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Surveillance as slow violence: Experiences from young environmental activists

Surveillance as slow violence: Experiences from young environmental activists
Photo: BWP135/Pixabay
Karolina Eklöw and José Francisco Alvarado Cóbar

Threats, smear campaigns and stigmatization—often referred to as ‘slow violence’—have long been used to silence environmental activists. And while the killing of activists often makes the headlines, these kinds of attacks are far less visible. As activism, like much else, increasingly takes place online, tactics of slow violence have adapted, making use of social media and other digital tools to target often young activists. One of those methods, digital surveillance, deserves greater attention. 

Digital surveillance

Online community-building has expanded. With this, so has the presence of a digital footprint that can be analysed, with or without the consent of the user. Not only are companies collecting data for business purposes, but governments around the world have also been quick to amass online data about populations, their health, movements, habits and networks—which can sometimes be used for political ends. Aggressive and intrusive surveillance is often justified as necessary for counterterrorism or maintaining ‘law and order’. But while it can be crucial in preventing deadly violence and organized crime, it is increasingly clear that peaceful activists, lawyers, journalists and political opponents are often the target.

Abuses of this type of digital surveillance are most evident in—although not limited to—states with weak rule of law. For example, in a survey from 2018, almost 70 per cent of environmental organizations in the Global South said they had been subject to physical and digital surveillance, making it harder to implement their activities. The forms of surveillance ranged from being followed and monitored by a security company in South Africa to data intrusions in Brazil.

Furthermore, earlier this year the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression noted that disinformation and misinformation campaigns had been used to target environmental activists’ digital activities by various antagonists. 

Youth facing high risk  

Surveillance tactics can be particularly detrimental for young activists. Young people crowd digital spaces to develop their identities and express political stances. Even before the pandemic, it was natural that much environmental activism by youth used the potential of these digital spaces. However, it has also left them vulnerable to digital surveillance, harassment and other forms of slow violence.

At SIPRI’s Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development 2021, a panel of young environmental activists from around the world who have been contributing to SIPRI’s Environment of Peace initiative talked about their experiences. For example, one told of uninvited participants joining an online meeting of their civil society organization. The organization's members feared that the information collected by these intruders could be manipulated and used against them: 'There are cyber-attacks and social media attacks. . . . When my organization held land rights workshops, we were spied on. They took videos and materials without consent. This is the type of intimidation that we experience. . . . Mental health is also an important issue. Most organizations do not have mechanisms to cope with this stress'.

The fuzzy legal line between legitimate and illegitimate state surveillance can confuse the targets and instill young activists with fear that ultimately could cripple their ability to exercise their legitimate rights. The panelists related how surveillance and intimidation were affecting them. With mounting evidence of climate change, they simultaneously feel an increased need to speak out and fear that digital surveillance can lower the threshold to physical consequences like arrest. As one panelist related: 'It is getting more difficult to talk about climate. People are striking for their rights, for political freedom and things like that. People are prosecuted. People are tortured in prisons. It is difficult to do climate activism. . . . It is also difficult to tell people in Europe how it is difficult'.

International institutions

At the international level, a number of resolutions and reports have been presented to the UN General Assembly noting the increasing use of technologies to monitor and hamper the work of defenders. General Assembly Resolution 70/161 of 2015 called on states to ‘take all measures necessary to ensure the rights and safety of human rights defenders who exercise the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly and association’, online and offline, specifically mentioning land and environmental issuesThe Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also provide universal frameworks against which any arbitrary interference with individual privacy rights should be assessed, and stress the need to ensure that these rights are protected.  

Furthermore, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights calls on states to regulate private businesses in respect to privacy and other human rights and fundamental freedoms. Some countries have even developed frameworks to help actors who work with surveillance capabilities to implement these principles.

The growing use of surveillance technologies and its potential consequences is receiving more attention internationally. But abuses against activists, defenders and other members of civil society persist at national and subnational levels. International human rights law provides a framework for the promotion and protection of privacy rights, including in the context of the use of surveillance methods. But practices in many states lack adequate legislation and enforcement mechanisms to prevent arbitrary or unlawful interference.  

Conclusions

As environmental activist communities become increasingly reliant on digital communication, methods to oppress and silence them have adapted. Over time, repression, intimidation and overt surveillance can take a heavy toll on activists’ motivation and their mental health. Digital surveillance technologies can be particularly nefarious if used to target the work of young environmental activists living in remote communities where access to support may be limited.

Policymakers, companies and media must recognize that digital surveillance harms activists’ efforts in ways comparable to that of physical violence. Human rights frameworks may restrict the uses of surveillance tools on paper at an international level, but these restrictions need to be translated into legislation and strongly enforced, particularly at the national level. Otherwise, this slow violence can harm entire communities and paralyse efforts to halt environmental crises.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

Karolina Eklöw is the Coordinator of the Environment of Peace initiative at SIPRI.
José Francisco Alvarado Cóbar is a Research Assistant in the SIPRI Peace and Development Programme.