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World Report | 2021 - Events of 2020

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After four years of a president who was indifferent and often hostile to human rights, the November 2020 election of Joe Biden to the presidency of the United States provides an opportunity for a fundamental change of course.

Donald Trump was a disaster for human rights. At home, he flouted legal obligations that allow people fearing for their lives to seek refuge, ripped migrant children from their parents, empowered white supremacists, acted to undermine the democratic process, and fomented hatred against racial and religious minorities.
He also closed his eyes to systemic racism in policing, removed legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, revoked environmental protections for clean air and water, and sought to undermine the right to health, especially for sexual and reproductive health and older people. Abroad, he cozied up to one friendly autocrat after another at the expense of their abused populations, promoted the sale of weapons to governments implicated in war crimes, and attacked or withdrew from key international initiatives to defend human rights, promote international justice, advance public health, and forestall climate change.

This destructive combination eroded the credibility of the US government even when it did speak out against abuses. Condemnations of Venezuela, Cuba, or Iran rang hollow when parallel praise was bestowed on Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Israel. Support for religious freedom abroad was undermined by Islamophobic policy at home. The Trump administration did impose targeted sanctions and other punishments on the Chinese government and corporate entities for their involvement in human rights violations, but its own weak record on human rights, its evident mixed motives in criticizing Beijing, and Trump’s scapegoating of China for his own pandemic failings left these interventions anything but principled, making working with allies difficult.

Yet it would be naive to treat a Biden presidency as a panacea. In recent decades, the arrival of each new White House resident has brought wild oscillations in US human rights policy. George W. Bush’s “global war on terror,” with its systematic torture and Guantanamo detentions without charge, was an earlier nadir. Barack Obama rejected important parts of it, although he maintained and even expanded such elements as unlawful drone attacks, intrusive surveillance, and arms sales to unsavory autocrats. Policy reversals, both at home and abroad, have become regular features in Washington.

Global leaders seeking to uphold human rights understandably ask whether they can rely on the US government. Even if Biden substantially improves the US record, the deep political divisions in the United States mean there is little to prevent the election of another US president with Trump’s disdain for human rights in four or eight years.

Yet that reality should be cause for resolve rather than despair. As the Trump administration largely abandoned the protection of human rights abroad, other governments stepped forward. Rather than surrender, they reinforced the ramparts. So even as powerful actors such as China, Russia, and Egypt sought to undermine the global human rights system, a series of broad coalitions came to its defense. Those coalitions included not only a range of Western countries but also a group of Latin American democracies and a growing number of Muslim-majority states.

As Biden assumes office, the US government should seek to join, not supplant, these collective efforts. US leadership can still be significant, but it should not substitute for or compromise the initiative shown by many others. The past four years have demonstrated that Washington is an important but not indispensable member of this broader team defending rights. Biden’s aim in his foreign policy should be to lead not from in front or behind but together with this larger group of rights promoters.

For the benefit of people in the United States, and to be most effective in advancing human rights around the world, Biden should also set a positive example by strengthening the US government’s commitment to human rights at home. As with US foreign policy, that commitment has swung wildly from administration to administration. This fluctuation has been most pronounced on reproductive freedom, the rights of LGBT people, the rights of asylum seekers and immigrants, voting rights, racial and economic inequities, the right to health, and the rights implicated by climate change. The challenge for Biden will be not simply to reverse the damage to human rights done by his predecessor, but also to make it more difficult for future presidents to retreat yet again.

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 US government has long neglected, but finding the necessary two-thirds support in the Senate will 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 Obama used to ignore torture under Bush. Like some of his predecessors, Biden can make short-term improvements by executive action, but as in the past, that is vulnerable to being undone by a future US president with less regard for human rights.

Ultimately, the goal for Biden should be to change the narrative on human rights in a more fundamental way – on both US domestic and foreign policy. A simple return to the ways of Obama – a so-called third Obama term – will not be enough. The large protests for racial justice across the United States in 2020, and the hardships imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, could provide a boost for such a reframing.

For inspiration, Biden could look to Jimmy Carter, who first introduced human rights as an element of US foreign policy. At the time, that was seen as a radical move, but it has endured through the decades. Every US president since Carter has sometimes downplayed human rights in favor of other priorities – indeed, Carter did as well – but none could entirely repudiate them.

Biden’s task is to find a way, through policy and practice, to make upholding human rights more central to US government conduct in a way that has a better chance of surviving the radical changes in policy that have become a fixture of the US political landscape. That will require reshaping the public’s understanding by speaking about issues at home more regularly in terms of rights while announcing human rights principles to guide US conduct abroad, and then adhering to them even when it is difficult.

Human Rights Watch
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