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US: President Should Set a Human Rights Foreign Policy

The United States should strive to be a world leader on human rights.Human Rights Watch offers 12 priorities for the next US administration to create a rights-focused foreign policy.

US: President Should Set a Human Rights Foreign Policy


The United States has the power, influence, and resources to create positive change for human rights beyond its borders.

The global defense of human rights is stronger when the United States joins with others to promote and protect them. Although US policymakers often espouse human rights and humanitarian values, the United States has been inconsistent in defending human rights abroad and has been complicit in or has committed serious abuses in its foreign policies and engagement.

The US government has often invoked human rights selectively or to achieve a short-term diplomatic goal. Instead, the president should commit in word and deed to a foreign policy that consistently prioritizes promoting and protecting human rights, not solely as a means to an end. As the United States grapples with systemic racism and other human rights violations domestically, it is particularly important for the president to ensure that US foreign policy helps to eliminate and does not contribute to discrimination around the world, and strengthens equality in law and practice. President-Elect Joe Biden can begin by clearly stating in a public address his commitment to a human rights foreign policy. When his administration takes office in January 2021, it should take immediate steps to carry out the following commitments, which will place the United States on the right path to making human rights a foreign policy priority. Recommendations: Address human rights at home to project human rights abroad Support rights-respecting governments, not rights-abusers Demonstrate global climate leadership Take a seat at the international table to push reforms Support human rights defenders Promote and protect sexual and reproductive rights Provide protection for asylum seekers and refugees Ensure that any use of force is lawful and minimizes civilian harm Don’t sell or transfer arms to abusive governments Support justice for victims of serious crimes Prioritize human rights diplomacy Contribute to the global fight against poverty and inequality A key tenet of US foreign policy should be to embrace human rights at home. Many people in the United States have shown through protests and civic action their desire for freedom, equity, and justice. US credibility promoting human rights around the world has often been diminished by a disregard for rights in the United States.

The mistreatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, the failure to provide everyone with affordable health care, the sharp curtailment of the right to seek asylum while forcibly removing children from their families at the border have both led other countries to dismiss US criticisms as hypocritical or self-serving , and have provided inspiration for abusive regimes.

The US failure to reckon with its history of systemic discrimination, mass incarceration, unchallenged police abuse, and lack of accountability for torture, have made it harder for its officials to call out similar abuse by authorities in other countries. Human Rights Watch’s specific recommendations for human rights by the next US administration at home are detailed here. The US government has the capacity to encourage human rights protection and promotion around the world.

The president should be explicit that the US will support rights-promoting governments and will not reward those that violate human rights. As Covid-19 continues to test governments and their capacity to respond, the president should publicly oppose government power-grabs through emergency measures under the guise of combatting the pandemic. He should make clear that respecting rights is wholly consistent with public health and safety. US influence with foreign nations can be as simple as an invitation to the White House and a photo with the president to the full range of US security assistance and diplomatic backing.

The next administration should ensure that all US engagement is consistent with promoting and protecting human rights. Meetings with world leaders should address human rights concerns publicly as well as privately. Human rights violators should not be given the “red carpet” treatment. And when it comes to deciding whether a country should benefit from military aid, weapons sales, or other security assistance, the government’s human rights record should be a key part of the assessment.

The next administration should make use of targeted sanctions against foreign officials and others who have engaged in serious human rights abuses, including through robust and expansive use of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

The US should oppose allowing abusive governments to host multilateral events such as the G20 that would improve their international standing, and should respond to such decisions in a manner that would widely publicize human rights concerns. Climate change affects every region of the world with myriad social and economic rights implications due to increased conflict, forced migration, and refugee flows. Government responses will affect the rights to life, health, and food. As the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States should play a leading role in advancing global efforts to both mitigate climate change and help people adapt to the effects of climate change.

The next administration should reenter the United States in the Paris Agreement. It should adopt or seek to enact ambitious measures to advance the agreement’s goals by dramatically and rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions through a transition toward cleaner energy.

The president should recommit to multilateralism and put human rights at the forefront of the administration’s international engagement.

The US should once again fully participate in the work of the United Nations Human Rights Council, and restore funding for the UN Population Fund and the UN Relief and Works Agency. It should halt withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO) and join allies in supporting global health initiatives that do not include harmful anti-reproductive rights policies or agendas. As the world grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic, the president should ensure that US-funded research is shared with other nations and steer the US toward global vaccine procurement plans that are affordable for all.

