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Biden’s Challenge: Redeeming a US Role for Human Rights

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

© 2020 Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

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.

A More Global Defense of Rights

Although the US government has never been a consistent global backer of human rights, it can be a powerful supporter. That the Trump administration overwhelmingly abandoned the promotion of human rights was disappointing but turned out also to be galvanizing. Fortunately, many global leaders recognized that the defense of human rights was too important to forsake just because Trump had done so. A series of governments, some new to the cause, typically acting in coalition, repeatedly mounted a strong and often effective defense of rights. The number of nations involved made the defense more robust, because it was more global and less dependent on Washington.

Latin America illustrates this trend. Traditionally, governments there rarely critiqued each other’s human rights record, in part because that was seen as something Washington did. But to address the cycle of repression, corruption, and economic devastation under Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, 11 Latin American democracies plus Canada came together in 2017 as the Lima Group. The move was unprecedented. Maduro would probably have liked nothing better than to have Trump as the principal critic of his misrule, enabling the Venezuelan government to pass off criticism as “Yankee imperialism,” but the Lima Group acted independently of the United States. It made clear that its concerns involved principle, not politics.

The Lima Group ramped up pressure on Maduro. It persuaded the UN Human Rights Council to launch a formal investigation of his repression. Six Lima Group members asked the International Criminal Court prosecutor to investigate Venezuela’s alleged crimes against humanity – the first such request from a country’s neighbors. Maduro is still continuing his repressive rule, but he is far more isolated than he would have been had the US government continued its traditional, largely unilateral leadership on human rights in Venezuela. Some Lima Group members have now extended their focus to Nicaragua as well, persuading the UN Human Rights Council to authorize the UN high commissioner for human rights to report on repression under President Daniel Ortega.

Another striking example of this broader defense of human rights involved the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a group of 56 mainly Muslim-majority states. In the past, the OIC rarely used the United Nations to condemn human rights abuses other than those committed by Israel, but that began to change following the Myanmar military’s 2017 campaign of murder, rape, and arson against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, which sent 730,000 Rohingya fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh.

In 2018, the OIC joined with the European Union to lead an initiative at the Human Rights Council to create the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, to collect evidence for possible prosecution. In 2019, Gambia, an OIC member, brought a case before the International Court of Justice alleging violations of the Genocide Convention by Myanmar against the Rohingya – the first of its kind by a third-party state. As a provisional measure, the court ordered Myanmar to protect from genocide the 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Rakhine State. In addition, the International Criminal Court is investigating Myanmar officials for atrocities against the Rohingya during their forced deportation to Bangladesh.

Some of the global defense of human rights took place largely outside international institutions. The move that may have saved the most lives involved Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, where three million civilians, half of them displaced from elsewhere in Syria, had been living under repeated aerial bombardment by Russian and Syrian aircraft. Often these attacks targeted hospitals, schools, markets, and residential areas. The German, French, and Turkish governments (the latter despite worsening repression at home under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan) put sufficient pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to secure a ceasefire ending these attacks beginning in March 2020 and largely continuing throughout the year.

With the Russian and Chinese governments having vetoed an effort at the UN Security Council to refer atrocities in Syria to the International Criminal Court, other governments have begun to fill the breach. Circumventing the Security Council, Liechtenstein and Qatar in December 2016 led a successful effort at the UN General Assembly to establish the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria to collect evidence of war crimes and other atrocities for prosecution – the first such mechanism ever created. Several European governments – foremost Germany – have begun investigations and prosecutions in their own national courts, based on the legal principle of universal jurisdiction. The Netherlands has started a process to address systematic torture by the Syrian government, which could lead to a case before the International Court of Justice.

European governments have taken the lead on other important initiatives as well. As the increasingly authoritarian governments in Hungary and Poland undermined the checks and balances on executive power that are essential to democracy, the European Union pressed to condition its generous subsidies to those governments on their respect for the rule of law, although an end-of-year compromise ended up making this tool less powerful than many had hoped. When Belarusian President Aliaksandr Lukashenka made the highly controversial claim that he had won the August 2020 elections, and forces under his command proceeded to detain and torture protesters, the EU imposed targeted sanctions on 88 individuals whom it deemed responsible for the repression, including Lukashenka. Following the earlier US example, the EU also adopted a new regime of targeted sanctions involving travel bans and asset freezes for individuals and entities responsible for serious human rights abuses worldwide. The United Kingdom and Canada have set up similar regimes, and Australia seems poised to adopt one soon.

