The U.S. government has never been a consistent promoter of human rights — other interests were often prioritized — but when it did act, it could be powerful. Yet U.S. influence on human rights has plummeted under President Donald Trump. If Joe Biden assumes the presidency, he will need to oversee a major transformation if he wants the U.S. government to be a credible human rights voice.
It will not be enough simply to revert to the (often inadequate) policies of four years ago. The world has changed since then, with a pandemic, the further rise of China — which recently sanctioned me and 10 other U.S citizens for our rights work on Hong Kong — and growing global awareness of racism, inequality and other injustices that leave so many people behind. U.S. policy will need to adjust.
It is harder to contemplate major changes from a second Trump administration. But even Trump, once he no longer needs to appeal to his base for re-election, may be more willing to contemplate his global image and place in history. Or perhaps Congress can succeed in exerting pressure on him to reassess his most detrimental human rights policies.
Trump’s infatuation with autocrats, many of whom share his xenophobia, has decimated his credibility on human rights. He has cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin despite his repression at home and role in war crimes in Syria and Libya, and to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi despite his anti-Muslim agenda.
Trump has embraced Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, although he has shut down independent media and arrested opposition politicians and activists; Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, although he has sponsored summary executions of tens of thousands of drug suspects; Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, although he has greenlighted killings by police and the burning of the Amazon; and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has erected the European Union’s first dictatorship. Trump even called Chinese President Xi Jinping a “terrific guy” despite the detention of 1 million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims for forced indoctrination and his efforts to crush Hong Kong’s freedoms.
Not all of this started with Trump. Often he has replicated traditional American hypocrisy on human rights. Prime examples are his administration’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia while the crown prince oversees the bombing of Yemeni civilians, or the massive military aid to Egypt while President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi crushes independent voices in the country and underwrites war crimes in Northern Sinai and Libya. He reflects longstanding U.S. indifference to Israeli persecution of Palestinians by nodding approvingly toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s crushing of Palestinian rights.
The Trump administration does sometimes speak out about the human rights abuses by perceived adversaries — Venezuela, Iran, Cuba and China — but so selectively that its words hardly have credibility.
To make matters worse, the Trump administration has sought to undermine key institutions for the global defense of human rights. It relinquished a coveted seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council and stopped supporting its valuable work because of its criticism of Israel. The administration imposed sanctions against International Criminal Court officials — a blatant affront to the rule of law — because its prosecutor is pursuing an investigation of allegations of serious abuses by Americans linked to the conflict in Afghanistan and alleged war crimes committed by Israelis in Palestinian territory, both areas where impunity has prevailed. It sought to undermine women’s reproductive health and rights in international deliberations from the U.N. Security Council to the Organization of American States. It quit the Paris Climate Agreement, withdrew from the World Health Organization and cut off funds in the midst of the pandemic, and reversed an earlier U.S. government pledge to limit the use of antipersonnel landmines and move toward compliance with the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sponsored a “Commission on Unalienable Rights,” which effectively treats the requirements of international human rights law as an à la carte menu. Pompeo’s apparent goal is to cite religious freedom as an excuse to discriminate against LGBTQ people and to deny women their reproductive freedom.
One positive aspect of the Trump administration’s human rights policy has been its application of targeted travel bans and asset freezes to abusive officials, among them senior Chinese and Russian officials. Yet while the administration sanctioned 10 Saudi officials allegedly responsible for the brutal killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, it refused to act against the crown prince despite U.S. intelligence assessments that he ordered the killing.
Trump’s domestic policy routinely disregards human rights. He has launched a full-scale assault on the right to seek asylum. He initiated a travel ban targeting Muslims when he first entered office, separated immigrant children from their parents and held them in inhumane conditions, and needlessly detained noncitizens when alternatives were available. He dramatically curtailed refugee resettlement, which disproportionately affects refugees from Muslim majority countries, among them Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Sudanese and Somalis.
His Justice Department denies that systemic racism exists in policing and has all but abandoned efforts to curtail police abuse. He deployed federal agents with histories of abuse to Portland, Ore., Kenosha, Wis., and to the park across from the White House, where they used excessive force against protesters and escalated community tensions. He sought to undermine the right to health by attacking the Affordable Care Act in the midst of a pandemic while playing down the severity of the coronavirus. He promoted discrimination against LGBTQ Americans and especially transgender people, sought to limit women’s access to reproductive health care, and tried to restrict the right to vote.
This retreat from rights plays out at a time when the ideological contest between democracy and autocracy is heating up. Authoritarian governments claim that, despite being unanswerable to their constituents, they deliver better results.
But unaccountable governments routinely serve foremost their own political interests, as illustrated by Chinese authorities’ early censorship of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan as millions fled the city, allowing the virus to go global; Orban neglecting hospitals so he can build soccer stadiums to pay off his cronies; and el-Sisi building palaces as a way to reward his army backers. That is why autocrats are so desperate to avoid free and fair elections —why, for example, Hong Kong looms as such a threat to Beijing. But Trump’s abusive, self-serving rule is also Exhibit A for those who highlight how messy democracy can be.
Americans should not sit back complacently and assume that the U.S. government can regain its potential for positive influence on human rights even if Trump is defeated in November. Many democracies have lost faith in the United States as a reliable partner on human rights — or much else.
