Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth: Biden Should Cement Rights in US Policy

(Washington, DC, January 13, 2021) – 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.”


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.

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