At the UN Human Rights Council, a core group consisting of the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Ireland, and Luxembourg secured and then strengthened an inquiry into war crimes in Yemen. Finland led a similar initiative for war crimes in Libya, as Iceland initially did for the thousands of summary executions of drug suspects instigated by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands took the lead in securing an investigation of repression in Eritrea. Australia and then Denmark orchestrated condemnatory statements about Saudi repression.

When Trump reinstated and then dramatically expanded the “global gag rule” – a policy that prohibits foreign organizations receiving US assistance from advocating or providing information, referrals, or services for legal abortion in their own countries – the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden launched a global initiative in defense of sexual and reproductive health and rights, called SheDecides. African governments, led by South Africa, demanded an inquiry into systemic racism and police violence around the world, building a cross-regional coalition to stand up to the US government following the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Costa Rica, Switzerland, and Germany led joint statements to repudiate Trump’s efforts to undermine the independence of the Hague-based International Criminal Court. Belgium secured a similar statement from many UN Security Council members. And a broad collection of governments – notably India and South Africa – pressed for greater access to vaccines and treatment for Covid-19.

This more global defense of human rights did not always prevail. Abusive governments remain a potent threat. But the greater breadth of the defense intensified the pressure on leaders who would flout the rights of their people. That mounting pressure is an important bulwark against today’s autocratic tendencies.

A renewed outpouring of popular support for human rights bolstered this governmental defense. In country after country, often at great risk, people took to the streets in large numbers to press abusive and corrupt governments to be more democratic and accountable. The causes varied, but the aspirations had remarkable commonality. In Egypt, protests were sparked by social-media posts from a former military contractor detailing outrageous corruption. In Thailand, student-led protests arose because a military-backed government resisted calls for democratic reform. In Belarus, demonstrations, often led by women, were in response to the widespread belief that President Lukashenka had stolen an election – and to his security forces’ brutal crackdown on protesters. In Poland, protests challenged the virtual elimination of access to abortion imposed by a constitutional court whose membership had been manipulated by the ruling Law and Justice Party.

Throughout the United States, people took to the streets to demand an end to police brutality and systemic racism. In Russia, protesters objected to constitutional reforms that weakened human rights and allowed Putin to extend his term in office; protracted protests also erupted in Russia’s far east in response to the Kremlin’s removal of a popular governor. In Hong Kong, the trigger for protests was Beijing’s threat to permit extradition to mainland China without legislative or public oversight – protests that proved intolerable to President Xi Jinping because they demonstrated that when people on Chinese territory are free to express themselves, they reject the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party. The global defense of human rights was greatly strengthened when these popular movements joined an expanding array of governmental actors.

China’s Worsening Repression

The most powerful target of this increasingly global defense of human rights was China. Repression in China has deepened severely in recent years under Xi Jinping, with the detention of more than one million Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang to pressure them to abandon Islam and their culture, the crushing of Hong Kong’s freedoms, ongoing repression in Tibet and Inner Mongolia, and the crackdown on independent voices throughout the country. This has been the darkest period for human rights in China since the 1989 massacre that ended the Tiananmen Square democracy movement.

Yet governments have long been reluctant to criticize Beijing for fear of retaliation. Australia suffered economic reprisal in 2020 when the Chinese government imposed punitive tariffs on various Australian goods, because Canberra supported an independent investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. Beijing most likely feared that the probe would spotlight its early, three-week denial of human-to-human transmission in late December 2019 and January 2020 as millions of people fled or traveled through Wuhan – an average of 3,500 a day traveling abroad – and the virus went global. The Wuhan lockdown began only on January 23.  

In 2016, the US government had organized the first common statement of governments willing to criticize China on human rights, but only 11 other states joined it. When the Trump administration withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council in 2018, many assumed that criticism of the Chinese government’s repression would end. In fact, it strengthened. Over the past two years, governments have grown more confident to criticize Beijing’s repression by finding safety in numbers, reflecting Beijing’s inability to retaliate against the entire world.

The first step took place at the Human Rights Council in 2019, when 25 governments banded together to condemn the extraordinary repression in Xinjiang. Yet fear of Beijing was still on display when, despite a tradition that joint statements are read out loud at the council, none of the 25 would do so.

