Blackburn, Markey Lead Bipartisan, Bicameral Effort to Counter Human Rights Abuses Worldwide Amidst Coronavirus Pandemic

May 7, 2020

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) introduced legislation requiring the State Department and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to take steps, through diplomacy and development assistance, to prevent human rights abuses from being carried out in the name of the coronavirus response. Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) are original cosponsors.

The Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act makes clear that in the tradition of its long history of global leadership, the United States should encourage the protection of human rights during the coronavirus response and through diplomacy and development assistance abroad.

During public health emergencies, governments may need to take extraordinary action to halt the spread of disease through steps such as restricting the movement of people, closing businesses, and limiting access to public spaces. However, countries are also obligated to continue to protect human rights at all times, even and especially during national emergencies. In many countries with COVID–19 cases, governments have taken steps that restrict the human rights of their citizens without clear scientific or public health justifications, or any end date or functional oversight.

“We cannot allow this pandemic to give leeway to countries to institute emergency laws or surveillance measures that violate the rights of their citizens,” said Senator Blackburn. “The U.S. is a leader in the international community in COVID-19 response, and this leadership should include support of democratic institutions, civil society, and freedom of the press worldwide. Consistent reporting by the State Department will shine a light on the actions governments such as China are trying to hide, and a comprehensive plan to address this issue will provide a path forward so that the post-pandemic world is not less free than it was before.”

“From Budapest to Manila, Beijing to Moscow - around the world strongmen and authoritarians see the coronavirus as the perfect opportunity to consolidate power, silence dissent, and increase invasive surveillance measures without any oversight or accountability,” said Senator Markey, Ranking Member of the East Asia Subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee. “Even, and especially, in democracies it’s important to ensure that governments are taking every possible step to protect the rights of their people as they weigh the proper responses to the coronavirus pandemic. We know that vulnerable and marginalized populations are often at greatest risk when human rights, such as access to information, are curtailed. This legislation, through its reporting requirements, programming authorization, and required strategic planning will make sure that no one is forgotten, and that the United States acts as a leading voice to support human rights around the world at this difficult time.”

Representatives James P. McGovern (MA-02), Ann Wagner (MO-02), and Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) are introducing companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

A copy of the legislation can be found here.

The Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act would:

  • Authorize funding for Fiscal Years 2020-2025 for programs that support democratic institutions, civil society, human rights defenders, and protect freedom of the press and other internationally recognized human rights around the world during and in the aftermath of potentially harmful responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Require the Secretary of State and USAID Administrator to submit an initial strategic plan, within 30 days of enactment, describing how they plan to carry out such activities, followed later by a 5-year strategic plan to address violations of human rights during and in the aftermath of the coronavirus response, through American diplomacy and foreign assistance.
  • Require regular reporting by the State Department on how countries around the world are meeting or violating their human rights obligations, specifically focusing on the use of emergency measures or powers, during the coronavirus response. 
  • Make clear that for the purposes of certifying the delivery of security sector assistance under Section 502B(a)(4) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the systematic violation of internationally recognized human rights through the use of emergency laws, policies, or administrative procedures should be particularly considered when evaluating whether a country has engaged in a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights.
  • Add a new reporting requirement in the State Department Annual Human Rights Country Reports to include a reporting requirement on the misuse of emergency laws and powers; it also requires an annual congressional briefing on the reports’ findings.

“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. We can’t allow this pandemic to be used as a justification for the abuse of emergency powers at the expense of vulnerable populations. Transparency, accountability, and informed participation are the keys to our recovery. I am proud to introduce this important bipartisan bill alongside Senator Markey 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.”

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.

Organization supporting the legislation include Freedom House, Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights First, Council for Global Equality, Amnesty International USA, and International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL).