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Proposed US Law Would Protect Human Rights Defenders

Bill Would Provide Robust Protections for Activists Abroad

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

Today, United States Senator Ben Cardin introduced the Human Rights Defenders Protection Act of 2024, which aims to protect individuals abroad “who face reprisals for defending human rights and democracy.” The law, if enacted, would strengthen the US government’s ability to “prevent, mitigate, and respond” to such cases.

Senator Cardin said this legislation “will help elevate, guide, and enhance US efforts to support these courageous individuals globally at a time when their efforts are more important than ever.”  

The bill would integrate support for rights defenders into various US policies and programs and encourage engagement with the private sector. It aims to improve assistance for rights defenders living in exile from their home countries and strengthen US tools to hold perpetrators of rights abuses accountable.

Human Rights Watch has long documented the risks, threats, and attacks that rights defenders across the globe face. In Rwanda, for example, the government for many years has targeted with impunity rights defenders at home and extended its repression beyond its borders to silence Rwandan critics living abroad. Last December, the Emirati government brought new charges under its counterterrorism law against 87 activists and dissidents, including imprisoned rights defender Ahmed Mansoor.

The proposed legislation would create a new US visa for rights defenders who face a “credible fear of an urgent threat,” allowing those who qualify to reach safety before they are detained or harmed. It would also increase the number of US government personnel dedicated to democracy and human rights issues in the federal government and at embassies in countries with a high risk of rights abuses. 

If passed, the legislation would require the US government to establish a “Global Strategy for Human Rights Defenders.” The strategy would survey current tools and resources to support human rights, identify how the government would prioritize and bolster protections for rights defenders, and establish specific goals for implementing the legislation’s policy objectives.

Human Rights Watch urges members of Congress to support passage of the bill. The law would tangibly recognize the work of human rights defenders abroad who frequently put their lives on the line to promote and protect human rights and would establish bold new policies to provide them a measure of security in the face of persecution.

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