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Biden's challenge: changing course on human rights

After four years with a US president who was indifferent to hostile to human rights, Joe Biden's victory in the US presidential election last November offers the opportunity for a fundamental change of course.

Donald Trump was a disaster for human rights. Domestically, he defied the legal obligation to give refuge to people who fear for their lives. He had their children stolen from parents who had fled, he encouraged racists, undermined the democratic process and stoked hatred against ethnic and religious minorities. He turned a blind eye to systematic racism among the police, removed legal safeguards for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT) people, repealed environmental protection regulations for keeping air and water clean and undermined the right to health, especially in the area of ​​sexual and reproductive medicine as well as in the elderly. In terms of foreign policy, he courted one “friendly” autocrat after the other - to the chagrin of their suffering populations. He promoted arms deliveries to countries involved in war crimes and attacked or abandoned major international initiatives to protect human rights, promote international justice, strengthen health systems and combat climate change.

This destructive mixture undermined the US government's credibility even when it openly criticized human rights violations. Her criticism of Venezuela, Cuba or Iran sounded hollow because she praised Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel at the same time. If she campaigned for religious freedom abroad, this was undermined by anti-Islamic policies at home. While the Trump administration imposed targeted sanctions and other punitive measures against the Chinese government and Chinese companies for involvement in human rights abuses, its poor human rights record, the mixed motives behind its criticism of Beijing and Trump's decision to scapegoat China for its own Explaining failures in the fight against pandemics made these interventions appear anything but principled and made cooperation with allies difficult.

It would be naive to see the Biden presidency as a panacea. In the past few decades, every time a new president moved into the White House, there have been major changes in US human rights policy. George W. Bush's "global war on terror", which was accompanied by systematic torture and incarceration without charge in Guantanamo Bay, marked a low point here. Barack Obama rejected important parts of the war on terrorism, but he kept elements such as unlawful drone attacks, aggressive surveillance methods and arms deliveries to unsavory autocrats, but expanded them. Political U-turns, domestic and foreign, have become an integral part of operations in Washington.

Human rights leaders around the world are legitimately wondering whether they can still rely on the US government. Even if Biden were to improve the US balance sheet significantly, there would be little in view of the deep political division in the US that could prevent a US president from being elected in four or eight years who disregards human rights as much as Trump does.

However, this should be a cause for determination rather than discouragement. Because after the Trump administration largely gave up the defense of human rights abroad, other governments came on the scene. Instead of capitulating, they strengthened the bulwark. In this way, broad coalitions have repeatedly been able to form and protect the global human rights structure, even when powerful actors such as China, Russia and Egypt tried to attack it. These coalitions included not only a number of Western countries, but also a group of Latin American democracies and a growing number of Muslim-majority states.

After Biden took office, the US government should seek not to replace these collective efforts, but to join them. US leadership can be important, but it should neither replace nor jeopardize the commitment shown by many other countries. The past four years have shown that Washington is an important but not an indispensable member of the group of human rights defenders. Biden's foreign policy goal should therefore be neither to lead from the first nor from the last row, but to act in conjunction with the larger group of human rights defenders.

For the good of the people of the United States and to effectively promote human rights around the world, Biden should first set a positive example by strengthening the US government's commitment to human rights in its own country. Similar to US foreign policy, this commitment varies greatly from government to government. Changes were most pronounced in LGBT rights, reproductive rights, asylum seekers and immigrant rights, US franchise, ethnic and economic inequality, the right to health, and rights affected by climate change. Biden is now not only faced with the task of repairing the damage that his predecessor did to human rights, but also of making it harder for future presidents to turn their backs on human rights.

A step in this direction would be taken if the government were to bind itself to human rights through new laws, which is possible thanks to the narrow majorities of the Democrats in both chambers of congress. Ideally, Biden would promote the ratification of important, long-neglected human rights treaties. But finding the necessary two-thirds majority in the Senate will be difficult. Biden should allow the judiciary to run its course on Trump to show that the president is not above the law. He should resist the "look ahead, not back" principle that Obama used to ignore torture under Bush. Like his predecessors, Biden can use executive powers to achieve short-term improvements, but such advances are prone to being undone by less human rights-abiding US presidents.

