7-19-2011By Robert Joyce
Human Rights Defenders
The United States Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, is to be commended for visiting the city of Hama on July 8. His visit, expressly in solidarity with protestors, is exactly the kind of action the U.S. should take in Syria, and is a shining example of what the U.S. could achieve more consistently if the Department of State institutionalized public guidelines on how its missions should engage with human rights defenders. France’s Ambassador, Eric Chevallier, should also be commended for his visit to Hama for the same reasons.
In this case, Ambassador Ford’s public outreach took place in a country where U.S. policy options are limited but serious human rights violations are ongoing. As the death count rises in Hama and protests continue, outreach by the U.S.mission to Syrian protesters and activists demonstrate that the legitimate demands of protesters calling for basic rights and freedoms have international support.
We see how effective U.S. action can be in asserting the primacy of human rights to U.S. policy. The Syrian authorities were quick to criticize the visit. Following the foreign conspiracy playbook, the Syrian Foreign Ministry stated that Ambassador Ford’s visit was unmistakable evidence that the U.S. is orchestrating the nationwide protests. Syrian state television reported an unnamed Foreign Ministry official as saying:
“The presence of the U.S. ambassador in Hama without previous permission is obvious proof of a clear evidence of the United States’ involvement in current events in Syria and its attempt to incite an escalation in the situation, which disturbs Syria’s security and stability,”
The U.S. State Department was right to back up Ambassador Ford. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said “The fundamental intention was to make absolutely clear with his physical presence that we stand with those Syrians who are expressing their right to speak for change.”
Human Rights First agrees with Ms. Nuland. Ambassador Ford, through his “physical presence” made a powerful statement in support of human rights defenders that day.
The U.S. State Department should institutionalize such powerful actions as these and adopt public guidelines stating the importance of human rights defenders work, and the U.S. government’s commitment to protect and promote that work worldwide – including:
- 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.
- Publicizing the Leahy Law as a mandate to investigate and, where appropriate, cut off U.S. government support for foreign military and security units that have committed gross human rights violations.
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.
Human rights defenders often put their lives and livelihoods at risk to advance freedoms protected 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.