Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On Protecting Civil Society Activists

Mr. President, I want to speak briefly about a provision that was included for the first time by myself and Senator Lindsey Graham in the fiscal year 2018 Department of State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill, which was reported unanimously by the Senate Appropriations Committee on September 7th.

Specifically, the Committee-reported bill includes $15 million to implement a U.S. inter-agency strategy – led by the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor – to support and protect civil society activists, including human rights and environmental defenders and independent journalists, in countries where such activists have been threatened or killed for peacefully exercising their rights of free expression, association, and assembly.

Nearly 1,000 violations were reported against human rights defenders in 2016, including killings, detentions, judicial prosecutions, physical attacks, and other threats and harassments.  Civil society activists are targeted by both state and non-state actors, including private companies and investors, seeking to obstruct the rights of voters, minorities, land owners, environmentalists, indigenous peoples, and refugees, among other vulnerable groups.  These attacks are not limited to a particular region or a handful of countries.  They are common in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.  Nor are they limited to countries with authoritarian governments, such as Cambodia, Rwanda, Eritrea, Egypt, and Russia.  Democratically elected governments are also culpable, such as Honduras, Philippines, Kenya, Ecuador, and Turkey.  Ultimately, democracy cannot survive if the rights of civil society and the independent media are not protected.

Last year was the deadliest year on record for land and environmental defenders.  There were more deaths reported in more countries than ever before.  Competition for land and natural resources has intensified to an all-time high, with companies around the globe putting greater emphasis on profit margins than on environmental protection or land ownership rights.  As these pressures increase, the risk to civil society activists will also increase. 

Similarly, although the number of journalists killed on assignment dropped slightly in 2016, the number of journalists in prison reached its highest level yet:  More than 250 journalists are imprisoned worldwide because of their work.  This is an egregious violation of the universal right of free expression.

These statistics are almost certainly underestimates, given the suppressions of free speech and lack of transparent and effective judicial systems in many countries where civil society activists face the most severe threats to their work and lives.

It is important for all of us to be aware of the growing threats to civil society activists worldwide, as well as the relevant funding and language included in the Committee-reported Department of State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill.  This should be the first step in developing an inter-agency strategy to focus attention and resources on this critical problem.

I ask unanimous consent that the language in the Committee report describing this provision be printed in the Record.

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Sec. 7032.  Democracy Programs.

Protection of Civil Society Activists.—For purposes of developing the strategy and allocating funds under subsection (j), the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor shall consult with the Committee and with representatives of civil society and independent media organizations whose members have been threatened or killed. The uses of funds shall include strengthening the capacity of such organizations, protecting their members who have been threatened, supporting the enactment of laws to protect freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, and educating the public about the legitimate role of such activists and journalists in society.

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