Ultimately, Biden's goal should be to fundamentally change the narrative in the field of human rights - both domestically and internationally. A mere return to Obama’s politics, a so-called “third Obama term of office”, will not be enough. However, the mass protests against racism that broke out across the country in 2020 and the heavy burden of the Covid-19 pandemic could give a boost to such a reorientation.

Biden could be inspired by Jimmy Carter, who first made human rights a part of US foreign policy. This step, which was perceived as radical at the time, has lasted for decades. Every US president since Carter could temporarily subordinate human rights to other priorities - as did Carter himself, by the way - but none could completely renounce them.

Biden's task will be to find a political and practical approach to bring human rights back to the center of governance, in a way that will survive the radical changes of course that have become an integral part of the US political landscape. To do this, Biden has to do persuasive work by discussing domestic political problems more often with a view to human rights, declaring human rights norms to be the guideline of his foreign policy and allowing himself to be guided by them even in difficult situations.

Global protection of human rights

While the US government has never been a consistent global human rights defender, it can be an influential supporter. The Trump administration's almost complete abandonment of promoting human rights was disappointing, but it also served as a wake-up call. Fortunately, many leaders realized that protecting human rights is too important to give up just because Trump is leading the way. A number of governments, which were relatively new to the human rights defender camp and mostly acted within alliances, repeatedly advocated the protection of human rights resolutely and often successfully. The large number of states involved made this commitment more robust, more global and less dependent on Washington.

Latin America is an example of this trend. Traditionally it was unusual there for governments to criticize one another for their human rights record - also because it was viewed as something Washington did. But in order to break the cycle of oppression, corruption and economic decline under Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, eleven Latin American democracies and Canada joined forces in 2017 to form the so-called Lima Group. This step was unprecedented. Maduro would have liked nothing more than if Trump had appeared as the main critic. So he could have dismissed the criticism of his mismanagement as "Yankee imperialism". But the Lima Group acted independently of the US and was able to make it clear that it was about principle, not political views.

The Lima Group increased pressure on Maduro and convinced the UN Human Rights Council to open an official investigation into its repression. Six members of the alliance called on the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to investigate the alleged crimes against humanity in Venezuela. This was the first such request from a neighboring country. Maduro was able to continue his repressive rule, but he is far more isolated today than he would have been if the US government had maintained its traditional, largely unilateral human rights policy towards Venezuela. Some members of the Lima Group have now expanded their focus to Nicaragua. They were able to convince the UN Human Rights Council to instruct the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate the repression led by Daniel Ortega.

Another impressive example of a broad coalition in the service of human rights was found in the Organization of Islamic States (OIC), a group of 56 states with a Muslim majority. In the past, the OIC had rarely used the UN forum to condemn human rights violations unless committed by Israel. That all changed after Myanmar launched a military campaign against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State in 2017, which included murders, rape and pillage, forcing 730,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.

In 2018, the OIC joined a European Union initiative at the UN Human Rights Council that called for an independent investigative mechanism for Myanmar to gather evidence of possible prosecution of those responsible. In 2019, OIC member Gambia filed a lawsuit against Myanmar with the International Court of Justice. In it, the country was accused of violating the genocide convention in the course of crackdown on the Rohingya. Gambia's complaint was the first of its kind brought by a third country. As a preliminary measure, the court ordered the Myanmar government to protect the 600,000 Rohingya in the Rakhine state from genocide. The International Criminal Court is also investigating Myanmar officials for atrocities committed against the Rohingya in the course of their deportation to Bangladesh.

The global commitment to human rights sometimes took place outside of the international institutions. The operation, which may have saved the most lives, was in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, where three million civilians, half of them displaced from other parts of Syria, suffered repeated air strikes by Syrian and Russian planes. Hospitals, schools, markets and residential areas were often targeted and bombed. As a result, the governments of Germany, France and Turkey (the latter despite increasing internal repression under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan) exerted sufficient pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to secure a ceasefire. This put an end to the attacks from March 2020 and was largely complied with for the rest of the year.

After the governments of Russia and China vetoed the International Criminal Court's referral to the atrocities in Syria in the UN Security Council, other governments stepped in to fill the void. By bypassing the Security Council, Liechtenstein and Qatar achieved the establishment of an international, impartial and independent mechanism for Syria in the UN General Assembly in December 2016. This is supposed to collect and prosecute evidence of war crimes and other atrocities. It is the first mechanism of its kind. Several European governments - notably Germany - have initiated investigations and criminal proceedings before national courts based on the principle of universal jurisdiction. The Netherlands took action against systematic torture by the Syrian government, which could lead to proceedings before the International Court of Justice.

