Congress Resists Global Crackdown on Political Space

By Adotei Akwei, Africa Advocacy Director for Amnesty International USA

Political space is being crushed by governments who are increasingly intolerant of criticism or calls for accountability. These assaults manifest themselves in many ways but two key benchmarks are the status of human rights defenders — individuals or groups who take peaceful action to protect human rights — and the numbers of prisoners of conscience (POCs), people imprisoned solely for the peaceful expression of their beliefs or identity.

You can help right now: text “AMNESTY” to 21333 to ask your senators to support human rights defenders around the world.

Amnesty International was founded in 1961 to shine a light on and stop human rights abuses and to help raise awareness and mobilize public pressure to protect human rights defenders and free POCs. Sadly, 57 years later, some of the basic pillars of human rights are under attack in a way that threatens to erode five decades of painstaking progress establishing standards of basic human dignity that all are entitled to enjoy and that governments are obligated to uphold.

In 2017 alone, over 312 human rights defenders were killed just for doing their critical work. In 2015, 113 countries restricted freedom of expression, and at least 61 countries put people in prison simply for exercising their rights and freedoms. Prisoners of conscience, many of whom are also human rights defenders, are found on every continent ranging from environmental activists in Madagascar to bloggers in the UAE.

But last week the dismal trend received a wakeup call that business as usual was not going to be allowed to continue.

Last week Congress re-energized its commitment to fighting for human rights in the form of two resolutions that highlighted the work and importance of human rights defenders (HRD) and reaffirmed a commitment to fight for the release of prisoners of conscience (POC). The resolutions will be among the asks that members of Amnesty International USA will focus on when they hold a Human Rights Lobby Day on February 26 in Washington DC.

In the Senate the two co-chairs of the bi-partisan Human Rights Caucus, Senator Tillis of North Carolina and Senator Coons of Delaware, introduced S. Res. 407. The resolution recognizes the critical work of human rights defenders in promoting human rights, the rule of law, democracy, and good governance. It calls upon the President and the Secretary of State to ensure that the United States is a force for human rights and also welcomes the potential application of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. The Act presses governments to respect and uphold human rights, including that of human rights defenders.

In the House, Representatives Randy Hultgren and Jim McGovern, the co-chairs of the bi-partisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, held a hearing focused on the Defending Freedoms Project, which pairs Members of Congress with a prisoner of conscience and has them advocate for their release. During the hearing, Chairman Hultgren announced their plans to introduce a resolution calling for the President to establish a Day for Prisoners of Conscience and to take concrete steps to oppose efforts to close political space by restricting freedom of expression, association and assembly, among other rights. The resolution encourages Members of Congress to raise individual POC cases in Congress, with the executive branch, with foreign governments, multilateral organizations, and during delegation trips abroad. It also encourages the United States to implement policies and robustly support programs promoting human rights, and undertake specific actions directed at countries that detain prisoners of conscience, and urges that human rights advocacy on behalf of POCs be pursued consistently and publicly at every level of United States foreign policy and in all bilateral and multilateral engagement.

Globally human rights defenders are facing increasing threats, acts of intimidation, imprisonment, and attacks. Governments around the world, including in the United States, continue to take steps to prevent HRDs from speaking out, imprison them because of their peaceful activism, or seek to undermine their credibility. Many HRDs become the prisoner of conscience cases Amnesty members work on and that the Defending Freedoms Project seeks to address.

On February 26 AIUSA members from around the country will be seeking to recruit support for the two resolutions as well as to build support for robust US humanitarian funding and to help the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. The resolutions are a powerful rejection by Congress of the Trump administration’s repudiation of human rights in 2017, and with public support could mark the beginning of the executive branch and Congress reprioritizing human rights.

Remember, your voice counts: text “AMNESTY” to 21333 and ask your senators to support this historic resolution.

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We've been fighting the bad guys since 1961 - you can join us! Official Amnesty International USA profile.