Since then, the British government has taken responsibility for reading similar condemnations at the council and at the UN General Assembly. Most recently, in October 2020, the German government took the lead in organizing at the General Assembly a condemnation of repression in Xinjiang that attracted 39 countries. Turkey issued a similar parallel statement.

After each statement criticizing its repression, Beijing organized a counterstatement of other countries willing to praise its conduct. The pro-China statement was typically signed by many of the world’s worst human rights abusers, and its numbers were large, given the economic leverage used to secure support. However, the most recent statement, delivered by Cuba in October 2020 to applaud the Chinese government’s conduct in Xinjiang, attracted only 45 signatories – a drop from 54 the year before. That shift, approaching parity with the condemnatory statement, suggests the day may soon arrive when UN bodies can begin to adopt formal resolutions criticizing at least some aspects of Beijing’s repression.

For much of the past two years, the OIC and Muslim-majority governments have tended to support China. In October, however, that, too, began to change. The number of OIC states supporting China’s repression in Xinjiang dropped from 25 in 2019 to 19 in 2020, with the remaining 37 OIC members refusing to join. Albania and Turkey went further and added their voices to the joint condemnation of China’s abuses in Xinjiang. These numbers suggest that the tables may be turning, as more Muslim-majority countries are rightfully outraged by the Chinese government’s horrendous treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang.

The Chinese government in October also sought a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. The last time it ran, four years ago, it received the most votes of any country running from the Asia-Pacific region. This time, it received the fewest votes of any such government that secured a seat. Only Saudi Arabia received fewer votes and, in a positive result, was denied a seat.

This growing international willingness to condemn the Chinese government forced it to respond. For the first time, Beijing gave a number for the Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims directly affected by its conduct in Xinjiang – 1.3 million – although it claimed they were in not detention but “vocational training centers.” It also claimed that many had “graduated,” although this allusion to release must be tempered by the inability to verify independently the number remaining in detention and by the growing evidence that many who were released from custody were coerced into forced labor. Growing global efforts to ensure that supply chains in Xinjiang and other regions of China are not tainted by this forced labor could create a new source of pressure on Beijing to stop its persecution of Muslims.

All of these initiatives are noteworthy for how peripheral the US government has been. Often the Trump administration had nothing to do with the effort. When it did speak out – such as on China – the selectivity of its concern, as Trump embraced a multitude of friendly autocrats, meant the US voice lacked much credibility.

The lesson of recent years for other governments is that they can make a big difference even without Washington. Even under a more rights-friendly US administration, this broader collective defense of rights should be maintained. Even if Biden manages to overcome the swings and double standards that often plague US policy, the defense of human rights will be stronger if a wide range of governments continues to lead.

Lessons for Biden

Biden cannot guarantee that a new US administration in four or eight years will not again turn back the clock on human rights, but he can take steps to make that retrenchment more difficult. Those steps would make the US government a more reliable member of the global human rights system.

Obviously, the more a rights-respecting policy is enshrined in legislation, the harder it is to reverse, which a Democratic majority in the US Congress may make possible . Without two-thirds of the Senate, the prospect remains remote of the United States joining most of the rest of the world in ratifying the major human rights treaties that it has long neglected. For the most part, Biden will have to resort to executive orders and presidential policy to undo the damage of the Trump years. Such steps by Biden would in principle be reversible, but they can be done in a way that makes it harder for the next president to make a 180-degree turn.

To provide greater staying power to a renewed commitment to human rights, Biden needs to reframe how these rights are understood in the United States. As noted, Jimmy Carter accomplished such a reframing when he introduced human rights as an element of US foreign policy. Many of Carter’s successors did not share his commitment to human rights, but none formally rejected it. It had struck a chord with the US public and met a global popular demand. So, for example, although Ronald Reagan broke with Carter’s commitment in Central America and elsewhere, he still ended up institutionalizing the State Department’s reporting on human rights and played an important role in pushing for democratic change in Chile and the Soviet bloc. Biden should aspire to a similar reconceptualization as Carter achieved.

