Community Discussion: Holistic security in practice

Holistic security attempts to synthesise best practices from security management protection, self-care, digital security, including gender justice, and with an intersectional approach.

By Kristin Antin HURIDOCS on

Summary and recording available!

Human rights work is a fulfilling and rewarding vocation. But it can also be frustrating, exhausting, and risky. We know that it is important to think about psycho-social well-being, organizational security, legal and digital security, yet we struggle to put these concepts into practice. Digital or physical security cannot be addressed in isolation, nor can or well-being – yet these concepts and practices often remain separated from each other. Holistic security is an attempt to integrate these concepts and highlight their inter-relatedness so that we can approach these processes in a more connected and meaningful way. But what does holistic security look like in practice? How can an organisation get started? What are some of the common challenges that organisations face in applying these concepts to their work?

To tackle these questions, we hosted a webinar on 18 May 2017 at 14:00 UTC to explore how organisations can put these holistic security concepts into practice. We recruited practitioners to share their knowledge and experience on holistic security training and implementation. These presenters included:

  • Daniel Ó Cluanaigh is consultant and facilitator on protection of human rights defenders, and exploratory group member of the Initiative for Sustainable Action. His presentation (starting at 5:30) focused on the background to the holistic security approach and its key tenets.
  • Nora Rehmer is the Senior Advisor on Policy, Research and Training at Protection International. Her presentation (starting at 34:40) focused on best practices for trainers using the holistic security approach.
  • Sergei Smirnov is digital and holistic security trainer. Natalia Soloviova is a psychologist and trainer (of trainers) working with human rights defenders on holistic security. Daniil Lipin is lawyer and working on juridical and digital security aspects. All three presented (starting at 55:30) on their experiences of working on security for human rights defenders in Russia.

Watch the webinar

How to join the discussion forum

In addition to the live webinar, we’re offering an opportunity for asynchronous discussion on this topic in our discussion forum – the HURIDOCS Collaboratory. Share your questions and challenges in the forum before the webinar if you want us to discuss them on the call, or afterwards to continue the conversation. Your questions are a valuable contribution to this conversation, so please share them!

Note: Both the webinar and the forum are open to anyone to join so please be careful what you share – do not share any personal identifiable information of defenders or organisations with whom you work.


Table of contents:

What is holistic security and why is it important?

Holistic security is an approach to the security and protection of human rights defenders, defined in the Holistic Security Manual as integrating “self-care, well-being, digital security and information security into traditional security management practices.” The approach attempts to synthesise best practices from security management protection, self-care, digital security, including gender justice, and with an intersectional approach, in order to assist in understandings of the links between these components of safety and well-being.

The objective is to support and sustain the well-being in action of human rights defenders at risk – particularly in finding ways to remain resilient whilst engaging in activism, which can be especially difficult in the context of structural violence. ‘Holistic security’ therefore refers both to the content of what you can do (in terms of hard skills you can learn) and also to a process of working on security, one that can be implemented by trainers working with human rights defenders.

Key tenets

The fundamental tenets of holistic security include:

  • The creation of spaces to name and denaturalise the impact of risk on individuals and the collective
  • The use of processes and tools for analysing the internal and external contexts to identify and assess risks
  • The creation of plans and strategies based on this analysis in order to mitigate and responds to the risks identified
  • Capacity building and assessment of the resources necessary to implement and improve security strategies

Why security requires a holistic approach

Human rights work can be risky, and it’s always necessary to take security into account. But thinking about security is complex and a comprehensive set of techniques is required to adequately address it.

The issues and threats faced by human rights defenders are not one-dimensional, and so cannot be easily divided into separate parcels. All of the aspects incorporated into the holistic security approach are therefore relevant and interrelated. As Nora Rehmer explained, a large part of human rights defenders’ reflection on and analysis of security can be very emotionally driven, and it’s important to approach responses in a more well-rounded manner that can accommodate these aspects.


The holistic security concept was developed by building upon previous tools for risk analysis, and security and protection planning facilitated by organisations like Peace Brigades International, Front Line Defenders and Protection International. It also builds upon critiques from the feminist movement and the development of the ‘integrated security’ approach (see the Integrated Security Manual), placing the concept of well-being as a central part of security, seeking definitions of security that are distinct from those defined by the state. Other influences have included the idea of ‘psychosocial accompaniment’ from organisations like Center for the Victims of Torture, and the development of support organisations and tools for digital security and privacy for human rights defenders, including from the cyberfeminist community.

Advice for holistic security trainers

Trainers play an important role in disseminating information about holistic security – they offer new perspectives, provide useful frameworks, and facilitate important discussions. But trainers can also give bad advice or inadvertently do harm – for example, by using scare tactics – and trainers with differing understandings can contradict each other. In order for trainers to reflect properly on using the holistic approach, the presenters shared a number of important tips:

  • Listening, not ticking boxes: the concept of security is different for everyone, so listening to the requirements of HRDs will shape your strategies for training
  • Defenders should define their needs and determine the process: changes along the way are welcome!
  • Create space and time internally to reflect and analyse: it is the invisible, personal and interpersonal elements that shape security that are hardest to reflect on and evaluate
  • No checklists: recognise the uniqueness of each context and the organizational dynamics
  • Agreement and understanding: security must be negotiated and agreed upon internally, top-down approaches don’t work
  • Understand the jobs of those you are training: trainers should ask: ‘What is the minimum I need to know about your job in order to do my job correctly?’
  • Co-facilitate: collaborate with others from whom you can learn – when working with holistic security, it is normally good to bring somebody who is strong on psychosocial wellbeing
  • Think of the bigger picture: even if you’re concentrating on specific aspects, consider using exercises to fit this into the bigger picture on security
  • As part of good practice, try to fortify links and dialogue with other support organisations
  • Don’t expect to be an expert in everything: trainers in holistic security do not have to know everything about every discipline

It is important to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to security that revolves around single training sessions. Within this limited approach, security compartmentalised, prescriptive and simplistic. Instead, a tailored, process-based approach should be put in place, with evolving practices building on existing achievements, with recognition of the complexity and imperfection of organisations.

Facilitate an understanding of what security means in context

One of the key questions to be addressed when working on holistic security is: what does security mean to you? Notions of security and vulnerability will be very context-dependent: a certain level of surveillance for one human rights defender may be quite risky, in another context this may not imply the same risks. In understanding what security means in the particular context you are training in, consider:

  • Facilitators, donors, human rights defenders, their organisations and beneficiaries may all have different understandings of the idea of security
  • Because security can seem like an abstract concept, sometimes the responsibility for this definition can be outsourced to the trainer
  • Organisations often like to focus on training sessions because they are something concrete that can be costed and reports can be written on them
  • A training session alone will not help answer the question as to what security means to each individual

What are the challenges of putting holistic security into practice?

One of the key challenges in working with the holistic security approach is that many are still unaware of the concept, and so digital security often remains compartmentalised from other security issues.

Another challenge which was identified was that while there are many resources on the topic of digital security, existing resources about holistic security are limited, particularly in languages besides English.

Furthermore, in high-risk environments, security training sessions can themselves be a target if meetings attract the attention of actors opposed to the groups or their work.

For community-based human rights defenders, language can be a barrier to implementing security measures: trainers should work with those locally who understand the cultural and linguistic context.

And, while training is an important way in which the holistic security approach can be shared, trainings alone cannot provide security: different responses must be developed for each individual/organisation.

Additional resources

Among the resources referred to in the presentations were:

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