The president should encourage the Senate to ratify core international human rights treaties, including the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The president should end US use of anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions and join the relevant international ban treaties. To address fundamental concerns raised by removing human control from the use of force, the president should work with other countries to ban fully autonomous weapons, sometimes known as “killer robots.” US support of human rights defenders and others detained for peacefully exercising their rights has been critical to curtailing abuses and promoting positive reform around the world. Recent US alliances with abusive governments and silence on human rights issues have diminished the ability of the United States to help those seeking freedom and justice abroad.

The president should publicly state that the United States will stand with human rights defenders around the globe to allow them to conduct human rights work and to speak out without fear of reprisal; to form nongovernmental organizations; to assemble peacefully; and to seek, obtain, and receive information.

The United States should seek the release of political prisoners and call for accountability for any mistreatment.

The president should make clear that sexual and reproductive rights are human rights and a key priority by immediately issuing an executive order to revoke the Protecting Life in Global Health Policy (also known as the “Global Gag Rule” or the “Mexico City Policy”), including revoking expansions of the policy.

The executive order should also clarify the federal assistance permitted domestically and globally under current law to ensure access to comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion, to the maximum extent allowed.

The protection of sexual and reproductive health and rights should be a priority not only with respect to US policy, but also should be promoted by the United States around the world and in multilateral forums.

The State Department should assess the realization of these rights globally in its annual human rights country reports.

The president should reject the report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, which sought to create a hierarchy of rights inconsistent with international human rights law and US international legal obligations.

The US government has in recent years taken a regressive approach to the human rights of people fleeing persecution and other abuses abroad. It has all but closed its land borders to asylum seekers, dismantled asylum procedures, and severely decreased the number of refugees it resettles. It has pressured foreign governments to participate in abusive programs that have returned people to harm. The next administration should affirm a commitment to refugees by ensuring that its immigration and border policies protect the rights of migrants and asylum seekers.

The US should recognize that its approach to protecting refugees affects other countries’ policies and should be a leader for generous refugee resettlement. Refugee resettlement is an instrument for sharing international responsibility and for solidarity to support countries on the front lines of conflict that host the overwhelming majority of the world’s refugees. US efforts to protect asylum seekers should address underlying systemic problems causing people to flee their countries, including through foreign assistance initiatives designed to enhance due process, accountability, and equitable economic development; tackle corruption, violence, discrimination, and environmental degradation; and strengthen the rule of law.

The US government should end political pressure and US funding of abusive immigration enforcement measures beyond its borders that have the purpose or effect of infringing on the right to leave one’s own country, the right to seek asylum from persecution in other countries, or in any other way violates human rights.

The United States is engaged in armed conflicts around the world, both openly and covertly. In these conflicts, all US forces and personnel have a legal obligation to abide by international humanitarian law (the laws of war).

The president should review US policies on the use of force and agencies involved to ensure compliance with international law. Covert and clandestine actions are inherently opaque, making them unaccountable to the public and victims.

The next administration should ensure that all US use of force meets all applicable human rights and humanitarian law standards. When the laws of war do not apply, such as outside of recognized armed conflict, US personnel should strictly adhere to international human rights law, which prioritizes the right to life and permits the use of lethal force only in the face of an imminent threat to life. US personnel should not partner with foreign forces who repeatedly fail to comply with international law.

The next administration should ensure that the forthcoming Defense Department policy for protecting civilians is comprehensive, prioritizes transparency, and considers protection risks in new types of warfare. Allegations of harm to civilians as a result of US actions abroad should be promptly and impartially investigated, with civil society input, leading to appropriate accountability and lessons learned, and amends for victims and their families.

The US government currently authorizes US companies to sell arms, technology, and materiel to rights-abusing countries around the world. Sometimes those weapons are used in committing foreseeable war crimes without accountability; at other times, they go into a state’s arsenal for later use against the country’s own citizens. With US weapons sales comes the stamp of US credibility and support.

The president should commit to setting new human rights standards for the sale and transfer of US arms, technology, and materiel.

The administration should immediately undertake an interagency review on arms sales and transfers, including to foreign law enforcement agencies, with the goal of adopting and improving policies that emphasize respect for human rights. A new Conventional Arms Transfer Policy should elevate human rights, setting high standards for transfer. A robust vetting process should ensure that only governments committed to complying with international human rights and humanitarian law can receive US military support.