The moment is ripe because the pandemic has laid bare gross disparities in access to health care, food, and other basic necessities, while the Black Lives Matter movement has spotlighted deep-seated racial injustice. Many people in the United States remain hostile to governmental efforts to remedy these human rights violations, which is part of why no administration has taken them on, but the extraordinary events of 2020 could provide a spur for action by having exposed the common interest in respect for everyone’s rights. The challenge for Biden is to seize that opportunity and use it to entrench respect for human rights as a central element of US policy at home and abroad.

One way would be by more regularly framing social issues in terms of rights. Traditionally, the US government has been more focused on civil and political rights than on economic, social, and cultural rights. It has ratified the leading treaty on the former, which codifies rights such as freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial, and the right not to be tortured, but never the companion treaty on the latter, which addresses such rights as those concerning health, housing, and food. Yet the pandemic has shown how linked these concepts are – for example, how censorship about a government’s response to the pandemic undermines people’s ability to demand that resources be devoted to their health rather than the government’s political interests. Indeed, both sets of rights often can be found in US law. Biden could begin to speak about human rights in the broader terms in which most people understand them.

With the pandemic still raging, an obvious place to begin would be with Biden’s stated plan to bolster access to health care in the United States, which he should describe as a right. He should make clear that the issue is not simply reinforcing or expanding the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare) but upholding everyone’s right to see a doctor without bankrupting their family. Similarly, as he pushes for federal aid to workers left unemployed by the lockdown, he should make clear that everyone is entitled to an adequate standard of living – that the richest government in the world is supposed to help people put food on the table even if they have lost their jobs in tough times. As he addresses the closing of schools, he should speak about the right to education – that a family’s ability to educate its children should not depend on whether it can afford a strong internet connection and a laptop. The more that people in the United States recognize that human rights reflect fundamental values, the less they will allow each passing president to treat rights as mere policy preferences.

Facing his own extraordinary challenges, Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the New Deal and made the case for a “freedom from want” in his famous “Four Freedoms” speech. Biden should seize on this pivotal moment to enlarge upon that vision and make it a more permanent reality in the United States.

Even within the realm of civil and political rights, more regular reference to rights could help to reduce the major shifts in policy that have accompanied most changes of administration. For example, Biden has expressed a desire to curtail the risk of deportation and provide a path to legalization for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Because some two-thirds have been in the United States for a decade or more, many with US-citizen children and spouses, Biden could speak of their right to live with their family without the constant fear of deportation.

On the issues of racial discrimination in education, housing, health, or the criminal justice system, or the right to choose whether, when, or how to form a family, Biden could note not only that these rights are upheld by US law but also that they are seen as fundamental in most countries around the world. And he should certainly repudiate the Commission on Unalienable Rights, the brainchild of Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, which was a thinly disguised effort to pick and choose among rights instead of recognizing them as a set of binding obligations. That ploy was music to the ears of the world’s autocrats.

More regular invocation of rights will not alone be enough but it could help to shift the public conversation about the fundamental values involved. That might make it harder for the next president to do an about-face.

Adopting a Principled Foreign Policy

A similar shift would help to instill more consistency in US foreign policy. Biden should affirm that the promotion of human rights around the world is a core principle of US policy – and then abide by it. But to make such a statement meaningful, Biden would need to apply it even when it is politically difficult.

For example, Biden has indicated a determination to rejoin global efforts to fight climate change. He should do so by fulfilling his campaign pledge to drastically reduce US greenhouse gas emissions and encouraging other governments to do the same. He also said he would reverse Trump’s planned departure from the World Health Organization. He should go further and work to increase global access to health care.

He should re-embrace the UN Human Rights Council and fully participate in it even though it regularly criticizes Israel’s oppressive and discriminatory treatment of Palestinians in Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), and even when it scrutinizes human rights in the United States. He should resume US funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and the UN Population Fund, which keep countless people, especially women and girls, healthy and alive. And he should void Trump’s appalling sanctions on the International Criminal Court’s work – an affront to the rule of law – regardless of the prosecutor’s steps to investigate unprosecuted crimes that are sensitive to the US government, such as US torture in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) and Israeli war crimes in the OPT.  

UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s term concludes at the end of 2021, with a new election due before then. The Biden administration should condition support for any candidate – whether Guterres seeking a second term or anyone else – on a pledge not to repeat Guterres’s lackluster performance on human rights over the past four years. That should include using the UN’s powerful bully pulpit to call out repressive governments by name – something that Guterres has been loath to do – and fully implementing his February 2020 “Call to Action on Human Rights,” which has yet to move from “call” to “action.”

