Following the first Summit for Democracy in December 2021, the United States engaged in a series of efforts to expand support for human rights defenders (HRDs) worldwide. For example, the Department of State issued and implemented guidelines that enabled U.S. diplomatic missions to support civil society and HRDs, engaged partners across the diplomatic community to advocate for increased protections for HRDs, raised the profile of human rights issues through high-level events, international convenings, and continued its robust support for HRDs through global, regional, and bilateral programs. USAID implemented projects in every region to enable human rights institutions and actors to work more effectively on preventing and mitigating violations against HRDs and others to protect their physical and mental health and to promote access to justice and recovery following human rights violations. USAID also launched new mechanisms to expand support for HRDs globally. Although not an exhaustive list, the below spotlights key initiatives and mechanisms leveraged during the Summit for Democracy Year of Action in support of HRDs.
Expanding Diplomatic Support for Human Rights Defenders
- International Advocacy for Human Rights Defenders at the United Nations: Following the United States return to the Human Rights Council (HRC) in 2022, the Department of State hosted several roundtable discussions with civil society ahead of the HRC 49th and 50th sessions. As part of the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council, the Department co-hosted a side event during the HRC’s 49th session on protecting Women Human Rights Defenders Online. In the same session, the United States co-sponsored the resolution “Recognizing the contribution of human rights defenders, including women human rights defenders, operating in conflict and post-conflict situations, to the enjoyment of human rights.” The United States also co-sponsored the Sweden-led joint statement on protecting environmental defenders. During the 50th session of the HRC, the United States co-led with partners the resolution on “Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association” to spotlight the struggle of civil society in politically charged contexts and call on states to establish and maintain a safe environment in which civil society can operate freely. Following the 50th session of the HRC, the Department continued to consult with various Syrian human rights defenders to advance justice and accountability efforts for atrocities committed by all parties and to make progress on the protracted issue of missing and arbitrarily detained persons in Syria. At the UNGA 77 Third Committee, the United States co-sponsored a joint statement led by Ireland on reprisals against Human Rights Defenders. In addition, the Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) L co-hosted a closed-door session on Human Rights Defenders Operating in Closed Political Spaces during the UNGA 77 High-Level Week, alongside Sweden.
- Strengthening U.S. Global Engagement in Support of Human Rights Defenders: The Department of State issued and implemented public and internal guidelines for U.S. diplomatic missions to strengthen to support civil society and HRDs globally. This effort included strengthening the U.S. diplomatic corps’ knowledge of existing measures and opportunities to promote defenders’ work and ways to protect HRDs when they come under threat.
- Convening Partners to Support Human Rights Defenders: The U.S. Department of State championed the 2022 Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Polish Chairmanship’s hosting of a Warsaw Human Dimension Conference, bringing together over 50 government delegations and hundreds of civil society representatives and frontline HRDs to spotlight concerns in the Europe-Eurasia region. In addition, the Department of State co-hosted the International Anti-Corruption Conference, which included a plenary session on defending HRDs. In addition, DRL and the European External Action Service co-hosted a joint strategic exchange between emergency assistance mechanisms, focused on how the United States and EU can better coordinate to protect HRDs when they are attacked online.
- Department of State briefings and public statements enhanced respect for the rights of human rights defenders globally: Last year, the Department of State conducted several briefings that covered topics including the killing of human rights defenders, restrictive NGO legislation trends, and measures restricting civic space that impacted both civil society and HRDs. Simultaneously, DRL issued public statements including the commemoration of International Women Human Rights Defenders Day and a joint statement in advance of the third U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council Ministerial in Washington, D.C.
- Integrating a Focus on Human Rights Defenders into International Fora: The Department of State organized a roundtable for Secretary Blinken with civil society leaders and human rights defenders across Southeast Asia ahead of the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit. DRL organized a roundtable for Secretary Blinken with Egyptian human rights defenders ahead of the United States’ participation in the COP27 Climate Conference in Egypt.
- Re-launching the Department of State Human Rights Defenders award: The Department re-launched the 2022 Human Rights Defender Awards to recognize the vital work of HRDs globally. In February 2023 State and USAID conducted discussion panels with HRDs about their challenges, how the United States could best support them, their work, and their communities, and effectively engage with their countries to address these issues.
