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How President-elect Biden can show leadership in global human rights

Written by Rachel George


Last month’s divisive US election has brought heightened attention to many longstanding national debates on human rights. These have also been triggered by Covid-19 and related economic fallout, and racial tensions. Pressing domestic human rights concerns around the pandemic response, poverty and inequality, police brutality, immigration policies and access to healthcare stand as a backdrop to the US’s perceived waning leadership in the global human rights agenda.

As a pandemic gripped the world and caused widespread suffering, many are looking to see where the US will stand on the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms, at home and abroad.

As Freedom House’s director Michael Abramowitz expressed in a recent testimony to the US State Department, the US must “…live up to the noble standards we have set”, and, as “those who champion human rights today operate in an environment of daunting hostility….[they] make a significant contribution to this most American of causes.”

The US’s waning leadership on human rights

The fact is that, despite the US's leadership in the development of the post-second world war human rights agenda (achieved only through strong collaboration with many of the world’s nations), the US’s role in progressing a coherent global rights agenda has been consistently fading under Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

A Biden administration will face ongoing questions around how it will enact meaningful leadership around this agenda. Across this critical area where the US has been drifting from the global stage, three priority questions stand out:

1. Where will the US stand on global human rights conventions and the UN human rights agenda?

While US leadership in the development of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights is a point of national pride, the US stands as a global outlier having not ratified the 1990 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child or the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Recent administrations of all political sides, including Obama and Bush administrations, have revisited these decisions but none have succeeded in progressing ratification through the US Senate’s approval. All have become bound up in debates (subscription required) on states’ rights, freedom of religion and other political sticking points. A new US administration and post-Covid-19 reset could provide an opportunity for refreshed debate around these important signaling actions.

2. How will the US engage around rights-based foreign policy agendas?

Canada, Sweden, France and Mexico have all recently developed so-called ‘feminist foreign policies’ which aim to drive an inclusive, rights-based approach to foreign policy. High-level discussions on this have started this year in the UK, Luxemburg and Spain.

Similar discussions have also been unfolding in the US since 2018, alongside further calls from NGOs to adopt a ‘human rights-based’ US foreign policy. The election has provided some space for opening a discussion on a new, more coherent approach to foreign policy which recognises the benefits of a more focused and consistent approach to human rights at home and abroad, and thus provides for a renewed and more dedicated human rights agenda which holds authority across US trade, military, diplomatic and development domains.

While the Biden administration has signaled some commitment to putting human rights ‘at the core of US foreign policy’ – how far these commitments will be enacted on in the executive branch, and the extent to which they then flow into congressional action is yet to be seen.

3. How will the US government agencies evolve to address intersecting rights issues?

Just as recent mergers of diplomatic and development agencies have unfolded in Canada, Australia and the UK, debates have lingered in Washington around a potential merger of the US State Department and Agency for International Department. Biden has not indicated this as an aim for his administration. Rising threats of domestic terrorism including white nationalist extremism have also raised debates in the US about how various government agencies respond to violence and face sometimes overlapping mandates.

A new administration must update its approaches to adapt more effectively to the ways in which security, development and humanitarian issues intersect within US government institutions in the context of today’s ever-evolving and complex human rights challenges. It must also recognise more directly the intersections between domestic and international human rights issues.

A new US agenda will need to look to the ways in which its institutions can reconfigure and recognise these intersections more directly through cross-agency coordination and innovation, to more effectively mainstream and uphold a strong inter-agency human rights approach.

A new US administration will face immense challenges, not least in the equitable global and domestic distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine alongside the economic strains of crisis. Above all of this stands the challenge of uniting a divided public in a relatively short timeframe. Without addressing some of the divisions and challenges raised in this blog, partisan politics could strike a more fatal blow to US leadership on international human rights.

But hope for the US to serve as a promoter of human rights and peace abroad remains one area of national consensus to be celebrated. In fact, some suggest foreign policy will be the one area most ripe for bipartisan action under a Biden administration. Opportunities for a new global human rights agenda, including around the three areas above, present windows for action and should be priorities for the new administration.