Guidelines for U.S. Diplomatic Mission Support to Civil Society and Human Rights Defenderse


The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to putting human rights and democratic principles
at the center of our foreign policy. These Guidelines for U.S. Diplomatic Mission Support to Civil
Society and Human Rights Defenders outline and amplify the U.S.’s commitment to supporting this
vital work as part of the President’s strategic vision and U.S. foreign policy. It is addressed primarily
to both U.S. Department of State Human Rights Officers and members of civil society around the
world, including human rights defenders.
An open, inclusive, empowered, and fully functioning civil society is vital to healthy democracies,
prosperous economies, and resilient societies. The United States is committed to the UN Declaration
on Human Rights Defenders and continues to engage, both bilaterally and in multilateral fora, to
protect and promote fundamental freedoms and the role of human rights defenders. The work of
civil society, including human rights defenders, to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms
and support good governance is a critical safeguard against threats from autocratic regimes and
backsliding democracies. Where civil society and human rights defenders’ ability to work freely
is weakened, human rights abuses and violations, discrimination, and corruption flourish. The
United States will continue to play a central role in advancing human rights through the Universal
Declaration on Human Rights, ensuing covenants, treaties, and conventions. This public guidance
reflects the views of the United States policy position with the aim of supporting civil society and
human rights defenders in their invaluable work.
Democracy and human rights are under threat around the world. The world has been in a sustained
democratic recession for more than a decade, which includes a consistent reduction in the role
for civil society. Many countries have passed laws restricting its funding and operations. Some
governments misuse national security laws to clamp down on the ability of civil society actors to
exercise their freedoms of expression, association, movement and peaceful assembly. There has also
been an increase in use of censorship and surveillance technologies, as well as Internet shutdowns,
to undermine democratic debate. Governments should not shut down or restrict services online or
deploy surveillance technologies as a means to limit the exercise of individuals’ human rights or to
intimidate civil society. Instead, governments should enable civil society and expand civic space to
further the success of the public they serve, as civic groups play a unique and positive role in society.

The United States recognizes that the work of human rights defenders and civil society organizations
(CSO) can often expose them to danger. Human rights defenders are often subject to intimidation,
threats, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence,
and unfair trials. Authoritarian and other governments have even issued threats and reprisals when
civil society, human rights defenders, or journalists participate in international dialogues on human
rights. Governments should recognize that promoting and protecting fundamental freedoms builds
greater levels of trust, which sends a strong message to bad actors and further deters the use of
The international community has also witnessed how some governments have abused emergency
declarations and have restricted civic space and democratic backsliding in response to the COVID-19
pandemic. Some governments have abused or enacted laws to silence, target, and harass members
of civil society under the guise of public health needs. Emergency measures that restrict human
rights and taken by governments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic must be in accordance
with the State’s obligations under applicable international human rights law. For example, in the
context of a pandemic, restrictions on the rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of expression and
freedom of association must be prescribed by law and necessary to protect public health. Importantly,
governments must allow civil society to play its unique and positive role during times of crisis,
including serving as a critical link between governments and the publics they serve. The State
Department, including the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, has welcomed and
called attention to government policies that respect human rights, adhere to democratic principles,
and are essential for an effective response to COVID-19.
Ultimately, human rights respecting democracies are more peaceful, prosperous, stable, and make
stronger bilateral partners. The United States is committed to supporting and encouraging civil
society, human rights defenders, the private sector, and partner nations that seek to respond to human
rights threats and reinforce democratic principles grounded in a free and enabling civic space. Indeed,
in confronting the global challenges of the moment, and the tests posed by our authoritarian rivals, it
is essential that we demonstrate that democracies can deliver for their people and improve their lives in
concrete, measurable ways. The United States encourages diplomatic missions to directly engage and
bolster their relationships with CSOs and human rights defenders.
During his first remarks on foreign policy, President Biden made clear that if the United States is
to succeed in meeting the many challenges we face today, “we must start with diplomacy rooted
in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity,
upholding universal rights.” With this serving as the grounding wire of our global policy, the Secretary
of State has given instruction to all Ambassadors and mission leadership to engage directly with
civil society and human rights defenders as part of a foreign policy grounded in our democratic
principles. While U.S. Department of State human rights officers are generally the working level point
of contact for CSOs and human rights defenders, depending on the issue, it may be appropriate to
reach out to other divisions of the embassy with specialized experience – for example, labor rights
officers, economic officers, etc. The following guidance to U.S. diplomatic missions highlights the
many ways in which the United States seeks to advance human rights by supporting civil society and
human rights defenders to continue their work without hindrance or undue restriction, and free from
retribution against them or their families.

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