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US Senator Calls for ‘Human Rights Defender’ Visa Category

President Biden Should Support Rights Activists at Risk

A view of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on May 28, 2020. © 2020 Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via AP Images

The chairman of the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Menendez, has called for a new limited visa category for human rights defenders facing “imminent grave danger and persecution.”

In a letter sent Tuesday, Menendez urged President Joe Biden to take this step to protect rights defenders who face increasing threats, as well as support people working to advance freedoms across the globe.

Throughout the world, countless human rights defenders – broadly defined as anyone who alone or with others works peacefully to promote or protect human rights – are at risk from governments or armed groups. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders has said that rights defenders “have been the target of executions, torture, beatings, arbitrary arrest and detention, death threats, harassment and defamation, as well as restrictions on their freedoms of movement, expression, association and assembly.”  

Human Rights Watch continually documents and tracks the challenges and threats human rights defenders experience across the globe, such as the arbitrary detention of activists and lawyers during the COP27 climate conference in Egypt to the threats and attacks on Indigenous activists in the Philippines. Brave and determined people like these will benefit from having an emergency visa to a safe place in their back pockets.

The visa would offer a select number of defenders a multiyear, multi-entry visa to the United States that can be used when they are facing an urgent threat. It would be available for people who would prefer to stay and work in their country but would benefit from this safety net in urgent circumstances.

The new visa category has been championed by human rights organizations for years. The option for such a visa not only has the potential to protect defenders from imminent threats but bolsters their morale and signals that the United States is standing with them. 

Human Rights Watch urges President Biden to publicly endorse this new visa category at the March 2023 Summit for Democracy and commit to working with Congress to implement it. Human rights defenders are on the front lines of protecting democratic values and the rule of law, making the summit the perfect venue for Biden to deliver on his message of freedom and human rights. Repressive governments need to know that the United States is not only watching but willing to respond.  

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