Global Witness is aware of the publication of an article in POLITICO about the appalling and tragic killing of a source we worked with in Afghanistan, and commenting on other parts of our work, including in Liberia. The incidents it refers to took place in some of the most dangerous parts of the world and there continue to be risks to those who were involved in our work and still live in areas where reprisal is possible. However, serious questions were raised by the piece, which it is important we respond to in an open and transparent way, whilst always being mindful of the very real security concerns that continue to exist today.
Global Witness has a long and proud history of working with sources and partners to uncover serious wrongdoing. We treat the protection of our sources, partners and our staff with the utmost seriousness and will always listen to anyone wishing to raise a concern, as well as continuing to learn from others who work in this field.
In August 2017 we learned that a source we had been working with in Afghanistan had been killed. We believe this killing was carried out by Islamic State (IS) and came about after the source was identified as someone providing information to us. This was a brutal and barbaric execution carried out by an extremist group, controlling regions of the country through violence and repression.
It is a matter of enormous regret and deep sadness to us that any harm should ever come to one of our sources, simply because they had the courage to speak to us. Although we took a range of responsible precautions and worked with experienced and trusted staff, the exposure of this source arose out of work undertaken and commissioned by Global Witness. On this basis, the buck stops with us. Both at the time, and now, this killing has prompted us to re-double our efforts to prevent anything like this happening again.
We did not make the details of this case widely known, either at the time of the killing or subsequently. Our assessment was that others we worked with in Afghanistan, including on the same project, were facing a high risk of reprisal too. Minimising that risk was, and remains, our primary concern.
Ahead of publishing this statement, we have reached out once again to the network of contacts who were involved in this case, reassessing the level of risk in putting details of the events surrounding the killing in the public domain. Although arguably the risk of identification of sources and contacts has diminished in the time since it happened, it is still the case that anything that could be used to identify people who provided us with information in this investigation would put them in real danger, especially given the deterioration in the security situation in Afghanistan. For that reason, we are constrained in what we can say on the circumstances that led up to the source’s death.
For that reason, we are focusing our comments on the actions we took as an organisation and the lessons we are continuing to draw from this terrible tragedy.
How did Global Witness respond?
In the immediate period after we learned of the source’s killing, our efforts were focused on ensuring the safety of his family, other sources and contacts whose security may have been compromised. This included providing financial and logistical support to help those facing serious threats to relocate as swiftly and safely as possible. We were advised by security consultants on this.
In the subsequent weeks, once we were assured of the safety and wellbeing of sources, partners and our staff, we worked with our retained security agency to carry out a review. This aimed to understand the events that led up to this terrible incident, whether there were actions we could have taken to prevent it, and what lessons we needed to learn to mitigate the risk of something like this happening again.
Although the review showed our procedures had been followed, it did recommend a number of areas we should focus on improving, including strengthening protocols around engagement with consultants or intermediaries.
We commissioned a separate piece of research from the same security agency on the risks of doing investigations linked to extremist groups, drawing on the expertise of groups and individuals carrying out similar work in Afghanistan. This included a number of recommendations into how and where we work.
The conclusions of both reviews were communicated in briefings to senior staff and campaign leaders, who could be involved in overseeing future investigations involving security risks. Earlier this year, we were told that details of this story were going to be made public and informed all our staff.
Since the killing, we have not supported any further investigative work in IS-controlled areas, introduced clearer guidance around how we communicate with sources in Afghanistan and instructions on activities sources, intermediaries, partners or staff should undertake on our behalf when travelling to certain parts of the country. We have also put in place a specific training programme for campaign leaders, offered by a specialist provider, in source protection methods.
At several points over the many years we worked in Liberia, we either proactively assessed the risk involved in our work and put in place plans to minimise any danger facing our staff, partners and sources, or responded to specific requests to remove people to safety. On the occasion we think is referenced in the POLITICO article, we supported someone we had worked with to leave the country for a short period during the brutal siege of Monrovia by the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel forces. This is not something we feel we need to explain or apologise for. Taking carefully assessed protective action when required should be standard practice for organisations that carry out investigative work in dangerous places, taking on powerful military, government or corporate forces. We will continue to do this in the future.
Our efforts to achieve the highest security and safety standards
Global Witness has always taken the security of those involved in our investigative work extremely seriously. We regularly review and interrogate the way we work and how we protect our sources and partners, carrying out detailed analyses and bringing in external expertise as necessary before we embark on new investigations.
Our work is reliant on a network of individuals and organisations in countries across the world who partner with us to expose those accountable for environmental and human rights abuses. We have operated this way for over 25 years, working in some of the most dangerous countries in the world, and investigating some of the most dangerous people. We have run investigations focusing on corrupt and criminal activity in Syria, Myanmar, Libya, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, Brazil and Honduras. Though lots of the sources and partners we work with face threats to their own safety, in each of these cases we have effectively worked with them to mitigate these.
We recognise the huge responsibility we have to protect sources, some of whom risk their lives speaking out against some of the most powerful and wealthy individuals and corporates in the world. The kind of investigations our organisation undertakes, particularly in countries riven by war and dominated by violent extremist groups, means that we can never completely rule out all risk. However, we must continue to work hard to ensure we are doing all we can.
We are in the process of commissioning an external review, which will look across our new strategic campaigning priorities and make recommendations on how we best work with partners, sources and information networks, as well as set out any additional training requirements for our staff. The terms of reference for this are here.
Our efforts in this area will never be complete. There is a constant need to monitor and update the security procedures we have in place as new threats emerge. We continue to strive towards maintaining the very highest security and safety standards in the way we work.