News Article

Applauding a new bill to better protect human rights defenders
February 12, 2024


By: Brian Dooley

On January 31, new legislation to better protect Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) was introduced in the U.S. Congress by Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA), and others. The Human Rights Defenders Protection Act of 2024 proposes the kind of important advances to U.S. policy Human Rights First has been pursuing for many years.

The new legislation aims to “strengthen existing efforts, including important guidance from the Biden administration’s Guidelines for U.S. Diplomatic Support to Civil Society and Human Rights Defenders.”

It would be great if these guidelines were finally properly implemented. First introduced in 2013 after we proposed them at a Congressional hearing in 2012, the Biden administration updated and reissued them in 2021.

They have only been selectively implemented, with some U.S. embassies promoting them while others ignore them. Over coffee last month in the eastern European capital where he is based, a U.S. embassy official whose remit includes human rights told me he’d never heard of the guidelines.

Congressman McGovern is right when he said, “it’s nice that we [the U.S. government] talk the talk, but we need to do more—we need to walk the walk.”

Full and vigorous implementation of the existing HRD guidelines would go a long way to protecting those who peacefully work for the rights of others.

Another key part of the legislation provides “up to 500 at-risk Human Rights Defenders with a multiple-entry, multi-year visa to the United States to ensure such individuals are able to safely continue their work from abroad before returning home when it is safe to do so.”

As hundreds of HRDs are killed every year, and many are warned about attacks on them in advance, this would be a useful addition to the range of protections offered to HRDs by the United States. Having somewhere safe to go, albeit temporarily, is a vitally important option for many HRDs.

We hope to publicly review from which countries the HRDs granted visas come. Too often the Biden administration’s practices on human rights have been selective and inconsistent.

Its record on sanctioning perpetrators of human rights violations suggests some countries are favored, and its record of engaging with HRDs is also patchy. Our latest report details that while many other diplomatic missions send representatives to meet HRDs in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, the U.S. government does not.

This legislation would be an important step for the protection of HRDs abroad but, as new recommendations from the McCain Institute on how to better support HRDs note, this should be done domestically too. U.S.-based HRDs need the U.S. government to protect them better. In the coming years, those peacefully advocating for the rights of others in the U.S. may face greater threats than they do now.

Many other countries already have laws to protect domestic HRDs. The Geneva-based human rights NGO the International Service for Human Rights, in consultation with hundreds of HRDs and others, produced a model law to help legislators draft such protections. We have long argued that establishing a National Human Rights Institute would also help protect HRDs based in the United States.

The introduction of The Human Rights Defenders Protection Act of 2024 is a reminder that such legislation can take a long time to produce — crafting the bill took years of work by NGOs, Congressional staffs, and others.

The bill that emerged is a major step forward in Congressional understanding of the realities facing HRDs around the world. Hopefully, it will force the administration to better protect them.