Moreover, as Trump withdrew from defending human rights, the Chinese government stepped up its own efforts to impose an anti-rights vision for global governance. No atrocity has been too grave for Beijing to turn its back on for fear that a precedent of enforcing human rights standards might come back to haunt it. To build allies, the Chinese government has used its trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative to make governments economically and hence politically indebted to Beijing. Other governments fear the loss of trade with China if they protest Beijing’s repression.
But as Trump abandoned human rights, some other governments stepped to the fore. A broad range of new states, typically heading coalitions of like-minded governments, assumed leadership roles.
The Netherlands took the lead in persuading the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing and blockading of civilians in Yemen. Iceland, which assumed the seat on the council abandoned by Trump, did the same for the tens of thousands of young men summarily executed during Philippine President Duterte’s “drug war.” Finland led in securing a U.N. investigation of war crimes in Libya. A group of Latin American democracies plus Canada, the “Lima Group,” secured a U.N. investigation of egregious abuses in Venezuela.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, while ignoring the Chinese government’s persecution of Uighur Muslims, helped to push through a quasi-criminal U.N. investigation of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims. And an OIC member, Gambia, persuaded the International Court of Justice to order Myanmar not to commit genocidal acts against the Rohingya who remain in the country. Britain took the public lead on joint statements at the U.N. by some two dozen countries about China’s repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Australia led on Saudi abuses at home.
The global defense of human rights is stronger for this shared responsibility. Even if the next U.S. administration resumes defending human rights, it should seek to bolster rather than upstage this broadening group of human rights supporters. It’s not just a matter of numbers; other governments have come to be seen as more principled in their defense of human rights, attracting adherents to the cause.
A new administration will have to overcome not only Trump’s disregard for human rights but also earlier administrations’ double standards. Indeed, reestablishing human rights principles as a central guide for U.S. foreign policy would be one of the best ways to reassure other governments that U.S. commitments are more constant than electoral vagaries.
So, what, concretely, should the next administration do? It should seek election to the U.N. Human Rights Council and, in the meantime, actively promote the council’s work — for example, by joining with allies to end the impunity that the Chinese government has enjoyed at the council for its rampant abuses. It should make a point of ending the unconditional defense of the Israeli government and use Washington’s leverage to press Israeli authorities to, for example, stop robbing the 2 million Gazan residents of their freedom of movement.
The next administration should lift the shameful Trump threat of sanctions against International Criminal Court personnel. It should join the ICC, or at least adopt the cooperative posture toward the court taken by the Obama administration and, at times — in the case of Darfur — even the second Bush administration. It should support positive changes in places like Sudan, where U.S. sanctions threaten to undermine progress made by protesters seeking a democratic transition who ousted longtime dictator and ICC-suspect Omar al-Bashir.
The next administration should abandon not only Pompeo’s à la carte attitude toward international human rights law but also earlier administrations’ similar attitude toward human rights treaties. It should ratify treaties on economic, social and cultural rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, and the rights of people with disabilities. It should reverse Trump’s re-embrace of antipersonnel landmines, including by ratifying the Mine Ban Treaty. It should ratify the treaty against cluster munitions and support a proposed treaty banning fully autonomous lethal weapons, or “killer robots.” It should rejoin the World Health Organization. And it should end Trump’s efforts to undermine the right to reproductive freedom around the world, including by lifting the “Global Gag Rule,” which attaches harmful anti-abortion dictates to U.S. funding, and by promoting reproductive rights as an element of U.S. foreign policy.
In terms of bilateral relations, the next administration should end Trump’s flirtation with autocrats. It should back European Union efforts to isolate Hungarian Prime Minister Orban as well as the ruling Polish party until they stop undermining democracy and the rule of law. It should end arms sales to Saudi Arabia and military support to Egypt until their militaries cease their atrocities.
Given the Chinese government’s threat to rights, it will be particularly important to remain focused on Beijing. Though hardly for reasons of principle, the Trump administration has ended up being tough on China. A big risk is that a Biden administration might cease this urgently needed focus because, by the end, Trump had assumed it. But simply being “not Trump” is not a principled or effective human rights policy.
Finally, a new administration needs to act differently at home. It should reinstate the right to seek asylum, establish alternatives to immigration detention that keep children with their parents, end the practice of forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico as their claims are considered, provide redress to the tens of thousands of people who have already been forced to do so, and cease summarily sending asylum-seekers back to Central America and elsewhere. It should regularize the status of the roughly two-thirds of undocumented immigrants in the United States (including DACA beneficiaries) who have been in the country for a decade or more, many with U.S. citizen spouses and children, and have become effective Americans in all but the documents they carry. And it should resume the resettlement of refugees.
A new administration should exert federal leadership in reducing America’s overincarceration, curbing police brutality and frontally addressing the systemic racism that infects the U.S. criminal legal system and so many other parts of U.S. society. It should make voting as easy as possible. It should reaffirm the right of all LGBTQ people to be free of discrimination. And it should invest in universal health care and a broader social safety net, to overcome the shortcomings that are particularly harmful to racial and ethnic minorities and many women, and to show that the U.S. government can ensure that everyone has access to basic necessities not only in the midst of a pandemic but always.
The global defense of human rights is too important to forsake simply because Trump has wreaked such havoc. People around the world depend on that system. And as the last four years have shown, Americans need it as well.