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January 31, Washington, D.C.–Today, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced the “Human Rights Defenders Protection Act of 2024.” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) also introduced the bill in the House of Representatives. If passed, this legislation would strengthen the U.S. government’s ability to protect civil society activists, community leaders, journalists, and other individuals worldwide who are being attacked for speaking up about human rights and democracy. 

EarthRights International Senior Policy Advisor Kirk Herbertson released the following statement: 

“We applaud Chairman Cardin and Rep. McGovern for introducing the Human Rights Defenders Protection Act. The U.S. government – including both Democratic and Republican administrations – has a long history of supporting human rights defenders, but these efforts have been largely reactive and ad hoc. As attacks against human rights defenders grow in number and sophistication, the United States needs to adopt a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach to supporting defenders who risk their safety and lives to defend democracy, human rights, and the environment. Our government needs to consider these brave individuals when it makes decisions on economic diplomacy, security assistance, climate change, and other top foreign policy priorities. 

“Attacks on human rights defenders, particularly those who speak out against extractive industries such as logging and mining, have increased in recent years. Some 401 human rights defenders were killed in 2022 compared to 358 in 2021. Each year, thousands face assassinations, arbitrary detention, torture, criminalization, and threats to their families and friends, all for speaking out on issues that affect their lives and livelihoods. 

“Environmental defenders and Indigenous rights advocates regularly experience some of the highest levels of violence of any category of human rights defenders. In every country where EarthRights works, our local partners have experienced such attacks. Much of the progress in the global response to climate change is happening at the local level. We need to rapidly scale up support for local community leaders and civil society advocates who are on the frontlines of the climate crisis.  

“On multiple occasions, U.S. embassies have provided support to businesses, security forces, and foreign government leaders implicated in attacks against human rights defenders. Companies that profit from violence against human rights defenders sell their products in markets that reach U.S. consumers. We in the U.S. are therefore obligated to do more to protect defenders. 

“While the U.S. government has occasionally used diplomatic pressure to respond to attacks and has demanded justice after they occur, these efforts have largely been ad-hoc. As a result, the U.S. government is often unprepared to anticipate and respond effectively to attacks or to track patterns of attacks as they emerge. There is still not a strong understanding within the U.S. government of the important role that human rights defenders play.

“With this landmark legislation, the United States can improve its effectiveness as a global champion of human rights and democracy and as a leader in the struggle against rising authoritarianism, while catalyzing a more effective response to the climate crisis. We urge Congress to pass the ‘Human Rights Defenders Protection Act of 2024.’”

Elaine Godwin (they/them)
Communications Coordinator, EarthRights International