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The Old Human Rights Playbook Won’t Work Anymore

As Biden’s Saudi visit showed, state-to-state shaming isn’t the only way to shift the calculus of authoritarian rulers who abuse their citizens.

By , the CEO of PEN America.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 16.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 16.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 16. MANDEL NGAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent visit to the Middle East showed human rights advocates that even a sympathetic Oval Office is no guarantee that rights won’t be shunted to the sidelines by competing priorities. Biden opened his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by implicitly accusing the de facto leader of ordering the butchering of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But the message was rendered hollow by images of the president fist-bumping the crown prince as well as by the security and economic agenda that dominated the meeting.

In an era of resurgent great-power rivalry, rights advocates may have to get used to being disappointed when it comes to high-stakes human rights brinkmanship. But while human rights may have lost this round, the cause is hardly down for the count. Although the media treats splashy trips and pronouncements as the mark of a human rights commitment, the true measure is broader and deeper. Those concerned with defending rights in the Middle East and worldwide need to take stock of the geopolitical constraints of the moment and find ways to work around them.

The decision to downplay human rights on the Saudi trip came amid a wider, global rights recession. Measurements and indices that track democracy and liberty have been trending downward for a decade. Hong Kong, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Russia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and other places have experienced drastic reversals on rights. Once-promising rising democracies have stalled or reversed course. Military and economic competition between the West and China—now increasingly aligned with Russia—has riven the world between those willing to support international human rights laws and norms and those bent on weakening them.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent visit to the Middle East showed human rights advocates that even a sympathetic Oval Office is no guarantee that rights won’t be shunted to the sidelines by competing priorities. Biden opened his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by implicitly accusing the de facto leader of ordering the butchering of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But the message was rendered hollow by images of the president fist-bumping the crown prince as well as by the security and economic agenda that dominated the meeting.

In an era of resurgent great-power rivalry, rights advocates may have to get used to being disappointed when it comes to high-stakes human rights brinkmanship. But while human rights may have lost this round, the cause is hardly down for the count. Although the media treats splashy trips and pronouncements as the mark of a human rights commitment, the true measure is broader and deeper. Those concerned with defending rights in the Middle East and worldwide need to take stock of the geopolitical constraints of the moment and find ways to work around them.

The decision to downplay human rights on the Saudi trip came amid a wider, global rights recession. Measurements and indices that track democracy and liberty have been trending downward for a decade. Hong Kong, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Russia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and other places have experienced drastic reversals on rights. Once-promising rising democracies have stalled or reversed course. Military and economic competition between the West and China—now increasingly aligned with Russia—has riven the world between those willing to support international human rights laws and norms and those bent on weakening them.

The retreat of freedom, democracy, and human rights demands a cold-eyed appraisal of human rights strategies and tactics.

The retreat of freedom, democracy, and human rights demands a cold-eyed appraisal of human rights strategies and tactics. While the media fixates on fist-bump moments, rights advocates have come to recognize that state-to-state pressure for human rights improvements—a mainstay of human rights strategy—is faltering. Stressing human rights in direct diplomacy is critical as a signal boost for dissidents and a statement of principle. But with respect to some of the globe’s most consequential bilateral relationships, the assertion of human rights demands has become more diplomatically difficult and arguably less effective.

Liberal governments, especially the United States, have traditionally exercised diplomatic, economic, and other forms of leverage to spur rights-abusing regimes to shape up. The U.S. government has delivered lists of political prisoners, invited reformers to the White House as a reward, conditioned military aid on human rights strides, and enacted coercive human rights sanctions. Since the 1970s, the United States’ self-styled role of championing the rights of people living under repressive governments has been (albeit to sharply varying degrees) a key element of a number of bilateral relationships and a focus of advocacy groups urging Washington to use its weight to press for reforms.

This chapter of the human rights playbook needs an update. For one thing, the United States’ image as a shield protecting global human rights is now deeply tarnished. Reeking of sanctimony, Mohammed bin Salman’s rejoinder to Biden to “remember Abu Ghraib” evoked the lingering scar of the war on terror on America’s reputation. The Trump years compounded a legitimacy crisis. The humility and self-reflectiveness that are now essential markers of U.S. credibility don’t marry easily with the moral righteousness that traditionally underpinned bilateral human rights pressure.

Shifting geopolitical power dynamics have further undercut traditional bilateral leverage. The Chinese take a bitter, taunting approach to being lectured on human rights. Defying Western human rights pressure has become a badge of honor for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Turkey’s position at the strategic fulcrum of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe has stood in the way of confronting Ankara’s worsening rights record. Likewise, India’s importance as a counterweight to China has disincentivized the United States from chastising New Delhi over the erosion of rule of law and repression of minorities.

Although human rights have never fit neatly into bilateral diplomatic agendas, rising tensions are shrinking the available space to assert principled perspectives about how foreign governments should treat their own people.

These patterns risk fueling a vicious cycle whereby U.S. policymakers question whether raising human rights is worth it at all. Some commentators on the Saudi trip reverted to the Kissingerian notion of human rights as a distraction from core U.S. interests.

But to suggest that a more sharply competitive world must relegate human rights to the diplomatic back burner represents a failure of imagination. For 80 years, the United States has helped implement an international order centered on rights and freedoms. Its commitment to that order, even if at times uncertain, is a foremost source of legitimacy and appeal among populations around the world in the current contest with China.