European governments have taken the lead on other initiatives as well. While the increasingly authoritarian governments of Hungary and Poland continued to undermine the control of executive power that is essential for democracy, the European Union urged that the generous subsidy payments to these states be made conditional on respect for the rule of law. However, a compromise reached at the end of the year made this instrument less effective than hoped. When Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko made the highly questionable claim that he won the August 2020 elections and his security forces arrested and tortured demonstrators, the EU imposed targeted sanctions on 88 people it held responsible for the repression, including Lukashenko himself Following the example of the US, the EU passed a new regime of targeted sanctions that includes travel bans and asset freezes for individuals and organizations responsible for serious human rights violations around the world. Great Britain and Canada introduced similar regulations; Australia could soon follow suit.

In the UN Human Rights Council, a group led by the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Ireland and Luxembourg succeeded in having the war crimes in Yemen investigated. Finland led a similar initiative on war crimes in Libya. Iceland addressed the thousands of extrajudicial executions of suspected drug users in the Philippines at the behest of President Rodrigo Duterte. Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Australia and the Netherlands obtained an investigation into the repression in Eritrea. Australia and Denmark coordinated the adoption of condemning statements on Saudi Arabia.

As US President Trump the so-called Global Gag Rule reintroduced and then expanded dramatically, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden started under the name SheDecidesa global initiative to defend sexual and reproductive health and rights. The Global Gag Rule is a US guideline that prohibits foreign recipients of US aid from providing legal abortion information, mediation, or services or advocating legal abortion in their country. Numerous African governments, led by South Africa, have called for an investigation into systemic racism and police violence around the world. They forged an interregional alliance to form an antipole to the US government following the assassination of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police in May 2020. Costa Rica, Switzerland and Germany initiated joint statements against Trump's efforts to undermine the independence of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Belgium won numerous members of the UN Security Council for a similar declaration. Various countries - in particular India and South Africa - are campaigning for improved access to vaccines and therapies against Covid-19.

Global efforts to protect human rights did not always prevail. But their broad support increased the pressure on those in power who overrode the rights of their people. This increasing pressure forms an important bulwark against the autocratic tendencies of our time.

The engagement of various governments was supported by a wave of public support for human rights.In one country after another, people took to the streets in large numbers, often despite great risks, to demand more democracy and accountability from their repressive and corrupt governments. Despite differing causes, their endeavors had remarkable similarities. In Egypt, it was triggered by posts on social media by a military contractor describing outrageous corruption. Student-led protests in Thailand erupted after the military-backed government refused to call for democratic reform. In Belarus, the demonstrations, often led by women, were a reaction to alleged electoral fraud committed by President Lukashenko and the brutal crackdown on demonstrators by his security forces. In Poland, the protests turned against the de facto abolition of the access to abortion by a judgment of the constitutional court, whose occupation previously by the ruling Party for Law and Justice had been changed.

All over the United States, people took to the streets to call for an end to police violence and structural racism. In Russia there were protests against constitutional reforms that weakened the protection of human rights and enabled Putin to extend his term in office. In the far east of Russia protests erupted after the Kremlin deposed a popular governor. In Hong Kong, protests were directed against Beijing's threat to allow extraditions to mainland China without legislative or public scrutiny. The demonstrations were unacceptable to President Xi Jinping as they showed how people who were on Chinese territory and were allowed to express their opinions freely opposed the Communist Party's dictatorship. The engagement of these mass movements, which joined the growing field of state actors, gave enormous support to the worldwide protection of human rights.

Growing oppression in China

The most powerful addressee of this increasingly global defense of human rights was China. The repression there has increased sharply under Xi Jinping in recent years. In Xinjiang, the authorities detained more than a million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims to force them to give up their Islamic beliefs and culture. Hong Kong's freedoms were severely restricted and repression in Tibet and Inner Mongolia continued. Independent voices were suppressed across the country. This marked the darkest time for human rights in China since the bloody crackdown on the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

For some time now, many governments have avoided criticizing Beijing for fear of retaliation. Australia was hit by such retaliation in 2020. After Canberra requested an independent investigation into the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Chinese government imposed punitive tariffs on various Australian exports. Beijing apparently feared an investigation could focus on its initial denial of human-to-human transmission of Covid-19. The Chinese government denied this transmission route in the three weeks from December 2019 to January 2020, while millions of people fled Wuhan or traveled through Wuhan - an average of 3,500 per day going abroad - and the virus spread worldwide. However, the lockdown in Wuhan didn't begin until January 23.

