Human rights and environmental defenders are risking their lives and being criminalized for speaking truth to power. Personal physical accompaniment by international volunteers has proven to be an effective way to protect defenders in the field. Accompaniment can provide increased international visibility and raises the political cost of harming defenders; it expands awareness of defenders’ environmental, political and human rights struggles through diplomatic, government and media channels; it creates ties of moral support and solidarity. Due to the global pandemic, physical accompaniment is no longer possible, so we are creating a way to do so virtually.
Skylight and our SolidariLabs networks have been watching with alarm the growing number of threats to human rights and environmental advocates for years. And it was at our first SolidariLabs gathering in Colombia in October, 2016 that the idea of a virtual network of volunteers for defenders was born.
Virtual International Volunteers Xchange, VIVX*, is a virtual accompaniment volunteers network to add a layer of protection to human rights and environmental defenders in the field who are under grave threat. A year ago Skylight SolidariLabs started collaborating with defenders, civil society partners and former volunteer accompaniers to develop a mobile app that facilitates trusted networks of virtual accompaniment that defenders can build, “Trust Teams”. VIVX would also connect defenders with each other for mutual support, to share experiences and strategies for resistance.
*In Spanish: Voluntarios Internacionales Virtuales X. The “x” in Spanish is to make the word viva or vivo, meaning “alive,” gender neutral.
We began development of the VIVX app in 2019, in collaboration with Peace Brigades International (PBI) and our Latin American development team at 3Pixel. Now the global COVID-19 pandemic has hit marginalized communities especially hard and increased the threat level against human rights defenders who essentially have become “sitting ducks” in their homes. Assassinations of defenders are increasing at an alarming rate. Given that the pandemic has heightened concerns for defenders and eliminated the possibility of physical accompaniment, the VIVX concept is more timely and relevant than ever.
An essential feature of the app will be artful and compelling short film profiles of the defenders made by filmmakers in the Skylight SolidariLabs network, telling the stories of why they risk their lives for their causes, humanizing their struggles as frontline defenders, raising their visibility and the political cost of killing them.
We will draw volunteers for virtual accompaniment from PBI’s thousands of former physical volunteers to accompany defenders.
Defenders register with the app and are connected with vetted volunteers who were former physical accompaniers. Based on a range of criteria including country-specific location (Guatemala, Colombia, Mexico), or issue compatibility (environment, land rights, right to education, fight against impunity). Defenders will have the ability to form groups with trusted virtual volunteers and members of their communities, what we might call “Trust Teams”. Defenders will also be able to form groups with other defenders in-country or across borders to share their stories, experiences and strategies. For example, here could be situations where a mining company has operations in several countries, and the defenders resisting the mines could connect to organize virtually. At crucial moments of threat to defenders, they can activate their “Trust Teams” which will work with a VIVX facilitator and allies such as PBI to send mass alert messages to embassies, the media, government institutions, civil society organizations, and their social networks. The coordinated alerts will put perpetrators on notice: letting them know the world is watching and raising the political cost of attacking or killing a defender.
The safety of the human rights defenders and their networks are of paramount importance. They are at the frontlines of the struggle to protect our planet. With that in mind, we are establishing security protocols in consultation and collaboration with accompaniers and defenders in Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico as well as th e app development team to ensure we are following best practices, and wherever possible, exceeding them.
The VIVX app is currently in the pre-beta pilot testing stage on both iOS and Android systems in our initial pilot region across Latin America. We are working with select defenders to receive their input as we move to a fuller beta test.
Replicable and Open Source
Once we have a stable app, we want to offer use of the platform to other organizations that endeavor to protect human rights defenders in our initial pilot region. The initial focus in the pilot stage will be in Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, but we see VIVX as a replicable model and new tool for civic engagement to counter the global trend of toxic narratives, threats and attacks that target frontline environmental and human rights defenders.