpful; in a context of oppression they are often victims too. Our best bet in these cases is to adopt measures to keep our community safe rather than contributing to an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust which can lead to a 'witch-hunts' and negatively affect ourselves and our cause. Creating open group discussions and agreeing on a transparent process for how we treat sensitive information, as well as reviewing decisions on secrecy and the transparency of group activities can be helpful.
Infiltrators and informants often seek to document or even provoke illegal activity among the group. We can reduce the risk of these tactics affecting us by ensuring all of our activities are sanctioned by International Law and standards such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) among others. Members agitating for illegal or violent methods should be treated with caution and their membership reviewed.
In the next Chapter, we will learn some helpful strategies for creating and implementing useful spaces for talking about security within organisations.
1) Based on: Ruckus Society: Security Culture for Activists. www.ruckus.org