United States: Chair Cardin Introduces Legislation to Protect Human Rights Defenders Worldwide

January 31, 2024

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and author of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, along with Representative Jim McGovern (D-Mass.-02) and Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Peter Welch (D-Vt.), introduced the Human Rights Defenders Protection Act of 2024. The legislation enhances the United States’ ability to protect individuals abroad who are attacked for peacefully defending human rights and democracy. The legislation will bolster the U.S. Government’s capacity to support human rights defenders in their efforts, including by establishing an interagency framework for doing so that will live beyond any one administration.

“Human rights defenders are heroes in the fight for democracy and freedom,” said Chair Cardin. “Yet, attacks against them are rapidly growing around the world, underscoring an urgent and critical need for the United States to do more to protect and support them. The Human Rights Defenders Protection Act will help elevate, guide, and enhance U.S. efforts to support these courageous individuals globally at a time when their efforts are more important than ever. I’d like to thank my colleagues in Congress for cosponsoring this crucial legislation, as well as our dedicated partner organizations across the global human rights community for their years of dedication and support behind this effort.”

“At a time when human rights defenders are under attack all over the world, it is encouraging to see such a strong bill being introduced to the floor of the Senate,” said Mary Lawlor, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders. “If enacted, this bill would be of great support to the women and men who face risks daily as they protect and promote the universally recognised human rights of others.”

“Today I am proud to join Sen. Cardin in introducing the Human Rights Defenders Protection Act of 2024,” said Congressman Jim McGovern. “We know how important human rights defenders are, and U.S. government officials often speak out in their defense all around the world. It’s good that we talk the talk, but we need to do more—we need to walk the walk. This bill makes absolutely clear that human rights defenders are key for U.S. interests by requiring concrete measures to integrate support for human rights defenders into U.S. assistance and activities abroad, assisting advocates who are forced into exile, working to end impunity for reprisals against defenders and engaging with the private sector to support and protect them. The bill’s comprehensive approach is exactly what we need to counter rising threats and attacks against human rights defenders worldwide and in every sector.”

“The United States was founded on the belief that liberty and freedom are inalienable rights for all people, and I have long argued that we must consistently reflect these fundamental values in our foreign policy as well,” said Senator Kaine. “This legislation will allow the U.S. to better support human rights defenders around the world who are taking great risks and making incredible personal sacrifices in the struggle against oppression. We must help them bring those same values home to their own communities.”

“Across the globe, journalists, civil society activists, environmental advocates, and everyday people who speak truth to power are increasingly coming under attack, both in their own countries and abroad,” said Senator Merkley. “We must strengthen our efforts to support the human rights defenders who work to make sure governments respect the rights of the people they are supposed to serve, and that those who trample on those rights and enrich themselves through corruption are held accountable for their abuses

“The United States has a profound responsibility to not only advocate for human rights, but also to actively protect and defend those who champion them,” said Senator Booker. “In the face of escalating threats against human rights defenders worldwide, this legislation is a crucial step to improving protections for those advocating for our most fundamental values.”

“As a nation built on the principles of freedom and self-determination, the United States has an important role to play in safeguarding and advancing human rights worldwide,” said Senator Van Hollen. By strengthening protections for human rights defenders facing threats and beefing up the capacity of our human rights offices, this legislation takes meaningful steps to promote essential universal rights around the globe.”

“The United States has a responsibility to protect human rights, democracy, and the rule of law both at home and overseas,” said Senator Markey. “The Human Rights Defender Protection Act strengthens the State Department’s ability to safeguard human rights, stand up to authoritarianism, and defend our fundamental principles.”

“This bill addresses serious deficiencies in the way our country supports human rights around the world. We have neither the trained personnel, nor adequate resources, to ensure that U.S. weapons and munitions are not misused to commit abuses or to support the many courageous defenders of human rights whose lives are threatened,” said Senator Welch. “By authorizing the funding to significantly strengthen the State Department’s capacity, practices, and programs to promote and support human rights, this bill reaffirms the fundamental values our country stands for.”

