Biden Can’t Make Washington a Beacon for Human Rights by Returning to Business as Usual
The world stepped up while the United States stepped back from defending human rights. The next U.S. president should join them.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
After four years of outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump’s indifference and even hostility to human rights, the election of Joe Biden provides an opportunity for fundamental change. Trump’s disregard of human rights at home and his embrace of friendly autocrats abroad eroded U.S. credibility. Condemnations of Venezuela, Cuba, or Iran rang hollow when parallel praise was bestowed on Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Israel.
Yet a Biden presidency is not a panacea. In recent decades, each new president has brought wild oscillations in U.S. human-rights policy. Pro-rights global leaders are now understandably asking whether they can depend on Washington.
Fortunately, many governments treated U.S. unreliability as cause for resolve rather than despair. As Trump largely abandoned human rights, other governments stepped forward. So even as China, Russia, and their allies sought to undermine the global human-rights system, a series of coalitions came to its defense. They included not only Western countries but also Latin American democracies and a growing number of Muslim-majority states. As Biden takes office, he should seek to join these collective efforts.
More fundamentally, Biden’s challenge is not simply to reverse Trump’s damage to human rights but to make it more difficult for future presidents to replicate it. One step would be to reinforce a commitment to human rights by legislation, which the narrow Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress may make possible. Ideally, Biden could press for ratification of core human-rights treaties that the U.S. government has long neglected, but finding the necessary two-thirds support in the Senate might be difficult.
Biden should certainly allow justice to pursue its course with respect to Trump to show that the president is not above the law, resisting the “look forward, not back” rationale that former President Barack Obama used to ignore torture under his predecessor, George W. Bush. Like some of his own predecessors, Biden can make short-term improvements by executive action, but as in the past, that is vulnerable to being undone by a future U.S. president with less regard for human rights.
Ultimately, Biden’s goal should be to change the narrative in a more fundamental way—to make upholding human rights more central to U.S. policy in a way that can better survive changes of administration.
For inspiration, Biden could look to former President Jimmy Carter, who introduced human rights as an element of U.S. foreign policy. At the time, that was seen as radical, but it struck a chord and has endured. All U.S. presidents since have sometimes downplayed human rights—Carter did, too—but none could entirely repudiate them.
For Biden to reshape public understanding in a similar way, he will need to speak about issues at home more regularly in terms of rights, while announcing human-rights principles to guide U.S. conduct abroad and adhering to them even when difficult.
Over the past four years, many global leaders saw human rights as too important to forsake just because Trump had done so. The number of nations involved, some new to the cause, typically acting in coalition made the defense more robust.
Latin American governments, for example, had rarely critiqued each other’s rights record, in part because that was seen as something Washington did. But to address the repression, corruption, and economic devastation under Venezuela’s disputed President Nicolás Maduro, 11 Latin American democracies plus Canada came together in 2017 as the Lima Group. Rather than allow Maduro to deflect criticism as “Yankee imperialism,” the Lima Group acted independently of the United States.
The Lima Group persuaded the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate Maduro’s repression. Six members asked the International Criminal Court to investigate Venezuela’s alleged crimes against humanity. Maduro continues his repressive rule but is far more isolated. Some Lima Group members have now secured U.N. scrutiny of Nicaragua as well.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a group of 56 mainly Muslim-majority states, saw a similar shift. In the past, the OIC rarely used the United Nations to condemn human-rights abuses other than by Israel, but that changed following the Myanmar military’s 2017 campaign of murder, rape, and arson against Rohingya Muslims.
In 2018, the OIC joined the European Union to persuade the Human Rights Council to create the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, to collect evidence for possible prosecution. In 2019, Gambia, an OIC member, brought a genocide case against Myanmar before the International Court of Justice, which ordered Myanmar to protect the 600,000 Rohingya who remain in the country. In addition, the International Criminal Court is investigating Myanmar officials for atrocities against the Rohingya during the forced deportation of 730,000 to Bangladesh.
In Syria’s Idlib province, three million civilians had been living under repeated aerial bombardment by Russian and Syrian aircraft. The German, French, and Turkish governments put sufficient pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to secure a cease-fire beginning in March 2020 that has largely held.
Liechtenstein and Qatar led a successful effort at the U.N. General Assembly in December 2016 to establish the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria to collect evidence of war crimes and other atrocities for prosecution. Several European governments—foremost Germany—have begun investigations and prosecutions in their own courts based on the principle of universal jurisdiction.
The Netherlands has started a process to address the Syrian government’s systematic torture, which could lead to a case before the International Court of Justice. When Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko claimed to have won August 2020 elections, and his forces detained and tortured protesters, the EU imposed targeted sanctions on 88 people deemed responsible, including Lukashenko.
