To Presidential Candidates Drafting Platforms: Restore U.S. Human Rights Leadership

As the number of candidates running for president rapidly expands, some of them undoubtedly are formulating their foreign policy goals. One important component of any platform, along with protecting national security and advancing America’s economic interests, should be to restore the United States’ commitment to promote human rights internationally. Doing so would enhance America’s global prestige and advance other U.S. foreign policy concerns.

This would be a stark contrast to President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. To the extent that there is a consistent theme in Trump’s approach to world affairs, it has been to heap praise on extreme nationalist leaders and dictators, including Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Kim Jong Un of North Korea, Viktor Orbán of Hungary, and Vladimir Putin of Russia. All the while, he expresses disdain for leaders like Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Germany’s Angela Merkel, who have taken strong stands for human rights.

The Trump administration’s withdrawal of recognition from Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela is a welcome exception, should it secure a peaceful transition in cooperation with democratic countries in the region.

The first step those seeking to defeat Trump in 2020 should take in devising an effective human rights policy is to restore the credibility of the United States as a proponent of the cause. This can be done only by addressing civil and human rights issues in the United States, which capture a great deal of attention in other countries.

The experience of President George W. Bush is instructive. Bush seemed committed to the promotion of human rights internationally, but his accomplishments in this area were negligible. His administration undercut its rhetoric and policy goals by putting into practice the very abuses it railed against, including the long-term detention of hundreds of men at Guantanamo without trials or even charges, and the torture of detainees at secret CIA prisons around the world. Those events and policies made it impossible to promote human rights and persuade other governments to take seriously American criticism of their human rights practices.

`Muslim Ban,’ Family Separation, Mass Incarceration

In the case of the Trump administration, its Muslim Ban and family-separation policy at the U.S.-Mexico border have attracted a great deal of negative attention in other parts of the world. Major changes in these practices are needed if the United States is to be taken seriously when it speaks to other countries about their human rights abuses. A sustained and substantial effort to reduce mass incarceration also would demonstrate that the United States is intent on itself manifesting respect for human rights.

If the next president re-establishes U.S. credibility as an advocate for human rights, she or he could then focus on efforts to promote rights globally. The first thing to do is to stand up for freedom of the press. The imprisonment and killing of journalists not only violates journalists’ rights, but also does great damage to the freedoms of everyone else whose rights are threatened.

All of us need a free press to let the world know when we are under attack. Without a free press, we cannot get protection when we need it. Labeling journalists as “the enemy of the people” is an assault on everyone’s rights. Protecting journalists should be at the top of the agenda for an American human rights policy.

Second, the next president should take steps to mitigate the harm to civilians in armed conflicts. The United States should focus attention on the use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs by the Assad regime in Syria; the indiscriminate attacks by Saudi air strikes and by the Houthi rebels in Yemen; the burning of Rohingya villages in Myanmar; and other such practices that kill and injure noncombatants. The victims of armed conflicts also include many women and girls, and also men and boys, who are the targets of sexual attacks by combatants.

The one place where victims can seek justice and accountability is the International Criminal Court. But the Trump administration is working to undercut the ICC. Last year, John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, delivered a speech trashing the ICC, calling it “ineffective, unaccountable…outright dangerous,” especially to the United States. Strengthening international mechanisms such as the ICC to hold accountable those who commit war crimes should be a high priority for the next president.

Third, a major focus of an international human rights policy should be the development of procedures for sharing the burden of caring humanely for and resettling large numbers of people forced to flee their own countries by armed conflict, persecution, or climate change. No single country can cope with this problem on its own. It requires global cooperation. In the absence of American leadership, however, it is hard to imagine that such cooperation is possible.

Countering Abuses by China and Russia

Finally, an American human rights policy should include specific measures to counter abuses by China and Russia. Under Xi Jinping, who has abolished term limits on his rule, China is reverting to its totalitarian past. The imprisonment of hundreds of human rights lawyers and the detention and forcible re-education of about a million members of the Uighur minority in remote western China are examples of what is happening under Xi’s rule.

As for Russia, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, it not only violates the rights of its own citizens but also is responsible for severe abuses outside Russia’s borders, as in Ukraine and Syria. It will not be easy to devise a policy that has an impact on human rights abuses committed by Xi and Putin. Yet, a good beginning would be for the next U.S. president to use her or his unrivaled capacity to command world attention to speak out about these abuses.

What results might we expect to achieve by restoring America’s commitment to promoting human rights internationally? The honest answer is that our expectations should be modest. Dramatic consequences in the short-term are unlikely. Governments that commit gross abuse of human rights often ignore denunciations until it is evident that they will pay a price if they do not modify their practices.

Over time, other governments will make common cause with the United States in such efforts, and international institutions designed to promote rights for all of us would be substantially strengthened. What’s more, if the United States were again known not only for its military and economic power but also for the power that comes with a commitment to human rights for all, it would win our country many friends and incalculably bolster our global credibility and influence.

Though many governments today are led by xenophobic nationalists (and the concept of an open society is under assault in too many places, even here in the United States), in much of the world there is also a higher level of popular support for human rights norms such as freedom of expression, racial and gender equality, judicial fairness and independence, and individual dignity than ever before. If the next president of the United States commits to placing compliance with – and promotion of – these norms at the forefront of American foreign policy, it will serve the United States – and the rest of the world.

IMAGE: Activists holding placards rally in Manila on Jan. 25, 2019, against the lowering of the minimum age of criminal responsibility. Children as young as 12 years old could be incarcerated under a bill backed by Philippine lawmakers that has been criticized by the UN and rights monitors. (Photo TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Aryeh Neier

President Emeritus of Open Society Foundations, founder and former Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, and former Executive Director of the ACLU.