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June 08, 2020

Human Rights Groups Urge Passage of Bipartisan Bill to Protect Human Rights During Pandemic

WASHINGTON -  In the wake of many government leaders around the world using the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext to enact emergency laws and policies aimed at centralizing power and curbing rights, 13 prominent human rights organizations organized by Human Rights First today signed a letter urging the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) and House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) to swiftly mark up the bipartisan, bicameral “Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act,” (PHRDPA, available here). The bill would mandate and enable the U.S. government to respond to a wave of abusive actions taken by foreign governments related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The PHRDPA would enable the U.S. government to take meaningful action in the face of egregious laws and policies enacted by some foreign governments to centralize power, censor their citizens, and otherwise curb human rights and fundamental freedoms under the guise of addressing the coronavirus pandemic,” the letter reads. “Given the strong bipartisan support demonstrated by the PHRDPA’s list of initial cosponsors, we respectfully urge that you move to mark up this important bill, and urge floor passage as soon as practicable.”

Said Human Rights First’s Rob Berschinski: 

The ongoing public health crisis has provided many leaders a pretext to accelerate power grabs, scapegoat marginalized populations, and attack journalists. In this environment, and with tens of thousands of Americans in the streets demanding equal rights at home, American leadership in support of fundamental freedoms has rarely been more important. 

The U.S. government should be doing everything in its power to support activists and other members of civil society fighting for their rights abroad. In quickly passing the Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act, the Congress could reassert U.S. leadership on a matter critical to U.S. national security. I commend the bill’s many sponsors from both sides of the political aisle, and urge leadership in both the House and Senate to advance a piece of legislation that costs relatively little but will have outsized impact.  

In response to actions curtailing human rights around the world, the PHRDPA would: 

  • Require the State Department and the U.S. Agency on International Development (USAID) to outline a five-year strategy to address “the persistent issues related to internationally recognized human rights in the aftermath of the novel coronavirus response,” and authorize the establishment of foreign assistance programs designed specifically to support civil society organizations and human rights defenders in countries where the abuse of emergency measures has resulted in the violation of human rights;

  • Prohibit, subject to a waiver in “extraordinary circumstances,” the U.S. government from providing security sector assistance to countries engaging in a “consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” by way of “emergency laws, policies, or administrative procedures;” and

  • Institute various reporting requirements that will help shed light on and maintain the U.S. government’s focus on human rights violations often associated with abusive emergency powers.

The 13 signatory human rights groups used today’s letter to commend the PHRDPA’s bipartisan co-sponsors—Senators Markey, Blackburn, Cardin, Cramer, Loeffler, Merkley, Murphy, Wicker, and Young; and Representatives McGovern, Wagner, Bilirakis, Fitzpatrick, Malinowski, and Raskin.