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Security in Civil Unrest Situations

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Global Civil Unrest Challenges Security Professionals

The list grows and grows. From Ecuador to Ethiopia to Egypt, Haiti to Honduras to Hong Kong, countries around the world were wracked by political instability and civil unrest in 2019, and much of this unrest has continued into 2020.

On the ground, the situational factors and specifics of each conflict differ from country to country, but all these episodes pose challenges for security professionals, especially security managers for companies conducting business in the regions in question.

“Businesses have arguably never faced such a breadth of challenges as they do today,” according to a 2019 political risk report from Marsh Company, a risk advisory firm. “From emerging economies to mature ones, business and trade are increasingly susceptible to uncertainty, with political risks posing a threat to their business interests.”

Some of this unrest has resulted in tragic carnage; late 2019 was particularly violent. In Bolivia, street violence resulting from a disputed election in October killed at least 33 people. During the same month in Iraq, anti-government protesters in Baghdad and in the country's mainly Shiite south left at least 42 dead. Then in November, political protests in Ethiopia evolved into violent clashes that left at least 78 dead and more than 400 detained. Later that same month, the Iranian government launched a brutal crackdown on street demonstrations, killing at least 180.

Although each crisis has its own particular circumstances, many share a few common factors. One is the impact of the slowdown of the global economy.

Take Latin America, for example. Economic growth there was projected at a lowly 0.5 percent in 2019, after averaging more than 4 percent per year from 2004 to 2011, according to United Nations forecasters. So, countries like Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Colombia were all hit by popular uprisings in 2019, with most involving economic issues.

In Colombia, for instance, close to 1 million people took to the streets in November 2019 due to possible changes to pension, wage, and tax laws. And in Ecuador, the government’s decision to end fuel subsidies drew so many protesters to the capital city of Quito that the president decided to move the government to another location.

This economic stagnation can worsen the resentment already felt by many due to income inequality and systemic corruption, and the mix compels many to hit the streets, explains Jeremy Prout, CPP, a regional security manager for International SOS.

“That really breeds dissent,” says Prout, who is also a member of the ASIS Global Terrorism, Political Instability, and International Crime Council.

Moreover, social media has become a driving factor because it increases participation by exposing huge numbers of people to the planning of upcoming protests and their logistics. In the past, this information would have spread slowly, locality by locality. “It’s not a neighborhood anymore, it’s a mass of people,” Prout says.


Another common factor is the frailty of democratic and political institutions in many of these countries. Some lack independent regulatory bodies and justice systems, which often makes for a high vulnerability to corruption, security experts say.

And without strong institutions, a political crisis can stretch on and on. In Lebanon, for example, after widespread protests in October spurred Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign his government, the country entered into a political limbo without a clear resolution.

“Weaker institutions often do not have the capacity to bring about serious long-term change,” says Tim Crockett, senior vice president of U.S. operations for healthcare and risk management firm HX Global.

This means that in some countries, episodes of unrest can flare up every few years—such as in Lebanon, where the protests of 2019 were preceded by the garbage crisis protests of 2015–16 and the cedar revolution demonstrations of 2005.

“We sometimes see that ebb and flow of appeasement, and then things calm down,” says Crockett, who is also a former senior director of global security operations for Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., as well as a longtime security consultant to CNN.

Overall, the risks that situations of civil unrest pose to security professionals can be multilayered, explains Crockett. Nonetheless, the principles of a sound risk inventory and assessment still hold, no matter if the situation is domestic or international.

“Know the risk, and know what your position is within that risk, and make sure you have measures in place to manage it,” Crockett says.

The risks can be unpredictable, he adds; relatively small protests can expand and spread quickly. In Santiago, Chile, increases in subway fares led to a fare evasion campaign organized by secondary school students that included relatively small protests in early October 2019. But within a week, the protests led to spontaneous takeovers of the city's main train stations and violent confrontations with the police.

“You need to know what the trouble is, and what the potential is for it to move and evolve,” Crockett says. “As things start to grow, there can be a mob mentality as people feel anonymous within the group, and so they might do things that are a little bit over the top.”

Security managers should keep this in mind when deciding whether movements need to be restricted or facilities locked down. They should consider their local workforce, and what areas they may be traveling in. Usually, firms take a “tiered-and-scaled approach,” so that the response is appropriate to the level of risk, with higher level risks receiving the most resources.

“Things really do have to get to an extreme level before business should start considering suspended operations,” Crockett says.

And unrest can also affect planned events in ways that challenge security logistics. When Chile’s unrest grew, for example, the upcoming United Nations’ COP 25 climate change summit that was planned for early December 2019 was moved from Santiago to Madrid, Spain.


Moreover, security operations in situations of civil unrest sometimes involve more than protecting physical bystanders—the firm’s role as a “metaphorical bystander” also needs to be considered, Crockett says. A firm might think it is not taking sides in a civil conflict, but that might not be how the local citizens see it. If a government comes under fire for corruption, and the firm has been doing business with that government, the firm might be vulnerable to reputational risk, he adds.

And in the era of global supply chains, another source of reputational risk or guilt by association may come from a supplier or another third party that the firm does business with. “That’s the one that catches a lot of people off guard,” Crockett says.

For example, an activist group that is targeting a pharmaceutical company for making allegedly harmful products may also target service providers that use that product. “There are peripheral things you have to consider,” Crockett explains.

Incidents occurring during the Hong Kong protests can be seen as another example. Protesters attacked local Starbucks stores and other Western brands in response to their franchise owner’s political statements, which made the parent companies vulnerable to wider reputational damage.

Moving forward, security managers can expect unrest to continue, according to the risk advisory firm International SOS. In its recent Travel Risk Outlook 2020 report, the firm ranked the top 10 health and security risks. Geopolitical conflict risks topped the list.

International SOS’s Prout says that, in terms of civil unrest, he expects protests and other such events that are connected to climate change advocacy to become more frequent. Prout cites a November 2019 incident when climate change activists disrupted the Harvard–Yale football game as an example, and says he expects similar events around the world in the future due in part to the “contagion effect” of the issue. “That’s a global movement,” he says.

In terms of future global risk, Prout argues that it is not accurate to say that it keeps increasing every year.

“I wouldn’t say it’s becoming more risky,” he explains. “But the difference we’re seeing is that people are going to more locations.”

In other words, more business travelers are willing to go to places like Syria—despite the instability—than in the past, meaning the need for protection increases, Prout adds.

“The world,” he observes, “is getting smaller.”