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Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth

For four years, US President Donald Trump showed indifference and often hostility to human rights. He flouted human rights at home and embraced friendly autocrats abroad, severely eroding US credibility. Condemnations of Venezuela, Cuba or Iran rang hollow when Trump bestowed parallel praise on Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Israel.

Joe Biden’s election provides an opportunity for fundamental change, but his election is not a panacea. In recent decades, the wild oscillations in US human rights policy as administrations change hands has left many governments wondering if they can depend on the United States.

Fortunately, as Trump largely abandoned human rights, other governments recognized that human rights are too important to ignore.

Several Latin American countries plus Canada spearheaded the defense of human rights in Venezuela. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation played a central role in defending the rights of Rohingya Muslims facing persecution in Myanmar. Germany, France, and Turkey forced Russia and Syria to stop targeting civilians in Syria’s Idlib province. With China, a growing coalition of governments overcame their longstanding fear of retaliation to condemn Beijing’s worsening repression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

The growing number of nations involved in this defense of human rights made it more robust, even without the United States.

Biden’s challenge is not simply to reverse Trump’s damage to rights, but also to change the narrative on human rights in a more fundamental way, so it can better survive future changes of administration. That requires reshaping the public’s understanding of the importance of human rights.

Within the United States, Biden will need to speak more regularly in terms of rights. For example, in seeking to bolster access to health care, he should talk of the right of everyone to see a doctor without bankrupting their family.

On US foreign policy, Biden should affirm that promoting rights is a core principle, and then abide by it, even when politically difficult.

Absent major improvements, he should curb military aid or arms sales to abusive governments such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. He should be more outspoken about Indian Prime Minister Modi’s encouragement of discrimination and violence against Muslims, even if India is an important ally against China.

He should re-embrace the UN Human Rights Council. He should void Trump’s sanctions on the International Criminal Court even if he doesn’t like the prosecutor’s investigations. 

On China, Biden should abandon Trump’s inconsistent, transactional unilateralism, which discouraged others from joining him. Biden should substitute a more principled, consistent, and multilateral approach.

Turning the clock back four years will not be enough to undo Trump‘s damage. The world has changed, and so must the defense of human rights.

Now that many nations have recognized the value of assuming leadership roles on rights, Biden should seek to join that enhanced defense of rights, not supplant it, and to steer US foreign policy in a more principled, pro-rights direction. Whether the US government can become a reliable defender of human rights depends on Biden’s success.

(Washington, DC) – US President-elect Joe Biden should work with global leaders who have sought to shore up a defense of human rights around the world, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2021. His administration should also look for ways to entrench respect for human rights in US policy that are more likely to survive the radical changes among administrations that have become a fixture of the US political landscape.

“After four years of Trump’s indifference and often hostility to human rights, including his provoking a mob assault on democratic processes in the Capitol, the Biden presidency provides an opportunity for fundamental change,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, in his introductory essay to the World Report 2021. “Trump’s flouting of human rights at home and his embrace of friendly autocrats abroad severely eroded US credibility abroad. US condemnations of Venezuela, Cuba, or Iran rang hollow when parallel praise was bestowed on Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Israel.”

A young boy raises his fist during a demonstration in Atlanta, Georgia, May 31, 2020.

World Report 2021, Human Rights Watch’s 31st annual review of human rights practices and trends around the globe, reviews developments in more than 100 countries.


Roth said that other governments recognized that human rights were too important to abandon, even as the US government largely abandoned the protection of human rights, and powerful actors such as China and Russia sought to undermine the global human rights system. New coalitions to protect rights emerged: Latin American governments plus Canada acting on Venezuela, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation defending Rohingya Muslims, a range of European governments acting on such countries as Belarus, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Libya, Hungary, and Poland, and a growing coalition of governments willing to condemn China’s persecution of Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.

“The past four years show that Washington is an important but not indispensable leader on human rights,” Roth said. “Many other governments treated Trump’s retreat as cause for resolve rather than despair and stepped up to protect human rights.”

Biden’s presidency provides an opportunity for fundamental change, Roth said. He said that the president-elect should set an example by strengthening the US government’s commitment to human rights at home in a way that cannot be easily reversed by his successors.

Biden should speak in terms of the human rights involved as he works to expand health care, dismantle systemic racism, lift people out of poverty and hunger, fight climate change, and end discrimination against women and LGBT people. The slim Democratic Party majorities in the US Senate and House may also open possibilities for more lasting legislation. Biden should also allow criminal investigations of Trump to proceed to make clear that no one is outside the rule of law.

Abroad, to better entrench human rights as a guiding principle, Roth said, Biden should affirm and then act on that principle even when it is politically difficult. That should include:

  • Curbing military aid or arms sales to abusive friendly governments such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel absent significant improvements in their human rights practices;
  • Condemning the Indian government’s encouragement of discrimination and violence against Muslims, even if India is seen as an important ally against China;
  • Re-embracing the UN Human Rights Council, even though it criticizes Israeli abuses;
  • Voiding Trump’s sanctions on the International Criminal Court, even if he doesn’t like the prosecutor’s investigations; and
  • Abandoning Trump’s inconsistent, transactional unilateral policy towards China and adopting a more principled, consistent, and multilateral approach that will encourage others to join.

