The rejection of Donald Trump by the American electorate in November 2020 and the inauguration of President Joe Biden on 20 January 2021 marked a reversion to the norm in many aspects of international politics. In recent weeks, many commentators have suggested that this sentiment is of particular significance with regards to America’s role as the global defender of human rights. Four years of casual rejections of the democratic process, blasé remarks about immigrants and an affinity for autocrats has tarnished the US’ reputation as the international spokesperson for protecting fundamental human rights. However, as Kenneth Roth writes in his executive summary introducing Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2021, “it would be naive to treat a Biden presidency as a panacea”.
The new Biden administration has adopted a tough rhetorical stance to the abuse of human rights. Secretary of State Blinken has echoed comments made by Mike Pompeo labelling China’s activity in Xinjiang against the ethnic minority Uighar population as genocide, whilst signalling in a call to Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign policy official, that the US would adopt a zero tolerance stance to repression in Hong Kong. Biden has also announced a foreign policy reset in respect of support for the Saudi backed campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, a conflict that has ravaged the country and brought misery to millions of Yemenis.
Adopting a wider lens, the detention of Alexei Navalny by the Russian authorities has been met with widespread international condemnation, leading to the expulsion of a number of European diplomats who spoke out against these punitive measures. The European ‘Magnitsky Act’ has also become operational, providing law makers with an effective tool to link human rights abuses to economic sanctions.
In South America, the Lima group, a collection of eleven South American states, persuaded the UN to investigate the regime of Venezuela’s Nicholas Maduro, and in Colombia, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace indicted eight members of the FARC militia for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Also at the UN, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the EU collaborated to push the UN Human Rights Council to investigate the Myanmar military’s abuse of Rohingya muslims. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the emergence of universal jurisdiction cases as a complementary system for punishing war criminals, helping to fill some of the cracks in the international criminal court network.
However, bold proclamations and incremental policy improvements act as a smokescreen for a lack of genuine commitment to protecting human rights on a global scale. Despite a tidal wave of anti-China rhetoric and a pledge to de-couple the economies of the US and China, investment flows between the two superpowers are at an all-time high. Chinese companies like Alibaba and Bytedance are headquartered in China but legally domiciled in tax havens like the Cayman Islands, mitigating the intended objectives of investment restrictions.
In a similar vein, while Biden has committed to halting overt support for Saudi Arabia’s role in furthering the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, any substantive measures to curtail the sale of arms to the Kingdom appear remote. Moreover, sanctions against Russian officials and businessmen accused of human rights abuses have had limited effect up to this point, with members of President Putin’s inner circle largely inoculated from the impacts of sanctions. Furthermore, although the US has impeded the progress of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline thus far, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is still supportive of the project, offering contradictory positions in relation to how Europe should deal with Russia.
The distance between discourse and reality in this context is most acute in relation to the US’ failure to ratify core human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. The US has not ratified any international human rights treaties since 2002, grossly undermining America’s claim to be the global defender of human rights.
There have been some important strides in standing up for human rights, particularly from a rhetorical standpoint in recent years, but the substantive reality of how democratic countries and international organisations uphold their commitments has not kept pace. The great trade-off between support for global human rights and the economic realism that dictates the foreign policy approaches of nation states still appears to be weighted heavily in favour of realist interests.
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