To Restore Global Leadership, U.S. Government Should Protect Human Rights Defenders

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As global crises continue to stack up, U.S. moral leadership has faltered. After the COVID-19 pandemic struck, many people noticed that the U.S. government was not at the forefront of the global response. After the brutal murder of George Floyd and widespread protests against police brutality and racism, at least a few authoritarian leaders challenged the U.S. government’s apparent hypocrisy in promoting human rights and democracy abroad.

Numerous leaders and foreign policy experts have called for a strengthening of U.S. moral leadership in 2021, most notably presidential candidate Joe Biden. But how should the U.S. government re-establish its leadership in a world that is being slammed by wave after wave of unprecedented disasters?

The first step is surely to repair our own house. As Professor David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression wrote, “The phrase ‘human rights’ in American policy has almost always referred to what others violate, and it rarely comes back to what the U.S. government is obligated to protect at home.”

Change is happening in the United States, but not in the traditional hierarchical way. In a widely read New York Times article, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor described how leadership in the Movement for Black Lives comes from organizers on the ground, not from Black elected officials. Brave individuals on the frontlines who are not entrenched in the halls of power are driving this cultural and political transformation. 

The same is true with other human rights movements around the world. Every day individuals are stepping up to demand that their communities’ voices are heard. It might seem chaotic at times, but this is democracy at its best.

The U.S. government can restore its moral leadership by embracing this reality and signaling a new approach to foreign policy that places the protection of human rights defenders front and center. “Human rights defenders” are the individuals who boldly stand up to powerful interests to demand respect for basic human rights. They are social justice activists who are protesting the long legacy of police brutality and racism against Black communities. They are medical professionals like Dr. Li Wenliang, who bravely warned the public about the dangers of the COVID-19 virus, only to be repressed by the Chinese government. They are the hundreds of journalists and activists who are murdered each year for exposing corruption, human rights abuses, and environmental pollution that devastate communities worldwide.

U.S. diplomacy has long played an important role in protecting human rights defenders, especially when the defenders cannot look to their own governments for help. U.S. embassy officials often have a seat at the table in high-level political discussions in countries where ordinary citizens themselves might not get to participate. 

A new report by EarthRights International examines the U.S. government’s track record in protecting human rights defenders and concludes that much more needs to be done to respond to our new, crisis-filled reality.

Attacks on human rights defenders occur with disturbing frequency. In addition to the documented killings, there are also countless examples of violence, criminalization, and smear campaigns, all designed to silence the free speech of those who speak truth to power. The masterminds behind these attacks are often powerful interests who are “above the law” in their home countries. Governments rarely investigate or prosecute these attacks, unless there is sustained pressure from the international community. 

As our report reveals, the U.S government’s efforts to protect human rights defenders are often piecemeal. Sometimes U.S. embassies play a crucial role in protecting human rights defenders, and sometimes their efforts are counterproductive or even harmful; it varies widely. This was the case even before the Trump administration. 

In this report, we call on the State Department to develop a stronger policy on protecting human rights defenders. This will likely require Congressional action–In the past, many if not most human rights reforms have occurred only when mandated by Congress. Fortunately, many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle believe that U.S. global leadership on human rights is essential to our safety and prosperity.

All over the world, brave individuals on the frontlines are demanding respect for human rights as our societies undergo enormous stresses and changes. By protecting these individuals, the U.S. government will be better positioned to protect America — and the world — from pandemics, climate change, rising authoritarianism, and many other harsh realities of modern life.

To learn more, download the report:

Speak without Fear: The Case for a Stronger US Policy on Human Rights Defenders

Please also share our factsheet for human rights defenders on how to reach out to U.S. embassies for help.

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