How Congress Can Save Lives, Protect Rights, and Exert U.S. Leadership Globally in Response to Coronavirus

Regrettably, the Trump administration has matched its lack of preparedness for a pandemic with a failure to organize and lead a global response. In keeping with an “America First” foreign policy, President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have spent more time focused on assigning and deflecting blame than on building international mechanisms capable of exerting U.S. leadership and minimizing human suffering. The upshot of this abdication has been a vacuum of coordinated action, Chinese and Russian attempts to advance their soft power at the United States’ expense, and power grabs by authoritarians eager to seize the moment for a “coronavirus coup.”

But it’s not too late for the U.S. government to reverse course. Unfortunately, given the Trump administration’s foreign policy proclivities, it’s likely that Congress will have to do much of the heavy lifting. And while implementation of foreign policy rests primarily with the executive branch, the legislative arm of the U.S. government retains considerable ability to influence events abroad.

By all indications, Congress is gearing up to pass another massive relief and stimulus bill to manage the economic fallout from COVID-19 and provide support to the nation’s response efforts. The overwhelming focus of such legislation will, appropriately, center on Americans struggling against unprecedented economic hardship. Yet Congress shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to address many critical international aspects of the outbreak and to adjust U.S. foreign policy to account for some foreign governments’ responses.

The following is a non-exhaustive list of steps Congress could take through legislation to save lives, protect human rights, fight corruption, and bolster U.S. leadership as part of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Engagement through the U.N. and Other Multilateral Bodies 

As one of us wrote in Just Security in March, a compelling case can be made that the United Nations Security Council — where the United States joins China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom as permanent members — should immediately label the COVID-19 outbreak a threat to international peace and security and leverage the body’s unique ability to establish a high-level, global response-coordination mechanism. No such move has occurred due to the Trump administration’s disdain for multilateral cooperation, Chinese and Russian objections to what they perceive as a broadening of the council’s mandate, and finger pointing between Washington and Beijing.

Far from putting “America First,” the council’s lack of action, and separate floundering diplomatic initiatives undertaken under the auspices of the G7 and G20, will undoubtedly harm U.S. interests in the long run.

The U.S. government is appropriately prioritizing its fight against COVID-19 at home. But with prudent planning and modest expenditures relative to the price of playing catch-up, diplomats and public health experts need not siphon resources from domestic response efforts. With many developing countries yet to feel the full force of the virus’s impact, the U.N. Development Programme has indicated that COVID-19 is likely to spur social and economic crises for years to come, on top of its likely devastating health impacts. On humanitarian and security grounds, it is decidedly in America’s interest to mitigate these impacts. Moreover, limiting the virus’s footprint outside of our borders will reduce the chances of the disease reemerging within the United States after it’s initially contained.

Here are ways that Congress can encourage a more productive approach to international response efforts: 

  • Urge the Trump administration to lead on a U.N. Security Council resolution that would establish a high-level, standing international coordination mechanism to share information and best practices, help route critical global goods to areas of most need, and organize prevention and mitigation efforts. Such a resolution should also back the U.N. Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire amid the pandemic.
  • Allot appropriate financial support in response to the United Nation’s $2 billion request to carry out a global humanitarian response plan and the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Response Fund, while urging other governments to do the same. As of April 3, the WHO’s initial appeal for $675 million stood only 47 percent funded. According to U.N. figures, the United States has contributed $14 million, significantly lagging behind amounts pledged or delivered by governments such as China, Germany, Japan, and Kuwait.

Bolstering U.S. Diplomatic Capabilities

The Trump administration’s hollowing out of global health preparedness and pandemic early warning systems has led to predictable results. Similarly counterproductive has been the administration’s decimation of America’s diplomatic corps, the career public servants that Trump recently called the “deep State Department,” with Pompeo’s apparent acquiescence.

