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Will Joe Biden borrow from Jimmy Carter's Book?

By Philippe Mottaz

November 12, 2020


Will human rights be one of the pillars of Joe Biden's foreign policy? While his margin of maneuver on foreign affairs will in part depend on who controls the Senate, it is becoming clear that a significant reversal is in the making on the human rights front.With authoritarianism growing in the world, there seem to be a new emerging consensus that defending human rights is a path to greater global security.

"Human rights and support for democracy will be pillars of the Biden Administration's foreign policy, as the US re-establishes values-led diplomacy. There will be a renewed emphasis on protecting dissidents and human rights defenders in authoritarian-leaning countries," tells Amy Lehr to the G|O. According to Lehr, director and senior fellow of the Human Rights Initiative (HRI) at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), there will be "bipartisan support for this approach."

Human rights defenders here and elsewhere are encouraged by the first signals emanating from the Biden team as it prepares the transition. The first strong message came from then-candidate Biden himself, who during his campaign, forcefully stated in an answer about his position on China that "human rights will be at the core of US foreign policy." A number of positions papers currently circulating in Washington, including from non-partisan organizations and think-tanks close to the president-elect, are calling for re-integrating human rights in US foreign policy. A push amplified by the human rights defenders' community. While predictable, the emergence of such a broad coalition–including domestically with movements as BLM– is significant in the current political dynamics.

Historical context offers interesting clues as to why, since no president since Jimmy Carter has made human rights a cornerstone of their foreign policy. It is thus worth remembering in that context that civil society and Congress at the time played a decisive role in encouraging the newly elected president to adopt such an agenda. "The US has embraced governments which practice torture and unabashedly violate almost every human rights guarantee pronounced by the world community," read a 1974 report called Human Rights in the World Community: A Call for US Leadership." It recommended that human rights be promoted through a mix of forceful private diplomacy, public statements, particularly before the UN, and the restriction of military and economic aid to governments that violate human rights, with exceptions made for humanitarian reasons or matters of national security. All those recommendations were adopted at the time by Jimmy Carter. Sanctions were imposed, military aid was suspended, the Winter Olympic Games were boycotted. The Carter human right agenda was immediately undone and ridiculed by the Reagan administration, most notably by its UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, who derided Carter's stance as a policy meant to "make Americans feel good about themselves." The world and the global balance of power have changed. Yet, broadly speaking, while then Congress was looking at the secret bombing of Cambodia, the massacre of My Lai, the US support to the most dictatorial regimes in Latin America and today it concerns China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and a number of countries among the worst human rights abusers, the perspective of Washington's re-engagement with human rights will mark another significant change from the past four years.

"The current administration has actively undermined those values, damaging America's democratic institutions and attacking the very idea of universal human rights."

In a recent position paper on the first 100 days of the Biden administration, the Center for American Progress writes in words echoing Congress's 1974 report: In "Over successive administrations, the United States has strived—however imperfectly— to uphold democratic values. Yet the current administration has actively undermined those values, damaging America's democratic institutions and attacking the very idea of universal human rights. President Donald Trump has coddled dictators and repudiated America's most reliable treaty allies. (…)Trump has repeatedly praised and expressed an affinity for dictators—including Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Xi Jinping—while disparaging democratic allies. Moreover, Trump's administration has dismissed a wide range of international institutions and efforts designed to advance human rights, from withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Council to walking away from the Global Compact on Migration to bullying the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Although the timing is uncertain, it is expected that in one of its first moves, the Biden administration will rejoin the Human Rights Council, first as an observer, as it would have to wait for 2021 to seek full membership again through the next elections. But "even as an observer, the US could play an important role in the Council,–all the time recognizing the damage that the Trump administration has done to the US soft power capabilities," tells the G|O a former diplomat and human rights defender.

CSIS's Amy Lehr also expects the US to "re-engage with the Council, albeit with an agenda for reform." She nevertheless cautions that "on this move, Congress might be divided."