In 2016, the US first organized a joint statement with governments willing to criticize China. At that time, however, only 11 other states joined. When the US withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council in 2018, many believed Washington would also end its criticism of China's repression. But the criticism grew louder. In the past two years, various governments - from within the security of the group - increasingly self-confidently criticized Beijing's repression and proved that Beijing, too, is incapable of punishing the whole world at once.

The first step came in 2019 in the Human Rights Council, when 25 governments came together to condemn the extraordinary repression in Xinjiang. The fear of Beijing was still palpable because, contrary to the tradition of reading joint statements out loud in front of the Council, none of the 25 states was ready to do so.

Since then, the UK government has taken on the responsibility of reading similar condemnation statements to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. Most recently, Germany took on a leadership role in October 2020 when it coordinated a statement on the repression in Xinjiang in the General Assembly, which 39 countries joined. Turkey issued a similar statement in parallel.

After every statement denouncing China's repression, the Chinese government organized a joint counter-statement with states willing to praise their behavior. These have typically been signed by some of the world's worst human rights abusers and have received large numbers of signatures thanks to economic leverage. However, the most recent Declaration of Commendation Taken by Cuba to commend the Chinese government in October 2020 was only signed by 45 states. In the previous year there were 54. This change, approaching a tie between supportive and condemnatory statements, suggests that the day will soon come when UN bodies can pass formal resolutions that criticize at least some aspects of the oppression in China.

In the past two years, the OIC and governments of Muslim countries have mostly tended to support China. But in October that too began to change. The number of OIC member states that supported China's repression in Xinjiang fell from 25 in 2019 to 19 in 2020. The remaining 37 OIC members refused to side with China. Albania and Turkey went one step further and supported the joint statement condemning human rights violations in Xinjiang. These figures suggest that the tide could soon turn if more and more Muslim states are legitimately offended by the cruel actions of the Chinese authorities against Muslims in Xinjiang.

In October, China applied for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. When it last applied four years ago, the country received the most votes of all applicants from the Asia-Pacific region. This time China received the fewest votes of all the states in this group that received a seat. Only Saudi Arabia got even fewer votes and did not win a seat.

The growing international willingness to criticize China forced the Chinese government to react. For the first time, Beijing put the number of Uyghurs and other Muslims of Turkic origin directly affected by its measures in Xinjiang: 1.3 million. However, these are not imprisoned, but are in "vocational training centers"; many would have “graduated”. This allusion to releases from prison should be treated with caution, as the number of those still in prison cannot be independently verified and there is increasing evidence that many of those released are in forced labor. The growing global initiatives against this type of forced labor in the supply chains in Xinjiang and other regions of China could be an additional source of pressure on Beijing and help stop the persecution of Muslims.

In all of these initiatives, it was noticeable how marginally the US government was. Often the Trump administration was completely uninvolved. Whenever she criticized China, for example, she lacked credibility, as Trump was courting a large number of autocrats at the same time and only expressing concerns very selectively.

The past few years have shown that other governments can do a lot without Washington. Even if the US will be led by a government that is far more positive about human rights, the collective approach to the protection of human rights should be maintained. Because even if Biden manages to overcome the shifts in course and double standards that all too often plague US foreign policy, the defense of human rights will be stronger when pursued by a broad spectrum of governments.

Lessons for Biden

Biden won't be able to prevent the next US administration from turning back the clock on human rights in four or eight years, but he can take steps to make going backwards more difficult in the future. This could make the US government a more reliable member of the global human rights system.

The more a human rights-based policy is enshrined in law - this would be possible through a majority of Democrats in Congress - the more difficult it is of course to reverse it. Without a two-thirds majority in the Senate, the likelihood remains that the US will join the rest of the world and ratify important, long-neglected human rights treaties. In order to repair the damage from the Trump years, Biden will primarily have to resort to executive ordinances and presidential guidelines. Such steps would in principle be reversible, but they could be implemented in a way that makes a complete U-turn by the next president difficult.