China has eagerly moved to fill the void created by the diplomatic withdrawal of an increasingly outplayed United States. And now, as Beijing is committed to advancing its soft power in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the United States finds itself particularly atrophied as more of its diplomatic officers overseas fall ill to COVID-19 or self-isolate due to symptoms. Reconstituting a robust diplomatic arm of U.S. power will take time; the moment to start the process is now. Congress should therefore:

  • Authorize and appropriate funding to significantly increase the size of the Foreign Service. One recent proposal suggested doubling the number of Foreign Service Officers from today’s roughly 8,000 to 16,000, a figure better suited to advancing America’s interests in an increasingly complex geopolitical environment. Particularly in light of public and political pressure, across party lines, to reduce foreign military deployments, a robust diplomatic corps is essential to reducing and preventing violent conflict. And as America’s lethargic international response to COVID-19 demonstrates, many of the world’s most threatening challenges are better managed with deft diplomacy and foreign assistance than military might.
  • Authorize the State Department to hire temporary officers via short-term contracts, perhaps with a focus on recently separated or retired employees and currently unemployed Peace Corps volunteers, in order to surge capacity to diplomatic missions to better deal with both emergency evacuations and ongoing diplomatic work. 

Countering Emergency Power Grabs and Opportunistic Repression

In the wake of COVID-19, the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ICNL) has documented 154 instances of governments promulgating emergency laws impacting civil liberties and other human rights. Governments like those in Cambodia, China, India, the Philippines, Serbia, and Venezuela are engaging in censorship and jailing of journalists reporting on COVID-19. Some governments are going further: As our colleague Melissa Hooper has detailed in Just Security, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán recently succeeded in establishing unchecked rule by decree.

As widespread orders that restrict in-person assembly illustrate, certain emergency authorities may be warranted to combat the coronavirus pandemic, but they should be employed within appropriate limits and sunsets, issued transparently, and subjected to oversight. Yet all too often, states abuse these authorities by imposing them unnecessarily, hijacking them for unrelated purposes, and keeping them in place indefinitely. To assist human rights defenders and activists in maintaining the civil liberties essential to long-term stability and public health, Congress should take the following actions:

  • Authorize and appropriate additional funds to strengthen democracy, human rights, and governance. Congress, to its credit, has consistently rejected the Trump administration’s efforts to gut this form of foreign assistance. Yet COVID-19 is clearly accelerating a decade-and-a-half-long trend of worldwide backsliding on the protection of civil and political rights. From Central Europe to Latin America to East Asia, American allies and adversaries alike continue to excessively restrict the rights of their citizens, often with clear implications for international security. The Chinese government leaves no doubt that it intends to challenge a democratic, human rights-based international order, presenting liberal governments with an ideological challenge they haven’t confronted since the end of the Cold War. Yet congressional appropriations for democracy, human rights, and governance (DRG) funds have declined over the past 10 years.
  • Condition non-humanitarian aid on compliance with measures meant to prevent the abuse of emergency authorities. Conditions could include tying continued U.S. government assistance to the establishment of sunset provisions or meaningful legislative oversight within recipient countries.
  • Direct the State Department to add a new requirement for Section 5 (“Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights”) in its annual human rights reports addressing the misuse of emergency powers. This section should include, for example, failures to state the specific duration of authorities and clearly articulate their purposes; failures to notify the United Nations as required by applicable treaty; failures to actually end the authorities after the specified term or abide by the stated purposes; and violations of non-derogable rights. 

Countering Invasive Surveillance

The proliferation of invasive surveillance targeting individuals posed a threat to human rights before the COVID-19 outbreak. Yet the virus is clearly accelerating that global trend. As the pandemic has spread around the world, so too has the use of surveillance technology by states attempting to counter the virus. China, India, Israel,  and Singapore, for example, have implemented invasive, mandatory programs as part of their efforts to stem COVID-19’s spread (an effort that, in the case of Israel, was limited by the country’s court system).

To the extent that surveillance technology and data might be helpful in the context of pandemic response — and there are valid arguments on both sides of this debate, as well as questions regarding actual efficacy  — it may be reasonable for governments to implement certain programs. But these programs clearly present abundant opportunity for human rights abuses.

One can imagine how invasive surveillance programs might be used indefinitely and well beyond the scope of the pandemic — for example, to target minority groups, stifle political opposition, or repress civil society advocates. As a result, such surveillance programs should be implemented with caution and safeguards. Indeed, as Andrew Boyle of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice explained in Just Security regarding the potential for programs in the United States, the use of these tools needs “to be necessary, proportionate, temporary, transparent, and accountable.”

