In 2017, a survivor of long-term harassment, abuse, and sexual assault did not attend RightsCon Brussels, despite their intention to do so, because of the presence at the event of the person who had sexually assaulted and harassed them. The survivor reached out to us and we failed to provide them with a confidential process or safe space.
Before and during RightsCon 2017, our policies and practices failed the survivor on a range of fronts.
First, our 2017 policy wrongly required the organization enter into an investigatory role when a report was made to us. In particular, we have also been notified that there was a breach of confidentiality, and that the nature of the complaint became known to the perpetrator, putting the survivor’s physical safety at risk and leading to renewed harassment of them and another implicated survivor. Following the breach, the perpetrator led a campaign to damage both survivors’ credibility and professional reputations with their peers and even one employer.
Second, our staff lacked training and knowledge of how to carry out a safe and sensitive incident response mechanism. The way that we handled conversations with the survivor wrongly cast doubt on their integrity and the accuracy of information they provided. This made them feel disbelieved and actively discouraged from attending, while placing on them the burden of managing the response process. We recognize that our approach needs to be survivor-centric to fully support affected persons.
We want to publicly convey our sincere apologies that we had extended to the individual upon being alerted to the matter, and we hope that we can continue to rebuild their trust in our support of their struggle.
The safety and protection of our staff, RightsCon participants, and the broader community, is of utmost importance. We have since properly reviewed and overhauled our policy and worked to change our processes in a way to ensure a more humane approach in our responses, more effective prevention, and safer remedies, should future incidents occur.
Our Code of Conduct team has received training from various experts with significant experience in the space, and we have communicated clear referral guidelines with all staff for individuals wishing to report an incident.
We have also been engaging actively within our community to help build capacity and experience to collectively address abuse, harassment, and violence. At RightsCon Toronto, we are supporting a full day convening of Protect Our Spaces to provide a safe space for these conversations, as well as funding two well-known code of conduct trainers to run three workshops (on ally skills training; on identifying abusive behaviour; and on creating and enforcing a code of conduct).
Once our new policy and processes were in place this spring, our Code of Conduct Team re-processed the survivor’s report along with new information about reprisals and further patterns of abusive behavior by the accused perpetrator. We decided to ban the perpetrator from all Access Now spaces and convenings, including RightsCon, and notified the survivor of this decision.
We do not believe this delayed remedy absolves us for our previous failures to protect the survivors and our spaces, including RightsCon Brussels, where the perpetrator was allowed to participate. Nor do we intend to project the message that our action entirely resolves grievances in this case, or redresses the survivors and their struggle.
We do hope, however, to show we are a willing and ready partner in broader efforts to create and protect spaces free of abuse, harassment, and violence of all kinds.