Biden should similarly announce and live by human rights principles as a major determinant of US relations with abusive countries. Biden can be expected to maintain less cozy relations than Trump with certain friendly autocrats such as Putin. But he should also insist that, absent improvement in their conduct, the US government will curb its military aid or (often subsidized) arms sales to highly abusive friendly governments such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. He should reject the fiction that mere “engagement” without serious pressure modifies rather than bolsters their repression. He should press for continued UN reporting on Sri Lanka and concrete steps toward accountability, now that many of the officials who were responsible for past war crimes have returned to power. He should be more outspoken about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s encouragement of discrimination and violence against Muslims, even if India is seen as an important ally against China.

To bolster the global defense of human rights, Biden plans to host a “Summit for Democracy.” He should not repeat the mistake of Bill Clinton who invited allied authoritarian governments to his Community of Democracies in the hope that they might become democratic. That devalues the currency of the invitation. A standing meeting of democracies can provide an incentive to respect democratic standards only if adherence to those standards is the price of admission.

Biden’s biggest foreign-policy challenge may be China, given Beijing’s severe repression at home and its determination to undermine the global human rights system out of fear that the system will target its repression. Trump, after initially embracing Xi Jinping – going so far as to praise the possibility that he might serve as president for life and reportedly to endorse the mass detention of Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims – ultimately soured on Xi, particularly as Trump needed a “China virus” scapegoat for his administration’s failure to contain the pandemic in the United States. Although parts of the US government did address Beijing’s repression – the administration imposed targeted sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for the mass detention of Muslims in Xinjiang and the crushing of freedoms in Hong Kong – Trump took a more transactional approach, as if enough Chinese purchases of soybeans from his supporters in Iowa would alleviate any problems. The sense that Trump was using human rights to pursue other agendas, coupled with his “America First” unilateralism, discouraged other governments from joining his efforts.   

To be effective, Biden will need to pursue a more principled, consistent, and multilateral approach. After years of global ridicule brought on by the Trump administration, significant portions of the US electorate would take pride in Washington speaking with a clear voice on human rights – and demonstrating on the world stage its difference from competing powers such as China, Russia, or India.

Biden should embrace broad coalitions of governments to condemn Beijing’s repression – even if the locale of their statement is the UN Human Rights Council, where the Trump administration refused to join statements on China because of the council’s criticism of Israel. US diplomacy could help to expand those coalitions to include governments that have not yet spoken out, especially in the Global South, and reassure economically vulnerable countries that the US government will help them if they face retaliation from Beijing. Having spoken in strong terms about Chinese repression in Xinjiang, Biden should also press for an independent international investigation, as well as accountability for those responsible.

Biden could endorse a strong version of legislation being considered by the US Congress to force companies sourcing from Xinjiang – and China more broadly – to ensure that their supply chains are not tainted by the forced labor of Uyghur Muslims. And he should encourage other governments to do the same. He should impose targeted sanctions on companies that assist the Chinese government with its highly intrusive surveillance state – and encourage similar action by others. He should set a model for combatting Chinese Communist Party influence in the United States without resorting to bigotry against all Chinese people. And, again, he should adopt a more principled approach to human rights at home and abroad, so others cannot dismiss talk of Chinese repression as a tool of superpower competition but see it as reflecting genuine concern for the human rights of one-sixth of humanity that is matched by parallel attention to people wherever they face persecution.


It will not be enough for Biden to respond to Trump by simply turning the clock back four years, as if an abandonment of Trump’s policies can reverse the devastation he caused. The world has changed, and so must the promotion of human rights. Many rights-respecting nations have responded to the void created by Trump’s indifference and hostility to human rights by stepping forward and playing a more active leadership role. The Biden administration should join that enhanced defense of rights, not seek to replace it.

Meanwhile, Biden needs to recognize that Trump has magnified the traditional shifts in policy between US administrations into a crisis of credibility for Washington and a profound risk to the rights of people in the United States and around the world. Biden should seek to reframe the US public’s appreciation of human rights so the US commitment becomes entrenched in a way that is not so easily reversed by his successors. The sustained role of the US government as a useful partner in defending human rights worldwide depends on Biden’s success.