For Immediate Release: May 17, 2012
Washington, DC – In testimony on Capitol Hill, Human Rights First’s Brian Dooley today called on the U.S. State Department to issue a clear and consistent set of guidelines for embassy engagement with human rights defenders. He also urged embassies in repressive countries to publicly increase their support for human rights defenders and civil society groups, in order to match words with action.
In his remarks before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, Dooley acknowledged that often human rights defenders find support from the U.S. government in their work. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner frequently meet with defenders and civil society leaders in their travels, which offers a degree of support and recognition of non-governmental work in repressive societies. Pointing to positive examples of U.S. support for civil society groups and defenders, Dooley praised Ambassador Robert Ford’s work in Syria last year, as well as the role the U.S. embassy played in Uganda in opposition to the anti-homosexuality bill.
Despite these signals of support, at other times, engagement with defenders has been mixed, which often leads to ambiguity over the goal of U.S. policy. For example in Egypt, Dooley recommended that U.S. embassy staff visit offices of civil society groups, in order to public show support for their work, or to call the families of those unjustly detained, to show that they do not stand alone against the Egyptian army.
“While U.S. leaders have now acknowledged the false choice between stability and human rights, they have yet to match policies to rhetoric,” Dooley stated. “The administration’s recent decision in issuing a waiver to deliver unconditionally $1.3 billion of assistance to the Egyptian military despite ongoing human rights violations, including the prosecution of Egyptian human rights activists working alongside American NGO personnel who were subsequently able to leave Egypt with U.S. government assistance, has left many human rights defenders doubting the U.S. government’s stated support for human rights and consequently feeling isolated.”
Today’s hearing focused on ongoing threats to civil society groups and human rights defenders, as well as restrictive legislation placed on NGOs and the criminalization of human rights work in various countries. While there is much the United States can do to increase its support for this work, Dooley also testified that there is lack of clarity as to what defenders can expect from the embassy. For this reason, he reiterated support for a set of public guidelines that human rights defenders can use to engage with embassies. Such recommendations 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.
“As the Arab Spring and the bold escape of Chen Guangcheng prove, human rights is an enduring goal of people everywhere, ” Dooley concluded. “Human rights defenders looking to the United States for moral and material support are entitled to a clear and consistent message from the U.S. government, just as the U.S. diplomats working to advance human rights overseas deserve guidance on what is expected of them and what tools they can use to achieve it.”