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McCain Institute Recommends Actions to Protect Human Rights Defenders

Recommendations outline steps the U.S. government, funding agencies, and businesses can take to bolster the safety and effectiveness of global human rights defenders.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The McCain Institute’s Human Rights Defenders (HRD) program today released a set of recommended actions the United States government, funding organizations, businesses, and Congress can take to help significantly bolster the safety, effectiveness, and resilience of human rights defenders (HRDs) worldwide.

“These recommendations underscore the McCain Institute’s commitment to safeguarding human rights around the globe and supporting those who defend them,” said McCain Institute Executive Director Dr. Evelyn Farkas. “By providing transitional assistance to those who have been forced to flee their homes or work underground, we help them continue their vital fight to uphold freedom, democracy, and universal human rights.”

The recommendations were crafted based on feedback from the 90 human rights defenders supported by the McCain Institute, and they address specific challenges faced by these courageous individuals. If implemented, these recommendations will strengthen support systems for HRDs, ensuring their vital work continues under improved conditions of security and recognition.

Recommendations for the U.S. Government:
  1. Easing Visa Regulations for HRDs: Simplify and expedite the visa application process for HRDs and their immediate family members, especially those facing imminent threats. This should include special visa categories or programs that recognize the unique risks faced by HRDs.
  2. Dedicated Senior Human Rights Diplomats at Embassies: Assign mid-level and senior diplomats at U.S. embassies to human rights portfolios. These diplomats will have the necessary skills and experience to engage with local HRDs, monitor human rights situations, and facilitate support from the U.S. government.
  3. Training on Transnational Repression (TNR): Implement training for all personnel who may encounter perpetrators or victims of TNR, so they know how to properly recognize, report, and respond to instances they encounter.
  4. Engagement Opportunities for Defenders in Exile: Local U.S. governments must offer more engagement opportunities for HRDs in exile. This includes platforms for advocacy, networking with local civil society, and opportunities to raise awareness about the issues they are working on.
  5. Appoint a Special Envoy on Media Freedom: The special envoy, reporting directly to the secretary of state will highlight offline and online attacks and violations against the press worldwide. The envoy will be empowered to work to free jailed journalists, take a stand in support of those facing harassment and threats, and conduct trial monitoring and prison visits.
  6. Support for Capacity Building and Legal Reform: Advocate for and aid in legal reforms in countries with repressive regimes. Support capacity-building initiatives for HRDs and local civil society organizations.
  7. Public Awareness Campaigns:Launch campaigns to increase public awareness about the role and importance of HRDs, highlighting their work and the challenges they face.
Recommendations for Congress:
  1. Avoid Holding Funds for HRDs: Ensure that funding allocated for HRDs and their organizations is not withheld or delayed, recognizing the urgent nature of their work and the critical need for timely support.
  2. Legislative Support for HRDs:Advocate for and pass legislation that provides greater protection and results-driven support for HRDs, both domestically and internationally.
  3. Oversight on Human Rights Issues: Exercise oversight on U.S. foreign policy and aid, ensuring that human rights concerns are a priority and that U.S. actions do not inadvertently harm HRDs.
  4. Promote International Cooperation: Work to strengthen international cooperation in support of HRDs, including working with allies and international bodies to coordinate actions and policies.
Recommendations for Funding Organizations:
  1. Flexible and Long-Term Funding: Provide flexible, long-term funding to HRD organizations and exiled defenders, especially for core operations and staffing, enabling them to adapt to changing circumstances.
  2. Cross-Regional Collaborations: Encourage and support networking and collaboration among HRDs across regions to foster shared strategies and enhance security.
  3. Specific Support Initiatives: Implement gender-specific, environmental, indigenous, and disabled defender support mechanisms acknowledging the unique challenges faced by these groups.
  4. Preventive Strategies: Invest in preventive strategies to protect HRDs, including early warning systems and resources for enhancing physical and digital security.
  5. Addressing Root Causes of Repression: Focus on initiatives that address the root causes of repression and the closing of civic spaces.
Recommendations for Businesses:
  1. Develop Policies Against SLAPPs: Businesses should develop and implement policies that explicitly denounce the use of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) against human rights, indigenous, land, and environmental defenders, as well as civil society organizations. This should be part of their broader commitment to corporate social responsibility and ethical business practices.
  2. Implement Enterprise-Wide Due Diligence Mechanisms and Support Mandatory Human Rights Due Diligence Legislation: Advocate for stronger legislation, commitments, compliance measures, and regulations at the national and international levels to hold companies accountable. Implement strict due diligence processes to ensure that corporate activities do not harm human rights defenders and are in line with international human rights standards.
  3. Transparent Reporting and Accountability: Implement transparent reporting mechanisms regarding their impact on human rights and how they address potential violations linked to their operations.
  4. Support Legal Assistance and Capacity Building: Businesses must contribute to increasing legal assistance resources for HRDs, Civil Service Organizations, and their communities. This includes funding initiatives that provide knowledge and tools to understand, use, and transform unfair and harmful laws.
  5. Protect Lawyers and Paralegals Advocating for Justice: Recognize that lawyers and paralegals working for access to justice are at heightened risk from various actors, including businesses. Corporations should commit to protecting these individuals and refrain from any actions that could constitute legal or judicial harassment.
  6. Collaboration with NGOs and Legal Entities: Engage in partnerships with NGOs and legal entities that specialize in providing support and protection to HRDs, including those facing legal challenges.
Recommendations for Technology Companies:
  1. Protecting Freedom of Speech: Tech companies must prioritize the protection of freedom of speech, especially for human rights defenders, by ensuring their platforms do not inadvertently silence or censor their voices. This involves creating and enforcing policies that recognize and protect the unique needs and challenges faced by HRDs.
  2. Non-Disclosure of Sensitive Information: Implement stringent policies against sharing sensitive information about human rights defenders with governments or other entities that could endanger them. This includes data related to their location, identity, and network.
  3. Enhanced Security Measures: Develop and implement enhanced security measures to protect the digital presence and communications of HRDs. This can include end-to-end encryption, secure data storage, and tools to detect and prevent cyber-attacks.
  4. Collaboration with Human Rights Organizations: Collaborate with human rights organizations to understand the needs of HRDs and adapt technology solutions accordingly. This collaboration can also involve joint efforts in awareness campaigns and advocacy.
  5. Transparency Reports: Regularly publish transparency reports detailing requests received from governments or other entities for information on users, particularly HRDs, and how these requests were handled.
  6. Access to Digital Tools for HRDs: Facilitate access to digital tools and resources for HRDs, especially those in resource-poor settings, to ensure they can safely and effectively carry out their work.


Learn more about the McCain Institute’s Human Rights and Freedom program, or watch a recent McCain Institute event commemorating the 75th anniversary of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which featured several human rights defenders and support organizations.

Publish Date
January 19, 2024