U.S. Should Institutionalize its Commitment to Human Rights Defenders

Washington, D.C.—Secretary Clinton’s speech at last year’s Communities of Democracy ministerial in Krakow was a compelling call to arms for the promotion of civil society worldwide. This Thursday at the ministerial in Vilnius, Secretary Clinton has the opportunity to start institutionalizing the United States’ commitment to human rights defenders. She should announce public guidelines for engagement between U.S. embassies and human rights defenders. Public guidelines are concrete evidence of the U.S. government’s dedication to the protection and promotion of human rights defenders’ work. “While many U.S. missions are doing  excellent work by meeting with human rights defenders and raising concerns with host governments about their treatment, the level and consistency of this work varies not just from embassy to embassy—but also from foreign service officer to foreign service officer,” said Human Rights First’s Quinn O’Keefe. “Yet, asserting that it is U.S. government policy to engage with human rights defenders across the globe is now more important than ever. As the U.S. seeks to deepen ties to civil society in countries like Egypt and Bahrain, some are questioning whether the U.S.  had the human rights defenders’ interests in mind before their popular uprisings.” Human rights defenders guidelines are not a new concept. The E.U. and Norway have human rights defenders guidelines in place that operationalize and coordinate how their missions should meet with, advocate on behalf of, and protect human rights defenders. “Internal policies are not enough,” said O’Keefe. “Human rights defenders often place their lives and livelihoods on the line to advance the rights and freedoms enumerated in the U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Knowing that they can expect a certain amount of support and engagement from the U.S. government would only encourage them further in their work.” A public description of how the U.S. government could institutionalize these practices should include:

  • A public recognition that by challenging injustice and raising awareness about human rights, human rights defenders are essential in bringing about positive, lasting change within a society;
  • A stated commitment to protect human rights defenders against attacks and threats from government and non-state actors;
  • A stated commitment that when senior U.S. government officials make country visits they should, as a matter of course, meet with human rights defenders;
  • A stated commitment that political dialogues between the U.S. government and foreign governments should cover the situation of human rights defenders;
  • A stated commitment that the U.S. government should publicly raise individual human rights defender cases of concern;
  • Encouragement for the establishment and support of national (and regional) bodies for the promotion and protection of human rights, in accordance with the Paris Principles;
  • A stated commitment to the principle that human rights defenders should have access to resources and support from abroad;
  • Public actions showing the U.S. government to be working closely with other like-minded countries on human rights defenders issues in the Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly, and elsewhere.

The U.S. government should also make public a list of duties that U.S. embassies, consulates, and other U.S. government representatives are expected to conduct to further protect and promote human rights defenders. These should include:

  • Establish and maintain regular contact with human rights defenders – including inviting them to the U.S. embassy and visiting them at their offices;
  • Appoint liaison officers to develop and maintain relationships with human rights defenders in local communities;
  • Observe trials of human rights defenders, where appropriate;
  • Coordinate with other like-minded governments on their analysis and monitoring of the situation of human rights defenders, especially those at risk;
  • Assist in establishing networks of human rights defenders at an international level – including facilitating meetings;
  • Use the media to increase public visibility and support for human rights defenders highlighting specific cases;
  • Continue to address the situation of human rights defenders in their reporting to the U.S. Department of State and other parts of the U.S. government, particularly any threats or attacks against human rights defenders;
  • Inform human rights defenders of available U.S. government programs, grants, and resources for which they can apply, and assist in the application process, as appropriate;
  • Monitor/ask about technological tools used by human rights defenders, ensuring their rights to free expression and association are not violated.

Published on June 30, 2011


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