May 07, 2020

Bipartisan, Bicameral Group of Lawmakers Introduces Legislation to Counter Human Rights Abuses Worldwide Amidst Coronavirus Pandemic

The “Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act” will ensure that U.S. takes leadership role in countering abuses, protecting human rights

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.),  Roger Wicker (R-Miss), and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Representatives James P. McGovern (MA-02), Ann Wagner (MO-02), and Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) announced they will introduce the Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act, legislation requiring the State Department and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to take steps, through diplomacy and development assistance, to prevent human rights abuses from being carried out in the name of the coronavirus response. 

The Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act makes clear that, as a lead drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with a long history of global leadership, the United States should encourage the protection of internationally recognized human rights during the Coronavirus response, both in its own policies at home, and through diplomacy and development assistance abroad.

During public health emergencies, governments may need to take extraordinary action to halt the spread of disease through steps such as restricting the movement of people, closing businesses, and limiting access to public spaces. However, under international law, countries are obligated to continue to respect their human rights obligations, even and especially during national emergencies. In many countries with COVID–19 cases, governments have taken steps that restrict the human rights of their citizens without clear scientific or public health justifications, or any end date or functional oversight.

“America cannot abandon efforts to protect human rights in the midst of the current pandemic. We have a moral and national security obligation to make certain that autocratic and despotic governments do not take advantage of a world in crisis to weaken civil rights, harm civilians or exploit vulnerable citizens,” said Senator Cardin, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “As societies around the world take shelter from the coronavirus, we must redouble our efforts to ensure the public health measures are not weaponized by those who value power more than people.”

A copy of the legislation can be found here.

The Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act would:

  • Authorize funding for Fiscal Years 2020-2025 for programs that support democratic institutions, civil society, human rights defenders, and protect freedom of the press and other internationally recognized human rights around the world during and in the aftermath of potentially harmful responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Require the Secretary of State and USAID Administrator to submit an initial strategic plan, within 30 days of enactment, describing how they plan to carry out such activities, followed later by a 5-year strategic plan to address violations of human rights during and in the aftermath of the coronavirus response, through American diplomacy and foreign assistance.
  • Require regular reporting by the State Department on how countries around the world are meeting or violating their human rights obligations, specifically focusing on the use of emergency measures or powers, during the coronavirus response. 
  • Make clear that for the purposes of certifying the delivery of security sector assistance under Section 502B(a)(4) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the systematic violation of internationally recognized human rights through the use of emergency laws, policies, or administrative procedures should be particularly considered when evaluating whether a country has engaged in a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights.
  • Add a new reporting requirement in the State Department Annual Human Rights Country Reports to include a reporting requirement on the misuse of emergency laws and powers; it also requires an annual congressional briefing on the reports’ findings.

Organizations supporting the legislation include Freedom House, Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights First, Council for Global Equality, Amnesty International USA, The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), and Human Rights Watch.

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