“The big news of recent years isn’t Trump’s well-known abandonment of rights but the less-noticed emergence of so many other countries in leadership roles,” Roth said. “The Biden administration should join, not supplant, these shared efforts. These governments should maintain their important defense of rights, not relinquish their leadership to Washington, while Biden works to entrench a less variable US commitment to human rights.”

We asked four partners to respond to Human Rights Watch’s call on US President-elect Joe Biden and other leaders to prioritize human rights at home and abroad, and why international attention is important to their work. Here are selected quotes:

The United States
Dr Tiffany Crutcher, of the
Terence Crutcher Foundation and Black Wall Street Memorial in Tulsa, recalls the racist history preceding the January 6 attack on the US Capitol and urges President-elect Biden to tackle white supremacy:

In 1921, it was a lie that incited the Tulsa race massacre where mobs of white rioters burned down the Black community of Greenwood. And almost 100 years later on January 6, 2021, it was a lie that incited mobs of white rioters to storm our nation’s capital to overthrow our democracy. Confederate flags were waved, nooses were erected, and white supremacy showed its ugly head.

Which is why I’m calling on the Biden administration to attack white supremacy head on its first 30, 60, 90 days of taking office. You must prioritize racial justice and you must re-engage on the issues of human rights, and most importantly you must reverse the regressions from the Trump administration. We don’t need another Breonna Taylor, we don’t need another Tamir Rice, another George Floyd, another Terence Crutcher. You must demand a just America and be the change that we so desperately need in this country right now.

Tatiana Glushkova, a board member of the Russian group
Memorial Human Rights Center, recalls the arrest on bogus charges of Memorial’s lead researcher in Chechnya, Oyub Titiev, and the difference international attention made in his fate:

The goal was to force Memorial to close its office in Grozny and to complicate the collection of information about human rights violations in Chechnya. However, the case itself was so crudely and clumsily fabricated and so obviously in retaliation for Oyub’s human rights work, that it attracted intense attention from the international community. Oyub’s case was discussed at the Council of Europe, the UN, European parliament, and FIFA. It was discussed in foreign ministries of many different countries, and numerous human rights organizations, both Russian and international. For nine months, foreign diplomats and journalists regularly visited the Shali city court [where Titiev’s trial was held].

Such attention did not escape the authorities of the Chechen Republic. Their most important reaction was, of course, the fact that Oyub’s verdict was relatively light, and also that he was very quickly released on parole. Such a reaction by the Chechen authorities, given their longstanding and deep hatred for Memorial, can only be explained by their desire to quickly turn this page, get rid of this case, of this political prisoner, and of the intense interest of the international community. The result we now have, that our colleague has been free for over a year, would not have been possible without [this] international attention. We are extremely grateful to everyone who took part in this effort.

Cyrille Rolande Bechon, head of
Nouveaux Droits de l’Homme Cameroun, a human rights organization based in Yaoundé, discusses the international response to the massacre of 21 civilians in Ngarbuh, Cameroon:

This is the place for me to thank the organizations that come together in the Coalition for Human Rights and Peace in the Anglophone Regions, international organizations like Human Rights Watch, [and countries like] France, the United States, who supported us and conveyed the message with us about the need to set up a commission of inquiry into this massacre.

Although this commission has announced its conclusions and a trial opened last December 17 against the four members of the security forces identified by the commission as having participated in this massacre, we’re still dissatisfied. Dissatisfied because the chain of responsibility in this massacre has yet to be established. We would like all those responsible, whether directly or indirectly, including high-ranking army officials, to be prosecuted and sentenced.

Feliciano Reyes, a Venezuelan human rights defender deeply involved in providing humanitarian support to Venezuelans in need, on the country’s humanitarian emergency:

The complex humanitarian emergency that has affected Venezuela for at least four years has caused enormous damage to the population, for example, their lack of access to food, health services, [and] education. [These things] also generate mass forced migration because it’s so hard to survive in the country. The root causes include political conflict and years of abuse of power, of erosion of the rule of law. The international community has a fundamental role to play, not only in terms of diplomatic political actions in fora such as the Human Rights Council, the United Nations General Assembly, [and] the Security Council, to help find solutions to the political conflict, but also in providing vital international humanitarian assistance for Venezuela.

This has produced visible effects but is still insufficient. We hope the World Food Program will enter the country this year, for example, since there are reports of Venezuelans facing serious levels of food insecurity. This work is fundamental. This work of political and diplomatic pressure and humanitarian cooperation to restore decent living conditions for the Venezuelan people, and, eventually, to redirect the country towards development and well-being for its people.

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