As the novel coronavirus has rapidly developed into the worst global health crisis in a century, governments around the world have been compelled to take extraordinary action to stem the viral spread and mitigate the human and economic toll. In some instances, such emergency measures have been well-justified, proportionate, time-limited, and reasonably related to curbing the outbreak. Yet, as has been widely documented at Just Security, in many countries, governments have used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to erode checks on executive authority, censor their populations, discriminate against marginalized populations, and further undermine the rule of law. The misuse and abuse of emergency measures enacted in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak has accelerated an ongoing, parallel pandemic concerning rule of law and human rights worldwide.
Both common sense and international law recognize the need for flexibility in times of crisis. Yet leaders in Brazil, China, Hungary, India, the Philippines, and Venezuela, among many others, are using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to enact emergency measures that stifle dissent, sideline political opposition, and consolidate power.
In the midst of this rapidly escalating human rights crisis, bipartisan groups in the U.S. Senate and House recently introduced near-identical bills, entitled the “Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act” (PHRDPA) (S. 3819 and H.R. 6986). The legislation would compel and enable the U.S. government to do more to support human rights defenders, journalists, and marginalized groups serving on the front lines of the parallel pandemic. Given the PHRDPA’s strong—and increasingly rare—bipartisan support, and its potential centrality to contesting an international landscape increasingly marked by surging authoritarianism, the bill merits a brief explainer.
Protecting Human Rights During a Pandemic – and Beyond
In keeping with its larger approach to foreign affairs, the Trump administration has said and done little in response to the negative trends accelerated by the coronavirus, outside of criticizing a handful of foreign governments that routinely (and justifiably) come in for American censure. For its part, Congress has taken little action to date on the international aspects of the coronavirus response, including with respect to public health and supporting those increasingly threatened by government repression. The result has been an absence of American international leadership, a corresponding rush by the Chinese government to capitalize, and dysfunction within key multilateral bodies, among other outcomes.
While only one element in a much-needed, comprehensive approach to altering this state of affairs, the PHRDPA would go some distance toward bolstering the U.S. government’s heretofore anemic response, and reflects some of the ideas discussed on this site. That may be one reason why it has attracted a base of support spanning the ideological spectrum. In the Senate, the PHRDPA’s nine co-sponsors range from Ed Markey (D-MA) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) to Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Roger Wicker (R-MS). Similarly, the House bill straddles the partisan divide, with Democratic co-sponsors Jim McGovern (D-MA), Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), and Jamie Raskin (D-MD) joined by Republicans Ann Wagner (R-MO), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), and Gus Bilirakis (R-FL).
The essence of the PHRDPA requires the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to develop a five-year strategy to address “the persistent issues related to internationally recognized human rights in the aftermath of the novel coronavirus response,” and authorizes funding to carry out such a plan. If married to an appropriation in a future COVID-19 response bill, the PHRDPA could thus jump-start more energetic diplomacy and foreign assistance programs that support civil society in countries where internationally recognized human rights are under assault.
The PHRDPA also includes an important reference to the conditioning of security sector assistance on human rights practices through the use of Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (22 U.S.C. 2304). Section 502B, which has largely been observed in the breach since its enactment, prohibits the U.S. government from providing military equipment and other forms of security sector assistance to countries that have engaged in a “consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights,” absent a presidential waiver that can be issued in the event warranted by “extraordinary circumstances.”
If enacted, the PHRDPA would extend this conditional prohibition to systematic violations of human rights accomplished “through the use of emergency laws, policies, or administrative procedures.” The addition of such language would underscore Congress’ original goals in passing Section 502B: requiring the executive branch to curtail its provision of security assistance to egregious human rights-abusing governments, or, at a minimum, to affirmatively justify why such assistance is warranted.
Finally, the bill includes a variety of reporting requirements that will aid the U.S. government in remaining focused on promoting and protecting democracy and human rights abroad both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill specifically calls on the State Department to focus on certain categories of rights violations that have been a hallmark of the abusive emergency measures enacted to date: unjustified restrictions on freedom of speech; arbitrary and inappropriate surveillance; the sidelining of representative legislative bodies; and discrimination against minority populations.
It should go without saying that, if passed, the PHRDPA won’t provide an easy remedy for the multifactorial assault on human rights and rule of law afflicting so many countries around the world. Yet despite its limitations, the bill’s programming authorizations, conditionality language, and reporting requirements will go some way toward ensuring that the U.S. government remains focused on protecting human rights globally in a coronavirus- and (we can hope) post-coronavirus world. The bill’s bipartisan, bicameral support lends weight to the idea that such a goal is in the United States’ national interest, and that a little more leadership on the world stage would go a long way.