At the U.N. Human Rights Council, a core group consisting of the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Ireland, and Luxembourg secured and then strengthened an inquiry into war crimes in Yemen. Finland led a similar initiative for war crimes in Libya, as Iceland initially did for the thousands of summary executions of drug suspects under Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands secured an investigation into repression in Eritrea. Australia and then Denmark orchestrated condemnation of Saudi repression.
Abusive governments remain a potent threat. But this broader defense intensified the pressure on repressive leaders. Biden should seek to reinforce this trend.
Biden’s biggest foreign-policy challenge may be China. Trump’s inconsistent, transactional unilateralism discouraged others from joining him. Biden will need a more principled and multilateral approach.
Repression in China under President Xi Jinping has deepened in recent years, yet governments were long reluctant to criticize Beijing for fear of retaliation.
In 2016, the U.S. government organized the first common statement of governments willing to criticize China on human rights, but only 11 other states joined it. When Trump withdrew from the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2018, many assumed such criticism would cease. In fact, it strengthened, as governments found safety in growing numbers against Beijing’s threats.
In 2019, 25 governments banded together at the Human Rights Council to condemn the repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Yet fear of Beijing still showed when no one would read the statement out loud at the council, as tradition dictated.
Since then, the British government read similar condemnations at the council and the U.N. General Assembly. Most recently, in October 2020 at the General Assembly, the German government led a condemnation of Beijing’s repression in Xinjiang that attracted 39 signatories. Turkey issued a parallel statement.
After each such criticism, Beijing organized a counterstatement of countries to sing its praise. Yet even though these pro-China statements included many of the world’s worst human-rights abusers, their numbers have been declining. The most recent statement, delivered by Cuba in October 2020 to applaud Beijing’s conduct in Xinjiang, attracted only 45 signatories—a drop from 54 the year before.
Among Muslim-majority states, the numbers supporting China’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang dropped from 25 in 2019 to 19 in 2020, with the remaining 37 OIC members refusing to take part, and Albania and Turkey openly criticizing China. As China’s remaining backers approach parity with those now willing to criticize Beijing, the day may soon arrive when U.N. bodies can adopt formal resolutions condemning China’s repression.
A parallel process occurred in October as China sought a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council. The last time it ran, four years ago, it received the most votes of any country from the Asia-Pacific region. This time, it received the fewest such votes other than Saudi Arabia, which was denied a seat.
Biden should embrace coalition statements even if the locale is the U.N. Human Rights Council, where Trump refused to join statements on China because the council criticized Israel. U.S. diplomats could help to expand those coalitions and reassure economically vulnerable countries of Washington’s assistance if Beijing retaliates. Having spoken in strong terms about China’s repression in Xinjiang, Biden should press for an international investigation.
Biden could endorse a strong version of proposed legislation to force companies sourcing from China to guarantee supply chains untainted by forced Uighur labor. And he should impose targeted sanctions on companies that assist Beijing’s intrusive surveillance state.
Biden cannot guarantee that a new U.S. president in four or eight years will not again turn back the clock on human rights, but he can take steps to make that retrenchment more difficult. One way would be to frame domestic issues more regularly in terms of rights, especially in the area of economic and social rights which the U.S. government has been reluctant to embrace.
The pandemic provides an opportunity for this shift. For example, in seeking to bolster access to health care in the United States, he should speak in terms of the right of everyone to see a doctor without bankrupting their family. As he pushes for unemployment assistance, he should affirm the right of everyone to put food on the table even if they lose their job. As he addresses the closing of schools, he should affirm a family’s right to educate its children regardless of whether it can afford a strong internet connection and a laptop. In providing a path to legalization for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, many with U.S.-citizen children and spouses, he could speak of their right to live with their family without constantly fear of deportation.
More regular invocation of rights could help to shift public perception of the fundamental values involved, making it harder for the next president to do an about-face.
To instill more consistency in U.S. foreign policy, Biden should affirm promoting rights as a core principle—and abide by it, even when politically difficult.
Biden should insist that, absent major improvements, he will curb military aid or arms sales to abusive friendly governments such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. He should be more outspoken about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s encouragement of discrimination and violence against Muslims, even if India is an important ally.
He should reembrace the U.N. Human Rights Council, even though it criticizes Israeli abuses in Occupied Palestinian Territory. He should void Trump’s sanctions on the International Criminal Court—an affront to the rule of law—regardless of the prosecutor’s steps to investigate unprosecuted U.S. torture in Afghanistan or Israeli war crimes.
Biden plans to host a “Summit for Democracy.” Unlike former President Bill Clinton, who invited allied authoritarian governments to his Community of Democracies, Biden should make respect for democratic standards the price of admission.
Turning the clock back four years will not be enough to undo Trump’s damage. Biden should address Washington’s credibility problem by seeking to enhance public appreciation of human rights in a way that his successors cannot so easily reverse. And now that many nations have responded to Trump by assuming leadership roles themselves, the new U.S. president should seek to join that enhanced defense of rights, not supplant it.
Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch. Twitter: @KenRoth