Natalia Project: Creating a Positive Impact on Society

Partnering for a better society

According to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, there were a total of 604 fatal attacks on Human Rights Defenders (HRD) globally in 2020, up from 572 in 2019. More than half of defenders experienced judicial harassment, including arbitrary detentions and trumped-up charges. When a human rights defender is detained by a repressive regime or otherwise in danger, it can be nearly impossible to alert the outside world that they are in peril. Natalia Project, an initiative from the Swedish NGO Civil Rights Defenders (CRD), is changing that. The Natalia Project is community-based risk management solution that uses a GPS-based device to provide global geo-location wherever needed, giving human rights defenders the ability to send an alert if they are in danger. Tele2 IoT is proud to partner with Civil Rights Defenders, providing secure reliable connectivity for the project.

The background

Natalia Project, founded in 2013, is named in honor of Natalia Estemirova, a human rights defender who was abducted by government entities in Chechnya in 2009, ultimately losing her life.  In the wake of this event, Estemirova’s collagues expressed the need to find a way to help human rights defenders inform others when they were in at-risk situations. CRD responded to that need.

“Human rights defenders are often among the first line of people who get into severe security threat situations,” says Asheque Haque, Responsible for Natalia Project at Civil Rights Defenders. “Sadly, we see this situation occurring again and again in multiple countries where there are authoritarian regimes. In order to increase the safety and security of HRDs, we created the world’s first security alarm device designed specifically for human rights defenders.”

How it works

Currently, more than 170 human rights defenders working in hotspots across the globe are enrolled in Natalia Project. While the model is scalable, CRD does not make an open call to HRDs, because enrolling in the project is a commitment.

“It’s not just sending a device and they’re good to go,” says Asheque Haque. “It’s a lot of work from the HRD’s perspective and the model needs a support structure around that person, so a lot of things have to happen to make it work. We vet the HRD, using a vigorous verification process: the HRD must have a long track record and people have to know their work within human rights. We also assess the level of risk the HRD is facing – we want to make sure that everything is set up correctly and that we actually will be able to assist them.”

Natalia Project’s security alarm devices are connected with GPS and have a proactive security element: CRD assesses the level of risk an HRD is facing, and once they are accepted into the project, they go through training to understand risk assessment matrixes, such as their lifestyle, after which they make improvements and create a trusted community, which CRD calls ‘shields’.

“HRDs should have at least four ‘shields’, who could be colleagues, friends, or even family members,” explains Asheque Haque. “The key here is that shields are the first line of defense if the HRD is at risk – they are notified via the connected device and are the first to respond. There are of course other solutions and services to inform people when something is happening, but there isn’t any mechanism of doing an actual physical response, so having these ‘shields’ in place is key. With the Natalia Project, when an alarm is triggered by an HRD, the shield can see their location via the connected device and can physically go and mitigate the situation. The ability to act in this way can mean the difference between life and death.”

Human Rights Defenders often work in hostile environments. Just knowing they can send for help using a reliable system gives them a boost in their confidence, as well as their ability to continue working over a long period of time.

“Natalia Project is not a rapid response resolution,” says Asheque Haque. “We have other solutions for that. This is for longer periods of time for people who are at high risk. In that sense, it is very important and very impactful, because the devices support the ability to sustain work over a longer period of time.”

On the ground

Recently, a long-term HRD who works in a very repressive country and has faced many threats over the years, was detained. The ability to send an alarm to CRD was very important – the country’s repressiveness means there is no independent media that could publish any news, even if something untoward happened.

“Initially, we were quite worried and went into our usual protocol, which involves set things that are put in place as soon as the HRD enrolls in the program. The HRD fills out things like consents, information, what they want to share, when they want to share – all of this is planned ahead of time.  A big media package is also planned so if anything happens, we are immediately ready to support in the way the that is most fitting and useful according to the shields and our officers.”

In this particular case the shields were able to go to where the person was being held and assess the situation. In some cases, the next step could be amplifying the story through social media channels to bring value in terms focusing attention. The HRDs also decide ahead of time if lawyers should be brought in, or embassies or consulates be informed – it all depends on the perimeters set up when the HRD enrolls in the program

Some people want to remain anonymous, some are more public – all actions have consequences, particularly in these situations, so we have to be mindful in our response.

Asheque Haque Responsible for Natalia Project Civil Rights Defenders

Human Rights Defenders enrolled in the project understand the limitations –  that it is one tool of many.

Partnering with Tele2 IoT

The devices used by Natalia Project are provided by Tele2 IoT customer SRT, the Swedish communication technology company that develops tracking and security products. When CRD was updating the device’s connectivity Tele2 IoT was contacted, and common ground was found.

“Promoting free speech and freedom of expression is important to Tele2, just as it is to Civil Rights Defenders,” says Stefan Trampus, Executive Vice President, Tele2 B2B and IoT. “Supporting the efforts of Natalia Project allows us the opportunity to live our values as a company, enabling human rights defenders to carry out their important work in a more secure manner.”

Tele2 IoT supports Natalia Project with SIM cards and reliable, secure connectivity, and also donates monetarily, which allows CRD to expand and grow.

“It has been an excellent cooperation with Tele2 IoT,” says Asheque Haque. “IoT connectivity in the tracking device has enabled us to follow people to police stations and facilitated getting assistance to them. The device isn’t very complex, but we don’t need complexity – we need reliability. And we need to know we stay connected so we can give assistance when and where needed. In this way, IoT is having a very real impact on society and lives.”

Community response

The global human rights community has in general been very positive to the project – in fact, CRD hasn’t received any negative responses. In a number of countries where there have been mass protests and demonstrations, CRD knows HRDs have not been arrested, unlike their colleagues, because they have been wearing a device.

“In this way, we know it acts in a proactive way.  That tells us that this works and that there is awareness. Repressive governments don’t like it but knowing that it works in a preventive way is very positive feedback,” says Asheque Haque.

Working together to create a positive impact on society is at the heart of the cooperation between Tele2 IoT and Natalia Project.

“Telecommunication and IoT have great potential to create both business and sustainability value. I think that the Natalia Project is a great example of how our services can help create a tangible social impact,” says Erik Wottrich, Head of Sustainability, Tele2. “With our history of being a strong advocate for the freedom of expression, I think that it is great that we can contribute to the Natalia Project, since we see a growing need to safeguard outspoken human rights defenders around the world.”