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May 23, 2016

Consolidating U.S. Advances on Human Rights

Amid all the sobering news making headlines, it’s important to recognize that the U.S. government has been taking steps to consolidate advances made on human rights issues, with an eye to ensuring the sustainability of these efforts beyond the current administration.

The Obama Administration has been making the case on the Hill and to the international community that the U.S. government serves its interests when it engages with international human rights mechanisms, and that those mechanisms are stronger because of that engagement.

On May 17, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a hearing on the status of the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) on the ten-year anniversary of its creation. Several U.S. officials testified, including Ambassador Keith Harper. This hearing highlighted how U.S. engagement with the HRC is driving a focus on the most serious human rights violators worldwide.

Earlier in the year, the U.S. government released its pledges and commitments on human rights as part of its campaign as a candidate for election to the HRC in November 2016. The United States is on a mandatory gap year in observer status, after two consecutive three-year terms on the HRC. Its pledges focused not only on how the U.S. government promotes human rights abroad, but also on its efforts to “live up to our ideals at home.”

Also last week, President Obama issued an executive order setting out a comprehensive approach to atrocity prevention and response, which builds on the 2011 policy directive that created the Atrocity Prevention Board (APB). The APB is an interagency mechanism tasked with monitoring and responding to potential mass atrocities, and it has focused on conflict prevention work. The executive order is an important step in that it institutionalizes the APB and the commitments it represents.

As a senior administration official noted in a background briefing, the executive order creates “a blueprint for any next administration that wants to take up the work of the board – and we believe that this is an institution that is worth enduring through to the next administration.”

American leadership “depends on the power of our example,” as President Obama emphasized in his 2016 State of the Union address. In this vein, one of the senior officials discussing the APB this past week highlighted that the executive order “sets out a model for other governments that are thinking about how to organize themselves to be better about atrocity prevention.”

As the United States continues to look for opportunities to lead by example on human rights, breathing new life into the State Department’s guidelines on support for human rights defenders should be near the top of the list. The guidelines help to clarify what U.S. officials should do to help defenders work without interference. This can be an important resource to human rights defenders, who routinely face violence, threats, and intimidation as a result of their work, but many activists and even U.S. diplomats don’t even know that they exist.

The State Department should intensify its efforts to implement these guidelines, which were issued in 2013, translate them into additional languages including Arabic, and post them prominently on embassies’ websites. More broadly, the U.S. government should ensure that its embassies are consistently engaging productively with human rights defenders.

For more information on the guidelines and other resources for human rights defenders, please see our resources page for defenders who are facing security threats because of their work.