The successes of the human rights movement have stemmed in part from faith in the possibility of overcoming powerful incentives and instincts of heads of state, including self-preservation and the muzzling of critics and enemies. That core conviction must remain intact. Although it can feel as if the means available to advance human rights are finite and even feeble, some significant new methods have come into the fight in recent years. New forms of sanctions, multilateral scrutiny, and assistance to rights defenders on the ground all represent opportunities to step up human rights pressure. With ingenuity and determination, the toolkit can expand further still.

By framing his comments about Khashoggi in terms of American national identity—“who we are”—Biden set out a key point of principle: that the U.S. government will not shrink away from talking about human rights no matter the setting. Comments that may seem to go unheard can plant ideas that bloom much later. In this social media-drenched era, statements reverberate and permeate, getting translated, screenshot, and converted into memes that can help galvanize and fortify. By conveying to dissidents, targeted journalists, and their families the simple message that they are not alone or forgotten, the United States can sustain their will to defy, challenge, and outlast their tormenters.

Curbing the ability of senior officials to visit the United States and Europe, stash assets, or educate their children overseas have the potential to shift the calculus within the ranks of foreign governments.

The United States and its allies have been making increasing use of more targeted human rights sanctions, such as visa bans and financial penalties. By curbing the ability of senior officials to visit the United States and Europe, stash assets, or educate their children overseas, these measures have the potential to shift the calculus within the ranks of foreign governments. They have the added bonus of avoiding the collateral damage of broad sanctions on innocent citizens who can be forced to suffer as a result of punishments being exacted on their governments.

The U.S. government has imposed harsh new anti-corruption sanctions on current and former officials in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. A December 2021 ban on the import of cotton from China’s Xinjiang province over forced labor concerns represents another variation of targeted pressure. Other surgical legal tactics, including the assertion of universal jurisdiction to try human rights scofflaws (such as a former Iranian official culpable for prison massacres who was arrested, tried, and convicted in Sweden last month), have shown promise as tools for accountability.

When the United States is unable or unwilling to hold a foreign government directly accountable for abuses, it can look to other channels to exert clout. Although the United Nations Security Council with its veto-wielding permanent members is too often a human rights black hole, the U.N. General Assembly’s occasional overrides of the council to create an investigative mechanism for Syria and to condemn the invasion of Ukraine provided powerful rebukes.

Once dismissed as a human rights sideshow, the U.N.’s Geneva-based channels are now moving toward center stage. Although long criticized in Washington over its singling out of Israel and the authoritarians in its ranks, the U.N. Human Rights Council has gained credibility on certain issues. With its broad elected membership, it cannot be dismissed as a tool of Western prerogatives. The council’s varied mechanisms provide a drumbeat of credible, in-depth revelations with the imprimatur of the international community.

The Chinese effort to bury a forthcoming council report on abuses in Xinjiang is testament both to the problem of an international body that is beholden to its members as well as the bite that the world body—and particularly its independent commissioners, experts, and rapporteurs—can nonetheless have. The council’s definitive 2014 investigative report on North Korea remains a key touchstone years later.

The United States has an unmatched ability to make common cause across regional groups and marshal the council through high-level sessions and hard-hitting investigations. As U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres selects a new high commissioner for human rights, Washington should push him to appoint a forceful leader ready to take advantage of one of the few geopolitical podiums that moral clarity is the sole mandate for.

The last several decades have seen the rise of thousands of domestic human rights organizations, independent media outlets, and watchdog collectives worldwide—many with support from the West. Although dozens of governments have now enacted restrictive laws that stand in the way, it remains crucial to find ways to continue to support these locally grounded, authentic forces for change.

Working in fast-evolving media landscapes, these groups need access to sophisticated tools to get their messages out and combat governments’ weaponized digital propaganda as well as defend themselves against harassment, surveillance, and disinformation. They need resources to pull promising new levers for social change, including strategic litigation to vindicate gender rights and challenge the consequences of climate change. Partnerships involving universities, nongovernmental organizations, multilateral bodies, and private foundations can help circumnavigate obstacles and fortify front-line rights defenders.

The United States should also be thinking long term. If history is any guide, exiled opposition leaders, thinkers, and activists forced to flee Afghanistan, Russia, Myanmar, Hong Kong, and elsewhere could plant the seeds of democratic futures on harsh terrain. Among the hundreds of thousands of foreign students who study in the United States each year are many who go on to government service; their U.S. universities could offer and incentivize programs that steer them toward the study and practice of human rights while they are on U.S. soil.

While the most public measure of a U.S. president’s commitment to human rights may still come in the form of face-to-face confrontations with the heads of repressive states, the breadth of U.S. influence when it comes to human rights extends well beyond those fraught encounters. Although showdowns can offer satisfying comeuppance for despots who deserve to be shamed, they are neither the only—nor necessarily the most telling—measures of human rights progress. Human rights diplomacy should not be reduced to a single image or sound bite but rather be judged over time on the basis of lives saved, justice upheld, and freedoms secured.

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America and a member of Facebook's oversight board. She was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department. Twitter: @SuzanneNossel

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