Back to top

Digital Security Lab Ukraine (DSLU)

Digital Security Lab Ukraine (DSLU) Receives Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk

The annual Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk was established in 2005 to honour the work of HRDs who are courageously making outstanding contributions to the promotion and protection of the human rights of others, often at great personal risk to themselves.

Digital Security Lab Ukraine (DSLU) was established in 2017 to address digital security concerns of human rights defenders and organisations in Ukraine. Civil society voices have always been strong in Ukraine, reaching a peak in 2013 with the EuroMaidan clashes, aimed at overthrowing a pro-Russian government. Russia’s war in Ukraine, that started with occupation of Crimea in 2014 and destabilisation and shadow support to the so-called separatist movement in Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine, has posed a grave danger to human rights defenders in the occupied territories. Human rights defenders in the rest of Ukraine, addressing issues like corruption, nepotism, LGBTIQ+ and refugee rights, faced targeting from the authorities and far-right groups. Witnessing a transition to an increasingly digital world, DSLU recognised that digital security had become a very real and central concern for human rights defenders and their work, potentially exposing them to vulnerabilities which could impede their work. Their goal in starting DSLU was to support human rights organisations and defenders in Ukraine by addressing their digital security challenges in a sustainable, flexible manner to minimise their exposure to risk and vulnerabilities.

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion in Ukraine on 24 February 2022, human rights defenders and groups experienced blackouts and disruptions in communications due to Russia’s shelling of Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. There have been significant fluctuations in internet connectivity in many regions of Ukraine, impeding the ability to document and report on war crimes and human rights violations. DSLU’s work has been integral to rebuilding digital security infrastructure and documentation of war crimes, ensuring that organisations could continue to operate by providing and setting up satellite internet kits for teams working on documenting and reporting war crimes.

Despite the circumstances of the war, while many fled to safety, DSLU stayed on the ground, recognising the crucial digital needs of the context. This was not easy and came with significant safety and security challenges. They continue to work hard to combat online censorship and provide means of communication during the invasion to ensure that crucial information can be shared and exchanged despite the barriers. Despite growing physical security risks amid the ongoing conflict, they continue to provide digital security support to HRDs and HROs in Ukraine.

Through its“Яҡ?” platform, DSLU has offered digital security guidelines for HRDs and HROs who continued working in the newly occupied territories of Ukraine. In 2022, they had more than 450 consultations with civil society actors in Ukraine, supporting them with digital security audits, training, emergency incident responses and consultations, and technical support and supplies. Beyond this, they are important and leading voices in the broader digital freedom and security space, and conduct their own advocacy pushing for digital rights and freedoms in local and global contexts.


Before the escalation of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by the Russian Federation, the key concerns regarding the situation of human rights defenders (HRDs) in Ukraine were characterised mainly by systemic impediments to the rights to freedom of assembly, association, and personal liberty. In many cases, HRDs were subjected to intimidation, harassment, and attacks, while violence against journalists was tolerated by the authorities. The situation was exacerbated by pervasive corruption in all branches of government and limitations on workers’ rights to strike.

Although human rights organisations that work for the protection of the rights of different minority groups (such as LGBTI, ethnic, national, and racial groups) still face obstacles (refusal of permission and protection) in their enjoyment of the rights to freedom of assembly and may be subjected to attacks from radical groups, the government that came into power in 2015 has significantly increased its support for their work as compared to their predecessors.

Since the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, HRDs who defend the rights of Crimean Tatars or ethnic Ukrainians, and those who monitor and document violations of human rights in the peninsula that is currently governed de facto by the Russian Federation, and those who work in Luhansk and Donetsk and have refused Russian citizenship became the main targets of systemic and severe intimidation and harassment. Thus, HRDs, journalists, lawyers, and bloggers in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have been repeatedly harassed by security forces and subjected to abduction, physical attacks, home searches, surveillance, interrogation, unlawful detention, criminal prosecution, accusations of alleged terrorism and propagation of extremism, deprivation of the right to a fair trial, forced psychiatric examinations, and threats to family members. Several HRDs have been denied access to the peninsula.