“Human rights defenders are under threat on every continent,” said Sarah Yager, Washington Director at Human Rights Watch. “This bill not only shows US support for their invaluable work but would make a real difference in their lives when they’re at risk of being detained, arrested, or worse. Instead of more Washington platitudes about defending the defenders, this bill launches tangible and much-needed efforts to protect people on the frontlines of human rights. Any Member of Congress that cares about human rights, no matter their political affiliation, should be able to get behind this bill.”

“This pivotal bill represents an important step forward in advancing a whole-of-government approach to protecting at-risk defenders and resourcing their vital work towards a just and fair global society,” said Tawanda Mutasah, Oxfam’s America Vice President of Global Partnerships and Impact. “Human rights defenders are critical in driving a just energy transition, upholding the rights of minority communities, countering democratic backsliding, and creating accountable and transparent systems of government. Oxfam America is proud to support the Human Rights Defenders Protection Act as we can only achieve a human rights-centered foreign policy if protections for at-risk rights defenders are viewed as an essential priority.”

“The Human Rights Defenders Protection Act of 2024 is a critical piece of legislation that will help strengthen and improve the U.S. government’s ability to support human rights defenders around the world,” said Andrew Fandino, Advocacy Director for the Individuals at Risk Program at Amnesty International USA. “With over 401 human rights defenders killed globally in 2022 alone, now more than ever, human rights defenders need this additional support and protection.”

“We welcome introduction of the Human Rights Defenders Protection Act, which would strengthen the United States’ ability to support human rights defenders (HRDs) around the world,” said Annie Boyajian, Vice President for Policy and Advocacy at Freedom House. “HRDs are on the frontlines of the struggle for freedom, working tirelessly to create a world that is safer and more prosperous for us all. All too often, they come under threat for this courageous work. The bill’s creation of a special visa for HRDs would enable them to temporarily continue their work in the United States until it becomes safe for them to return home – a powerful option that both supports HRDs and furthers efforts to counter authoritarianism. We urge Congress to pass this important legislation.”

“The Human Rights Defenders Protection Act addresses a significant gap in U.S. foreign policy. To respond effectively to rising authoritarianism, unchecked climate change, and transnational repression, we need to do more to protect the courageous people on the frontlines of these crises who are risking their lives to catalyze reforms,” said Kirk Herbertson, Senior Policy Advisor at EarthRights International. “Chairman Cardin’s legislation provides the U.S. government with the tools it needs to better support the civil society activists, journalists, and concerned citizens who are helping to save our planet.”

“This legislation signals a vital recognition by the U.S. of HRDs’ work as a force for stability and peace across the world. Protecting them helps protect us all,” said Brian Dooley, Senior Advisor at Human Rights First.

The Human Rights Defenders Protection Act of 2024 will:

  • Require a whole-of-government approach to ensure support for human rights defenders and their protection from attacks is part of U.S. bilateral and multilateral diplomatic, development, defense, economic, security assistance, and anti-corruption activities
  • Create a new, limited visa category to provide up to 500 at-risk human rights defenders with a multiple-entry, multi-year visa to the United States to ensure such individuals are able to safely continue their work from abroad before returning home when it is safe to do so
  • Require a global strategy for human rights defenders to bolster the ability of U.S. embassies and missions to protect human rights defenders, assess available tools and resources, and reduce impunity for attacks
  • Require the State Department to reclassify to higher levels at least ten human rights officers at missions and embassies facing complex democracy and human rights crises.
  • Expand the Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellows Program through which the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) hosts up to 20 at-risk human rights defenders annually to conduct independent research, outreach, and exchange in the United States
  • Equip diplomats with the tools they need to respond effectively to attacks on human rights defenders by ensuring that human rights defender issues are included in each mission’s integrated country strategy and provide diplomats with the monitoring, training, reporting, and coordination tools they need to respond more effectively
  • Codify and strengthen existing efforts, including important guidance from the Biden administration’s Guidelines for U.S. Diplomatic Support to Civil Society and Human Rights Defenders
  • Improve protections for human rights defenders at multilateral and regional bodies including the United Nations
  • Authorize $20 million each year from FY 2024 through FY2028 to carry out this work


[US Foreign Relations Committee]