Scaling Programmatic Support for Human Rights Defenders Globally
- Department of State Global, Regional, and Bilateral Programs to Support HRDs: DRL continued its support through several global, regional and bilateral programs that enhanced respect for human rights worldwide by supporting their physical, digital, and psychological protection of HRDs. These programs promoted the integrated security and resilience of civil society and human rights defenders by providing ongoing organizational security support, legal assistance, and digital, physical, and psychosocial security resources.
- Department of State Emergency Assistance: In the past year, more than 900 Human Rights Defenders across 67 countries and territories and more than 250 human rights CSOs in 57 countries have received support through Department of State -supported programs. Ninety-four percent of recipients report feeling safer after receipt of emergency assistance. Eighty-eight percent of HRDs or CSOs have returned to human rights work, in some capacity, after receipt of funds.
- USAID Rapid Support to Human Rights Defenders: Over the past year, USAID, through its Human Rights Grants Program (HRGP), provided over $14,000,000 million to USAID Missions globally to support time-sensitive human rights needs, including substantial support to HRDs. Through its Human Rights Support Mechanism (HRSM), USAID also provided rapid response support to HRDs and activists to protect themselves, their ability to work, and their mental health. Activities included the provision of physical or digital security assistance to HRDs, increased protection to at-risk individuals and populations at a higher risk due to their work, support to legal institutions and processes that are key to the protection of human rights, and assistance to groups working in increasingly closed or hostile environments.
- New Support for Human Rights Defenders: Last year, USAID’s DRG Center issued a new rapid response mechanism that responds to urgent and unmet needs in the technical areas of justice, human rights, and security. The rapid response mechanism protects the rights of HRDs who are at risk or threatened due to their human rights work and functions. In addition, the DRG Center issued a new Annual Program Statement (APS) that will enable USAID Missions and other Operating Units to access a streamlined process to request applications and issue assistance awards to partners for innovative approaches to enhancing respect for human rights. The DRG Center also announced a $3 million incentive fund to complement Mission funding to support and protect civil society activists and journalists who have been threatened, harassed, or attacked.
- Other USAID Central Mechanisms that Provide Support in Countries with Acute Need: USAID’s Illuminating New Solutions and Programmatic Innovations for Resilient Spaces’ (INSPIRES) program, the Greater Internet Freedom (GIF) program, and the Innovation for Change Network (I4C) program highlighted human rights violations, connected and supported activists (both offline and online), and improved the legal enabling environment for human rights activists. For instance, the I4C’s Africa hub recently launched the East Africa Community of Practice on Human Rights on human rights reporting, data mining, and protection and safety for journalists. USAID’s South Asia Hub raised $578,000 from outside donors to complement these efforts. In addition, USAID is developing a new program as part of the Presidential Initiative for Democracy Renewal, Powered by the People, to provide direct and accessible support that addresses the needs, opportunities, and challenges identified by activists and other civic actors engaged in nonviolent collective action.
- Strengthening Additional Regional and Bilateral Programs to Protect Human rights defenders: In addition to the global mechanisms noted above, USAID regional and bilateral Missions continued and enhanced their long-term support to protect HRDs, to prevent/mitigate abuses, and improve respect for human rights. In Ukraine, USAID provided sustained support to human rights defenders inside and outside of the country following the Russian Federation’s February 2022 full-scale invasion, including support to HRDs documenting mass atrocities and other gross human rights violations, countering Russian dis-information, and ensuring continuity of activities for HRDs in exile. In Burma, USAID provides support to human rights defenders, pro-democracy groups, and community leaders so that they can effectively respond to human rights abuses and political repression perpetrated by the military regime and other malevolent actors. In Sudan, USAID strengthened the capacity of civil society organizations and human rights defenders to document violations and advocate for human rights in this country.
- The United States recognizes that much work remains to be done before human rights defenders can do their work without fear of threats, persecution, reprisal, or death. To that end, the Department and USAID are proud to redouble their efforts to advance the advocacy, prevention, and protection of HRDs globally. The Department of State and USAID will continue their efforts in spotlighting the critical role that HRDs have played in promoting, protecting, respecting, and enjoying human rights and fundamental freedoms.