(WASHINGTON)—PEN America today urged Congress to pass landmark legislation to protect human rights defenders abroad as they face reprisals from their own governments.

Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA-02) introduced the Human Rights Defenders Protection Act (S.3705) on Jan. 31. This sweeping legislation would create a new visa category allowing up to 500 human rights defenders a year facing reprisals at home to enter the United States. The bill would offer a safe haven to human rights defenders to help sustain their work to defend human rights and democracy in their home countries.

In addition to the new visa category, key provisions of the bill would direct the executive branch to establish an interagency, whole-of-government framework to support human rights defenders; center support and protections to them as a priority and provide guidance, training, and tools for American diplomats abroad to prevent and respond to reprisals against human rights defenders.

“Human rights defenders work tirelessly to realize the promise of representative democracy and equal justice and serve as the conscience of their societies. They should not have to live in fear for exercising their right to free expression,” said Hadar Harris, the interim Washington director of PEN America. “If enacted, the Human Rights Defenders Protection Act would be a watershed whole-of-government commitment by the United States to defend these courageous advocates and a huge step forward in fulfilling the United States’ commitment to promoting and protecting human rights.”

“Amid global trends of democratic backsliding and authoritarian resurgence, repressive regimes have put human rights defenders in their crosshairs, muzzling their activities with impunity,” said Laura Schroeder, Congressional Affairs lead at PEN America. “Human rights defenders have looked to the United States for solidarity. The Human Rights Defenders Protection Act will meet this critical moment by empowering them in the face of repression at home. PEN America urges this bill’s passage.”

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], (201) 247-5057