The last four years, especially the last two weeks, have been disastrous for the U.S. government’s promotion of human rights overseas. An armed insurrection of white supremacists storming the U.S. Capitol underscores the need for America to link its efforts to expand human rights abroad with its work at home.
There’s little debate that the Trump administration’s overarching approach to foreign policy has been erratic, and that his human rights record constitutes, for the most part, a failure. Still, while previous U.S. presidents from both parties have made important contributions to the promotion of human rights around the world, they too have undermined and denied these rights at various points.
President-elect Joe Biden told the world on Human Rights Day last month that his administration would shift policy significantly and, “put universal rights and strengthening democracy at the center of our efforts to meet the challenges of the 21st century.” To ensure these words are matched by concrete policy changes, the White House needs not only to build back what existed previously, but also create a system in which human rights and democracy policymaking is embedded and integrated within the incoming administration’s decision-making machinery – in other words, put his campaign slogan “Build Back Better” into action on human rights.
To be sure, personal leadership is necessary to elevate human rights in presidential decision-making. But while necessary, it’s not altogether sufficient. The president can do much more to integrate and elevate human rights. A recent piece from Lawrence Woocher, published on this site, noted the importance of integrating atrocity prevention into larger foreign policy imperatives. Part of the reason for doing so, he argues, is that more mainstream engagement will help overcome the possibility of false thresholds for engagement. A similar problem exists within the human rights community, as senior policymakers often don’t engage until a crisis is already underway.
Steps to Elevate Human Rights
To reverse this trend, a president should first appoint and empower staff (at all levels) with a deep commitment to human rights. To truly break the existing mold, expertise should go beyond the traditional foreign policy appointments and, as Ian Kysel argued late last year, also include domestic policy positions, not only to forge better links between the two but also to revitalize progress that has stalled, for decades, at home.
Along those lines is the second imperative for elevating human rights: a president must acknowledge, as Biden did on Human Rights Day, that the promotion of human rights is not just a foreign policy issue, but a domestic issue as well. To act on this commitment, the Biden administration ought to appoint a senior-ranking human rights coordinator, with support staff, who is tasked to coordinate regularly with the National Security Council, Domestic Policy Council, and National Economic Council. A key part of that job would be to ensure that U.S. human rights policies are integrated at home and abroad, and that there is domestic implementation of all international human rights treaty obligations.
Third, while prioritizing human rights within the bureaucratic process, the White House needs to ensure that State, Defense, Treasury, and other agencies also explicitly integrate human rights and democracy as core strategic considerations. One way to do this is to strengthen and elevate the human rights bureaucracy within the State Department, while also institutionalizing and infusing human rights personnel and resources throughout other agencies that have a significant role in foreign policy.
The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) normally houses the largest number of experts. But the role that other agencies play in foreign policy has outpaced human rights personnel and funding at those agencies. Examples include the increased support for global policing via the Justice Department’s international criminal investigation training unit, or the expanded use of both targeted and comprehensive sanctions, which requires the Treasury Department’s expertise. This discrepancy forces foreign policymaking for multiple U.S. government agencies to be overly reliant on civil society, academia, and outside experts or to sidestep serious concerns altogether.
Institutionalizing Human Rights Expertise
At the same time, serving in State’s DRL bureau has long been considered an unspoken “bad career move” for Foreign Service officers due to the power regional bureaus hold. This perception makes it difficult to recruit and retain talented Foreign Service officers and creates gaps in expertise. The lack of professional development within the human rights arena further diminishes opportunities to course correct more traditional approaches to foreign policy that marginalize human rights. Ultimately, absent efforts for large-scale reform within the Foreign Service career ladder, diplomats will continue to lack the broad range of tools they need to deal with what Freedom House has found to be nearly 15 years of consecutive decline in global freedom.
There are a few ways to tackle this challenge. The State Department could encourage Foreign Service officers to rotate through positions where human rights are central to their portfolio, or follow the refugee-coordinator model by assigning a few senior human rights coordinators at embassies in all regions who would report to the chief of mission and the assistant secretary of DRL.
The president and the secretary of state also should make it clear that the undersecretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights will routinely represent the State Department in deputy-level interagency meetings when the deputy secretary of state is unavailable.
In 1993, then-Senator Biden wrote in a letter to Morton Halperin, President Bill Clinton’s nominee to be assistant secretary of defense for democracy and peacekeeping, that “the continued expansion of democracy and human rights around the world cannot be achieved without the contribution of a Department of Defense guided by policies carefully adapted to both the opportunities and the obstacles confronting those values.” (Halperin currently works for our organization, the Open Society Foundations).
That assistant secretary position, with a well-resourced human rights mandate, should be coupled with a human rights office in every combatant command.
Once again, this time as president, Biden has an opportunity to reimagine, reinvigorate, and reform the architecture in Washington so it genuinely puts our values at the forefront of policymaking and integrates them into a process that truly ensures they are universally and equally applied – both here at home and overseas.