WASHINGTON – U.S. Representatives James P. McGovern (D-MA) and Ann Wagner (R-MO), joined by Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) and Jamie Raskin (D-MD), have introduced the Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act (H.R. 6986) to affirm U.S. leadership and support for the protection of internationally recognized human rights during and after the coronavirus pandemic. The bill authorizes the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to respond with diplomacy and development assistance when countries use the pandemic to justify cracking down on freedom of the press, increasing unchecked surveillance or consolidating executive power.
During public health emergencies, governments may take steps to halt the spread of disease such as restricting the movement of people, closing businesses, and limiting access to public spaces. But under international law countries must continue to comply with their human rights obligations, even and especially during national emergencies. Unfortunately, many governments have reacted to COVID–19 by restricting the human rights of their populations without clear scientific or public health justifications, or any end date or functional oversight.
“The United States must lead the way in making sure that the coronavirus pandemic does not become an excuse for governments to violate human rights or for authoritarian leaders to consolidate their rule,” said Rep. McGovern. “Our best shot at overcoming this public health crisis is to make sure everyone, everywhere has access to the best available information and can hold leaders accountable for their response. Transparency, accountability, and informed participation are the keys to our recovery. I am proud to introduce this important bipartisan bill alongside Rep. Wagner and my House colleagues to put human rights first as we confront and recover from this pandemic.”
“As countries respond to the deadly pandemic at hand, some bad actors are taking advantage of this public health emergency to expand their own powers at the expense of basic human rights,” said Rep. Wagner. “We must be vigilant in preventing human rights abuses disguised as public safety measures and hold accountable the authoritarians who see COVID-19 as an opportunity to suppress dissent. Some governments have used the coronavirus response as a means to chip away at the rights of their citizens, stifle protests, and limit the freedom of speech and of the press, violations we vehemently oppose and will firmly defend against.”
“The United States is a global leader in defending and advocating for human rights around the world. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have unfortunately seen a crackdown on basic human rights across the globe, said Rep. Fitzpatrick. “By reinforcing our support for global human rights, we can continue to actively work towards making the world a better place.”
“From Bolsonaro in Brazil to Erdogan in Turkey to Putin in Russia, the world’s dictators and autocrats are exploiting the global pandemic crisis to violate human rights, attack democracy, consolidate executive power, and criminalize basic freedoms of speech and assembly,” said Rep. Raskin. “When governments use the pretext of a public health crisis to pass authoritarian emergency laws without democratic accountability, we all become less safe and less free. This legislation puts in place requirements and provisions to push back on these brazen attacks against democracy and human rights.”
“As Co-Chairman of the International Religious Freedom Caucus, I am proud of the work we are doing to end the persecution around the globe of those who are simply exercising their basic human rights. We must continue to empower the oppressed and ensure that their voices are not silenced during this difficult time, which is why I am proud to be a co-sponsor of this important legislation,” said Rep. Bilirakis.
“Dictatorships are exploiting this pandemic to justify attacks on some of the very things we need to protect ourselves against future pandemics — including freedom of expression and information, independent journalism, and the rights of whistleblowers,” said Rep. Malinowski. “This bill will ensure that we call out everyone, whether friend or foe, who takes advantage of this crisis to stifle dissent and that we hold them accountable.”
The Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act authorizes funding through 2025 for programs that support democratic institutions, civil society and human rights defenders, and protect freedom of the press; requires the Secretary of State and USAID to develop a strategic plan to address violations of human rights due to the coronavirus response; includes a determination of whether a country has violated human rights in responding to the pandemic as a factor when certifying security sector assistance; and adds a new reporting requirement on the misuse of emergency laws to the annual State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.
The bill has been endorsed by a wide range of human rights organizations including the American Jewish World Service, Amnesty International USA, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Council for Global Equality, Freedom House, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), PEN America, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), the US-Europe Alliance and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).