Human Rights First Urges Swift Passage of Bipartisan, Bicameral “Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act”

WASHINGTON – As foreign leaders use the battle against COVID-19 to censor their populations, erase checks on their rule, and discriminate against minority populations, human rights are becoming another casualty of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Today Human Rights First urged immediate passage of the ‘‘Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act,” bipartisan, bicameral legislation (available here) that would mandate that the U.S. government take important steps to respond to a global wave of actions imposed by foreign governments aimed at restricting internationally-recognized human rights in the wake of COVID-19.

“The world is facing not one but two pandemics at the moment,” said Rob Berschinski, Human Rights First’s Senior Vice President for Policy. “In addition to the massive health and economic costs associated with COVID-19, many countries are currently afflicted by a parallel pandemic of leaders exploiting the virus to centralize power, erode checks and balances, and scapegoat minority populations.”

The legislation, which was jointly announced today by Senators Edward Markey (D-MA), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), as well as Representatives James P. McGovern (D-MA-02), Ann Wagner (R-MO-02), and Tom Malinowski (D-NJ-07), requires the State Department and USAID to establish a five-year strategic plan outlining steps the U.S. government will take to uphold democracy and human rights abroad in the wake of the pandemic while authorizing funds to support the plan. The bill also bolsters the conditioning of security sector assistance on human rights grounds and establishes several reporting requirements.

Berschinski, along with Human Rights First Advocacy Counsel Benjamin Haas, outlined in early April steps that Congress could take to save lives, protect human rights, fight corruption, and bolster U.S. leadership as part of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Several of these recommendations are reflected in the bill.

“China’s government has already demonstrated that censoring free speech and the media can allow the virus to spread,” said Berschinski. “Autocratically-minded politicians in Hungary, the Philippines, and Turkey are exploiting the outbreak to seize power and jail critics. Governments in India and Uganda are exploiting fear and misinformation to target religious and sexual minorities. COVID-19 certainly didn’t create these trends, but it is exacerbating and accelerating them. In this environment, it’s heartening to see members of Congress from both parties exerting leadership on human rights. Congress should pass this low-cost, high-payoff legislation as soon as possible.”


Published on May 7, 2020


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