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Saturday, February 6, 2021

Human Rights Workshop: Kenneth Roth on Biden’s Foreign Policy Challenges

Kenneth Roth

Executive Director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth spoke at the February 5th Human Rights Workshop.

Executive Director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth led the February 5, 2021, Human Rights Workshop, “Human Rights and the Biden Administration.” Drawing on the themes outlined in Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2021 and in his recent article, Roth addressed the future of human rights in American foreign policy under President Joe Biden. He believes that President Biden’s foreign policy challenges lie beyond simply “making amends” with allies; instead, he said, Biden must reinspire trust among the country’s “natural partners” and confront China and Russia's efforts “to undermine the global system of human rights.”

Roth described how during the Trump presidency, “a series of government coalitions” strengthened their commitment to human rights, demonstrating the presence of a “broader array of players” that the newly elected chief of state should take into account. In Latin America, Roth explained, governments “traditionally never spoke about each other’s human rights record” because it was perceived as “stepping on their sovereignty”; calling out other governments’ human rights abuses, Roth suggested, was considered an imperialist tactic of Washington. “That changed over the past four years,” he said. The Lima Group — a multilateral body established by Latin American countries and Canada in response to Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis — “took on the disaster of Venezuela,” said Roth. They effectively criticized and isolated the country whose situation has created over five million refugees. He described how, “for the first time ever,” Latin American governments coalesced to condemn Venezuela, secure a condemnation from the United Nations Human Rights Council, and refer it to the International Criminal Court. “These unprecedented actions leave a legacy that is not going away...and broaden the universe of human rights defenders,” he said.

WATCH: Ken Roth on “Human Rights and the Biden Administration”

Roth also drew the audience’s attention to the governments addressing human rights violations against the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar and Syrian refugees. To address the Rohingyas’ persecution, the U.N. Human Rights Council established an independent investigative mechanism — essentially a “prosecutor without a court” — to collect evidence and make it available to prosecutors worldwide. This effort involved moderate governments that are not usually leaders on human rights, Roth said, such as Indonesia’s. He also cited pressure on Russia from countries such as France and Germany to stop Russian bombing of civilians in Syria’s Idlib province as an “example of significant leadership coming out of Europe.” The United States was not, he noted, among those leaders.

“The world is different,” Roth said. “It’s more multilateral...and the U.S. needs to be a partner with these countries coming to the defense of human rights.” He believes the Biden administration should reengage with human rights more “modestly” rather than pretend to be the “unique moral authority.”

Roth also characterized a “shift in global attitudes” as an opportunity for Biden to challenge human rights abuses in China, which Roth said is in its “most repressive period since the Tiananmen Square crackdown.” He condemned China’s “systematic repression of independent human rights voices.” Despite the fear of economic retaliation that has prevented governments from challenging China, Roth believes that countries are trending toward “banding together” and seeking “a certain safety in numbers.” He recalled how, while the U.S. was still on the Human Rights Council, they made modest efforts to recruit governments to sign a statement against China. In the first effort after the Trump administration left the Council, 25 governments signed on; however, Roth said, “nobody would read [the statement] aloud.” More recently, he noted, Germany was able to convince 39 governments to sign on to a condemnation of China’s abuses of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang. Turkey added its voice separately. Additionally, while China’s past counter-statements in response to criticism of the country’s human rights record have garnered about double the original statement’s signatories, their most recent counter-statement had only 45 signatories to the latest total of 40. The divide, Roth pointed out, is narrowing almost “to the point of parity.” Roth argued that Biden can “build on” this significant shift if he acts with partners “on the basis of principles rather than being transactional.”

In addition to pursuing partnerships in an increasingly multilateral world, Roth suggested that Biden could work to “entrench human rights as a guiding policy” for the United States. Roth emphasized that, since President Jimmy Carter introduced human rights as an element of U.S. foreign policy, human rights were “never formally relinquished as a rhetorical tool even for Trump. “How can Biden deepen that commitment and make it a guiding principle in both domestic and foreign policy?” Roth inquired.

The COVID-19 pandemic, he said, offers Biden “an opportunity” to incorporate language around economic, social, and cultural rights when discussing issues. “If [healthcare] is understood as a right, it would be harder for the next Trump-like president to undermine it,” he explained. Alongside health, Roth believes Biden could talk about basic economic sustenance, a basic income, and the right to education — the latter, he said, “should not depend on affording Wi-Fi or a laptop.”

Extending this goal of “entrenching human rights” to U.S. foreign policy, Roth believes Biden has the opportunity — and duty — to center, articulate, and live by human rights — even when it is politically difficult. While he commended Biden for agreeing to halt the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia as a “first step,” he hopes Biden will “push further” and halt similar transactions with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which, according to Roth, are responsible for war crimes in Libya and the Sinai Peninsula, respectively.

He also believes Biden should renew the country’s relationship with two institutions Trump abandoned: the Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court. By lifting sanctions on the latter, he said, Biden would be allowing the prosecutor to investigate the U.S.’s alleged use of torture in Afghanistan and elsewhere as well as Israeli war crimes in Palestine, effectively asserting that human rights are not to be abandoned “when it’s inconvenient.”

Roth reflected on several questions: “What can Biden do to solidify the U.S. government’s commitment to human rights? How should Biden treat allies and the promotion of human rights?” The “most fundamental” challenge facing Biden, he concluded, is obstructing future U.S. leaders’ ability to abandon human rights the way former President Trump did.