The State Department should lead by consulting with independent organizations that work directly on the countries affected to provide the ground-level perspective on conflicts and partnered operations.

The US should declare a moratorium on arms sales and transfers, including to foreign law enforcement, until these processes are in place.

The president should work with Congress to strengthen and expand the application of the Leahy Laws, which prohibit US military support to foreign military units that commit gross human rights violations, and to reform the Arms Export Control Act to bolster human rights considerations and ensure notifications about arms transfers to Congress so that the legislative branch can conduct its oversight responsibility. Ensuring accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and other serious crimes in violation of international law is an essential element of building respect for human rights and the rule of law around the globe.

The president should signal that the United States is dedicated to justice for grave international crimes no matter where they are committed or by whom. As a first step to championing justice, the next administration should pursue accountability for the United States’ own past abuses of human rights globally and commit to preventing future abuses.

The president should ensure US support for the essential mandate of the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a court of last resort, dedicated, through fair trials, to pursuing justice for victims who have no other avenue. He should immediately rescind the executive order authorizing sanctions aimed at undermining the ICC’s work.

The US should work toward joining the ICC’s Rome Statute, standing with its 123 member countries in their commitment to pursue justice for the most serious international crimes. Even as a non-member, the US can provide assistance for ICC cases, including cooperating in the arrest of fugitives and providing evidence.

The next administration should also support other international and domestic justice efforts, and international investigative mechanisms, as well as atrocity crime cases in US courts under its universal jurisdiction laws.

The president will be in office for the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. No one has been held criminally accountable for those attacks because of years of missteps by successive US administrations, detaining suspects without due process at Guantanamo Bay, torturing alleged offenders, and then attempting to prosecute them in fundamentally flawed military commissions.

The president should ensure that those responsible for the 9/11 attacks are appropriately prosecuted in regular federal courts, and close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, where 40 men remain. In the past two decades, there has been no adequate reckoning with the torture, unlawful renditions, and other grave crimes committed by US officials, including at the highest levels, during the “global war on terrorism.” The president should commit to a true reckoning with US torture, holding all of those responsible to account and committing to not rewarding or promoting anyone responsible for making, supporting, or carrying out these policies.

The Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s torture program should be immediately declassified. All US foreign aid initiatives should consider human rights imperatives and implications. Strategies for economic, technological, and trade relationships should also reflect human rights considerations. US relationships with foreign governments have the potential to deter human rights abuses. And strong public and private diplomatic messaging when abuses occur can push states to stop the abuses, hold those responsible accountable while securing justice for victims, and adopt necessary reforms to end systemic abuses.

The next administration should send a clear message to its diplomatic corps that human rights will be central to their daily work. Chiefs of mission should receive training in international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

They should receive regular briefings on the human rights situation in their host countries, including from a range of local civil society groups, particularly those representing marginalized populations. Peace negotiations, peacekeeping missions, and treaty talks should all include human rights as a standing component.

They should further US commitments under UN Security Council resolution 1325 and subsequent resolutions on women, peace and security, and the US Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017. Poverty, precarious financial circumstances, and inequality have increased globally due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has had disproportionate economic impacts on many already socially and economically marginalized groups, including women, children, people with disabilities, migrants, informal sector workers, and people living in informal settlements, threatening their human rights to food, health care, housing, education, and an adequate standard of living.

The World Bank estimates that Covid-19 will plunge up to 150 million more people into extreme poverty by 2021, contributing to “higher income inequality, lower social mobility among the vulnerable, and lower resilience to future shocks.” Finding a solution to the coronavirus is as much an issue of fighting poverty as it is saving lives and health. It is a transnational challenge with countries being dependent on one another for their recovery.

The president should ensure that the US cooperates and collaborates with the WHO and other countries so that any US-developed Covid-19 vaccine will be available and affordable to everyone around the world, and take the necessary measures to ensure that companies producing and selling vaccines do so transparently and affordably.

The US should make concerted efforts to counter the risks of leaving a generation of women and girls out of the economy, and should address the factors that inhibit women and girls’ full participation in the economy.

These include increased gender-based violence, unpaid care, and heightened risks of adolescent girls not returning to secondary school. To end growing economic vulnerability and promote inclusive growth during and after the Covid-19 pandemic, the US should extend support to resource-strapped countries, for social protection programs and to prevent austerity measures. Development initiatives and projects should be imbued with respect for human rights in consultation with those directly affected by the financing. .

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