State Department’s Second Chance To Get HRD Guidelines Right
By Brian Dooley
Ten years ago, I testified in the US Congress for Human Rights First on why the US government should issue guidelines to its embassies on engaging with human rights defenders.
We then spoke to State Department bureaucrats in many months of negotiations too soporific to recount here, and by March 2013 they finally produced some useful guidelines for US diplomats, modelled largely on those adopted by European countries a decade before.
It’s a great idea – US government officials were offered specific advice on how and why to engage with Human Rights Defenders, and the hope was that the guidelines would set minimum standards for US embassies all over the world.
Engagement with human rights defenders by US diplomats tends to patchy – some embassies do it well, others hardly do it at all. HRDs in countries which are antagonistic to Washington tend to enjoy relatively easy access to US diplomats who share their criticism of the local government, whereas HRDs in countries ruled by dictators who are allies of the US complain about a lack of support from US embassies.
The guidelines encouraged officials to maintain regular contact with HRDs, or possibly to attend their trials or visit them in detention, and otherwise explore ways to support and protect them. All good in principle, but the State Department failed to adequately encourage its embassies to implement the suggestions.
So five years ago I was back in the US Congress, testifying that the guidelines “haven’t been properly promoted or widely translated …[and that] protecting HRDs is too important a job to do half-heartedly.”
Those US guidelines were pretty good, but the problem was so few people ever heard about them. When I mentioned them to human rights NGO staff, to officials of other governments, to human rights defenders, to people in the UN, to American ambassadors in the Middle East, even to State Department officials in the Bureau of Democracy, Rights and Labor, I was generally met with a “Huh?”
The good news is that, after more years of advocacy by ourselves, Earthrights, and others, the State Department has now released updated guidelines, complete with an assurance that “The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to putting human rights and democratic principles at the center of our foreign policy.” All nice enough, though these commitments to support HRDs should be institutionalized long term and not dependent on a particular administration.
The content is strong, advising sensible courses of action including that US officials “Encourage investigations and prosecution of those who harass and attack human rights defenders,” and that US officials “seek the consent of human rights defenders before taking any actions on their behalf and take precautions in communicating with them online and offline.”
The guidelines could act a great starting point for US officials at any embassy who want to connect with local civil society and activists. The challenge is to prevent these new standards from getting left on the shelf like the last ones.
To guard against that, we and others are hoping Congress will pass legislation aimed at keeping the State Department focused on protecting HRDs, including requiring US embassies to post the guidelines on their websites in relevant languages in an invitation to local HRDs to engage with them.
This engagement and support is currently horribly inconsistent. For instance, last week the US embassy in Niger issued a short public statement in support of local HRDs, which is great. But the US embassy in Cairo has for years been mortifyingly silent about the extensive attacks on local HRDs by Egyptian authorities.
The US government should use its power much more often to protect human rights defenders, not least at a local level where its embassies can offer much more consistent support to human rights defenders, and not just in countries that are adversaries of the US, but with its allies too.