Human Rights Defenders Protection Act of 2024: US bill signals positive steps in the protection of Human Rights Defenders worldwide

by Tom Bicko Ooko Environmental human rights defenders

On Wednesday 31 January 2024, United States Senator Ben Cardin and Representative James McGovern introduced the Human Rights Defenders Protection Act of 2024, a bill that seeks to protect Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) facing retaliation globally for defending human rights and democracy. Notably, Senator Cardin was also the author of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which established one of the most comprehensive sanctions regimes for human rights violations around the world. If passed, the HRDs legislation will not only strengthen the US Government’s ability to prevent, mitigate and respond to attacks levelled against HRDs, but also enhance their protection through the establishment of an interagency framework for supporting HRDs that will remain in place across subsequent administrations. Moreover, if the bill ultimately became law, it would send a strong signal of institutional backing for the protection of HRDs worldwide, a protection that is much needed at a time when defenders face mounting threats and risks. Among such risks, HRDs face death and physical threats, they are subject to smear campaigns, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, and murder. In 2022 alone, over 400 defenders were killed around the world, although the real figures are estimated to be considerably higher, but remain limited due to lack of transparency and underreporting. 

The Universal Rights Group welcomes the introduction of this piece of legislation, which will remain critical in ensuring the protection and recognition of all agents of positive change who individually or in groups act peacefully to promote or ensure the realisation of human rights through fair and just solutions. The legislation strongly reaffirms the US commitment to the protection of human rights defenders not only in the States but also beyond American borders. The Alliance for Land, Indigenous and Environmental Defenders (ALLIED), which URG is a member of, has long advocated for the key role that HRDs, and in particular environmental human rights defenders, play in safeguarding the fundamental principles of freedom and access to justice, thereby directly contributing to the realisation of human rights and strengthening the rule of law through their actions. Across a network of international, regional, national, and grassroots organisations,  ALLIED works to build protection skills among defenders, strengthen government and business safeguards for defenders, and protect civil society actors who are addressing root causes of threats and attacks on defenders.

Over the years since its founding in 2018, ALLIED has worked with HRDs, particularly, Indigenous, Land and Environmental Defenders (ILEDs) to support them in developing a safe and enabling environment, as well as to empower them and foster their agency, encourage multi-stakeholder action, and drive systemic change strategies to address, prevent, and respond to threats against them. 

In the last decade, it has become clearer that ILEDs remain the most targeted category of HRDs that face the highest rate of lethal reprisals according to the statistics from reports released annually on threats, attacks and killings levelled against HRDs globally. In 2023 ALLIED published the 2nd Edition of the Crucial Gap Report that highlighted the limits of official reporting on the violence faced by defenders and why it is a concerning trend. In the year 2022 alone, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHHRC) registered 555 attacks against defenders raising concerns about harmful business practices. Of these, 75% were against climate, land and environmental defenders. This data points to a higher number of ILEDs falling victim to both lethal and non-lethal attacks for their work. ALLIED’s Data Working Group also uncovered through a collaborative effort, merging local, regional and international datasets from Colombia, Guatemala, Kenya, Mexico and the Philippines – which are considered some of the most dangerous countries for ILEDs to live in – that there is widespread underreporting of attacks against ILEDs. The report ensuing from this work, titled Uncovering the Hidden Iceberg, also revealed alarming patterns of non-lethal attacks against ILEDs that are often a precursor to lethal violence indicating that the situation of these defenders is much more concerning than previously believed. On top of it all, their families and close associates are also not always spared from the violence as in certain instances they end up becoming targets as well. 

In many countries where conflicts bordering human rights and the environment are perilously on the rise, both at the local and the national level, HRDs are constantly becoming targets for actions carried out by State and non-State actors with utmost impunity. For instance, ILEDs are mostly profiled as being ‘anti-development’ and people who just want to stand in the way of progress, a characterisation that increases their chances of facing severe risks and consequential threats to their lives. As mentioned above, crucial gaps in State-reported data severely undermine the ability to monitor the situation of HRDs, particularly those protecting land, environment and indigenous peoples’ rights, and in turn impair States’ ability to protect them. As countries continue to develop, the number of HRDs facing threats will increase, hence the urgent need to put measures in place to protect them.

In light of these challenges, the recently introduced US bill importantly addresses many protection gaps, and by joining the relatively small number of countries that have adopted such legislation, it can lay down a vital example for other countries to follow. First, it acknowledges the role of HRDs as a force of ‘stability and peace across the world’. Second, the bill’s operative provisions would integrate support and protection for HRDs across the entire spectrum of US foreign policy, cutting across bilateral and multilateral activities in diplomacy, development, defence, security, and economy. This would entail, among others, that US embassies and missions abroad would be better equipped to provide HRDs with tools and resources to stay safe, and would allow for the creation of a limited visa category through which defenders at heightened risk could travel to the US to continue their work from there. At the institutional level, a noteworthy provision of the bill is that the US State Department would be required to reclassify to higher levels human rights officers stationed in missions ‘facing complex democracy and human rights crises,’ which shows a notable commitment to reinforcing resources allocated to human rights protection in challenging contexts. Speaking of the bill, Kirk Herbertson, Senior Policy Advisor at EarthRights International and member of ALLIED, said that it ‘sends a strong message that the United States and other governments can and should do more to support human rights defenders. It’s time for the international community to recognise that many of our shared goals − from ending the climate crisis to stopping the spread of authoritarianism − all depend on ensuring that defenders are able to advocate peacefully for reforms in their home countries without fear of retaliation.’

In terms of enshrining the protection of defenders in legislation, the precedent set by the Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) with the adoption of the Escazú agreement in March 2018 is worth emulating world over. It is the region’s first treaty on environmental matters and the world’s first to include legally binding provisions on human rights defenders in environmental issues. Significantly, some of the ALLIED Network members played a crucial role in its development, as part of the civil society organisations that successfully advocated for States to initiate the negotiation process around access rights in 2012. To date, the Escazú agreement has been signed by 24 countries from LAC and ratified by 12 countries. The recent move to introduce legislation to protect HRDs in the US fortifies such efforts to increase recognition for HRDs’ work and represents a positive gradual shift towards the full implementation of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders

As stated by US Senator Cardin upon introducing the legislation, ‘human rights defenders are heroes in the fight for democracy and freedom, yet, attacks against them are rapidly growing around the world, underscoring an urgent and critical need for the United States to do more to protect and support them. The Human Rights Defenders Protection Act will help elevate, guide, and enhance U.S. efforts to support these courageous individuals globally at a time when their efforts are more important than ever.’ The enactment of the bill would represent a pivotal step towards increasing the protection of those who are on the frontlines of human rights and environmental crises, and could pave the way for other countries to follow with similar initiatives, ultimately bringing them closer to the full realisation of their obligations under international human rights law standards and the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Only by doing so will States be able to, in the words of High Commissioner Volker Türk, recognise and safeguard these ‘activists, peacebuilders, and civil society groups [who] translate global human rights norms into concrete action.’

Image credit: Foreign Relations Committee, US Senate

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