To help address this issue internationally, Congress should: 

  • Authorize and fund a digital technology and surveillance rapid response fund for international NGOs and local organizations to respond to digital surveillance programs. Such a mechanism would allow for time-sensitive advocacy and help mobilize groups in countries where autocratic rulers are advancing invasive surveillance without oversight.
  • Establish a congressionally mandated, high-level advisory body empowered to hold hearings and produce legislative and policy recommendations related to the global development and proliferation of invasive surveillance technology. This body should, among other matters, advise on whether appropriate processes are in place to adjudicate licensing of U.S. intelligence capabilities and services to governments exhibiting a pattern of human rights abuses, and whether foreign governments meet their human rights obligations when undertaking surveillance and other forms of intelligence activities with the support of U.S. agencies or firms, as previously called for by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress.
  • Direct the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) to track digital surveillance actions internationally and report on these developments via the annual human rights reports and briefings to Congress.
  • Appropriate additional funds to existing DRL internet freedom and human rights response programs specifically targeting this issue.

Fighting Corruption 

The global response to COVID-19 provides fertile ground for corruption. As anti-corruption expert Jodi Vittori has noted, “Times of social, political, and economic stress present opportunities for corrupt actors to act corruptly — and the crisis caused by the novel coronavirus will be no exception.” Massive, time-sensitive government spending increases the opportunity for embezzlement, misappropriation of state assets, bribery, and other corruption related to government contracts. With governments and international financial institutions appropriately launching emergency support programs on an unprecedented scale, corrupt activities are likely to balloon, siphoning valuable resources from those who need them most, and in some instances likely aiding the virus’s spread.

Just as it is imperative that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act be implemented subject to strict oversight, Congress should ensure that the United States is doing all it can to limit corruption abroad. Four bipartisan bills related to fighting kleptocracy do just that, and all enjoy widespread support from anti-corruption activists. All should be included in any future legislation geared toward an international COVID-19 response:

  • The Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act (R. 3843/S. 3026) would establish an Anti-Corruption Action Fund, financed through fines imposed under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), that would assist foreign states in fighting public corruption and developing rule-of-law-based governance structures. The bill would also direct the State Department to increase its focus on overseas corruption, including by designating a lead anti-corruption officer at U.S. embassies, and establish an interagency working group charged with coordinating U.S. anti-corruption strategies.
  • The Kleptocrat Exposure Act (R. 3441) would authorize the Secretary of State to “name and shame” individuals banned from the United States on grounds of having committed human rights abuses or corrupt acts, mirroring similar provisions in the Global Magnitsky Act and other targeted visa restriction authorities.
  • The Foreign Extortion Prevention Act (R. 4140) would expand current federal bribery law to permit the Department of Justice to prosecute foreign corrupt officials who extort U.S. persons abroad. A complement to the FCPA and a long overdue tool to protect U.S. businesses operating abroad, the FEPA would address the “demand” side of foreign bribery schemes.
  • The Justice for Victims of Kleptocracy Act (R. 4361) would mandate that the Department of Justice create a website listing by country money stolen by kleptocratic foreign government officials and recovered by U.S. law enforcement. The simple bill would shine a light on kleptocratic activity and offer the sense of Congress that the United States should return stolen money to those from whom it was taken. 

Ideally, what will emerge from the calamity of COVID-19 are institutions better able to respond to future outbreaks. The United States’ anemic diplomatic response to the coronavirus suggests that alongside strengthened global health preparedness and response tools, a recalibration of U.S. national security priorities is in order. The Trump administration’s missteps on the global stage have been costly. Yet Congress nonetheless has an opportunity to put American leadership back on the map. It should not hesitate to act.

IMAGE: Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James Risch (R-ID) (L) and ranking member Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) talk during a hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill December 03, 2019 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Rob Berschinski

Senior Vice President for Policy at Human Rights First, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Follow him on Twitter (@RobBerschinski).

Benjamin Haas

Advocacy Counsel at Human Rights First, Former Army Intelligence Officer, Graduate of West Point and Stanford Law School. Follow him on Twitter (@BenjaminEHaas).