In order for the return to human rights to last, Biden needs to redefine what is meant by human rights in the United States. As noted, Jimmy Carter achieved such a reorientation when he made human rights an integral part of US foreign policy. Many of Carter's successors did not share his commitment to human rights, but none officially ended it because Carter had hit the right tone with the American public and fulfilled a demand that was popular around the world. This is how Ronald Reagan broke with Carter's policies in Central America and other parts of the world, but nevertheless anchored human rights reporting institutionally in the State Department and made an important contribution to democratic change in Chile and the Soviet bloc. Biden should aim for a conceptual realignment similar to that of Carter.

The time has come as the pandemic has exposed the vast differences in access to healthcare, food and other basic necessities. At the same time threw the Black Lives MatterMovement highlights deeply rooted ethnic injustices. With many people in the US still reluctant to take action to remedy these human rights violations, no government has attempted to do so. The extraordinary events of the past year could now provide the necessary incentive to act, as they have made it clear that respect for human rights is in everyone's interest. The challenge for Biden is to seize this opportunity to anchor respect for human rights as a central element of US politics, both domestically and internationally.

One possibility would be to formulate social issues more often than human rights issues. Traditionally, the US government has focused on civil and political rights rather than economic, social, and cultural rights. The USA has ratified the most important agreement on the first group of rights. This lays down rights such as freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial and the prohibition of torture. The USA has never ratified the corresponding agreement on the second group of rights, which includes the rights to health, housing and food. However, the pandemic has shown how closely the two concepts are related. For example, if the government censors information about fighting pandemics, this weakens the ability of the population to demand that resources be devoted to their welfare and not to the political interests of the government. In fact, both categories of rights can be found in US law. Biden should begin by speaking in the more general terms of the human rights that most people are familiar with.

As the pandemic rages on, Biden's avowed plan to improve access to healthcare in the United States would be an obvious place to start. Biden should formulate access to medical care as a human right and make it clear that it is not just about strengthening or expanding the Affordable Care Act (also Obamacare), but rather about giving everyone the right to see a doctor without ruining their own families financially. And when Biden campaigns for federal aid for people who have become unemployed as a result of the lockdown, he should make it clear that everyone has a right to a decent standard of living and that the richest government in the world cannot afford to starve people who lost their jobs in difficult times. When addressing school closings, Biden should be talking about the right to an education - that a child's educational opportunities shouldn't depend on their family's ability to afford a laptop and a good internet connection. The more people in the US recognize that human rights stand for fundamental values, the less future presidents will be able to treat these rights as mere political preferences.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke out in his famous speech on the "Four Freedoms" for the "freedom from want" and his New Deal launched, he faced extraordinary challenges. Biden should use today's key moment to deepen Roosevelt's vision and make it an enduring reality in the United States.

In the area of ​​civil and political freedoms, too, greater emphasis on their legal character could help limit the drastic changes in course that have accompanied many transfers of office in the future. Regarding the 11 million undocumented migrants in the US, Biden has expressed a desire to reduce the risk of deportation and provide them with a legal path. Given that around two-thirds of these people have lived in the United States for more than a decade - many of them with children and spouses - Biden could speak about their right to live with their families, free from the constant fear of deportation .

On issues of ethnic discrimination in education, housing and the criminal justice system, or the right to free family planning, Biden could not only point out that these rights are protected by US law, but that they are considered elementary in most countries around the world Rights are considered. In any case, Biden should use the Inalienable Rights Commission, an idea from Trump's Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The Commission is a poorly disguised attempt to prioritize individual rights rather than view them as a set of binding obligations. This is music to the ears of the world's autocrats.

Invoking human rights more often will not be enough on its own. But it could steer the public debate towards the fundamental values ​​concerned and make it difficult for future presidents to turn around.

Principles in foreign policy

A similar change of course would help make US foreign policy more consistent. Biden should make it clear that the promotion of human rights worldwide is a core principle of US policy, and then be guided by them. In order for such a statement to endure, Biden will of course have to adhere to it even when it is politically difficult.

Biden has signaled his determination to once again support global efforts against climate change. So he should keep his campaign promise to drastically reduce US greenhouse gas emissions and encourage other governments to do the same. Even with the announced return to the World Health Organization, Biden should go even further and campaign to improve access to medical care worldwide.

Biden should fully restore the US role in the UN Human Rights Council, even if it regularly criticizes Israel's suppressive and discriminatory treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories or deals with the human rights situation in the US. Biden should resume payments from the United States to the UN Aid for Palestine Refugees in the Middle East and to the UN Population Fund as they ensure the health and survival of countless people, especially women and children. And he should lift Trump's outrageous sanctions against the work of the International Criminal Court, which are an affront to the rule of law. It should not matter whether the chief prosecutor also prosecutes crimes that are unpleasant to the US government, such as US torture in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) and Israel's war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The term of office of UN Secretary General António Guterres will end at the end of the year. A successor must be elected beforehand. The Biden government should make its support for any candidate - be it Guterres running for a second term or another candidate - conditional on the promise that the next Secretary-General will see Guterres' lackluster record of the past four years in the field of human rights will not repeat. This includes using the powerful platform of the UN to call repressive governments by their names - which Guterres apparently feared. The next Secretary General should also fully implement Guterres ‘“ Call to Action on Human Rights ”, as he has so far failed to make the transition from“ Call ”to“ Action ”.

Biden should also make human rights principles a determining factor in US relations with countries that violate human rights. Biden is expected to have less comfortable relations with "friendly" autocrats like Putin. In addition, it should make it clear that the US government will cut military aid or (often subsidized) arms exports to allied governments that massively violate human rights, unless they improve their behavior. For example, this applies to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. He should reject the unrealistic idea that a mere "argument" with such governments can change their repressive behavior without any pressure to be taken seriously and not promote it. In Sri Lanka, where many officials responsible for war crimes have come back to power, Biden should demand continuation of UN reporting and concrete steps towards accountability. He should also criticize India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi more openly for approving discrimination and violence against Muslims, even though India is seen as an important ally against Chinese influence.

In order to strengthen the worldwide protection of human rights, Biden is planning to host a “democracy summit”. In doing so, he should not repeat the mistake of Bill Clinton, who invited allied authoritarian regimes into his "community of democracies" in the hope that it would become damocratic. Because this makes such invitations meaningless. A permanent council of democracies can only create an incentive to respect democratic norms if compliance with them is a prerequisite for acceptance.

Biden's biggest foreign policy challenge will be China - because of severe domestic repression and a determination to undermine the global human rights system, which Beijing apparently fears could target its own repression. Trump had initially sought to close ranks with Xi Jinping and had allegedly even gone so far as to welcome a possible lifelong presidency of Xi and to approve of the imprisonment of Uyghurs and other Muslims of Turkic origin. But in the end Trump still angered Xi when he scapegoated the “China virus” for his government's failure to control the pandemic in the US. Sections of the US government did something against Beijing's repression: The US imposed targeted sanctions on natural and legal persons who were responsible for the imprisonment of Muslims in Xinjiang and the restriction of freedoms in Hong Kong. Trump, however, took a more business-oriented approach than having any problem solved by China buying enough soybeans from Trump's supporters in Iowa. The perception that Trump was instrumentalizing human rights for other ends and his America First unilateralism deterred other governments from joining his initiatives.

To be effective, Biden will need to take a principled, consistent, and multilateral approach. After years of ridicule from all over the world that the Trump administration brought to the US, it would certainly make large parts of the US electorate proud if Washington once again addresses human rights with a clear voice and thus stands on the world stage by rival powers such as China, Russia or India delimits.

Biden should form broad alliances with governments that condemn Beijing's repression, even if they voice their criticism in the UN Human Rights Council, which the Trump administration refused to accept for criticizing Israel. US diplomacy could help expand these alliances and include governments that have not yet taken a clear position, particularly in the global South. It could reassure economically vulnerable states that the US government will stand by them in Chinese retaliatory measures. Biden, who clearly condemned the suppression in Xinjiang, should advocate an independent international investigation and prosecution of those responsible.

Biden should also support the draft law currently being debated in the US Congress, which should oblige companies that source resources from Xinjiang - or from China - to stop the use of Uyghur-Muslim forced laborers in their supply chains. And he should urge other governments to do the same. The Biden government should also impose targeted sanctions on companies that support the Chinese government in its highly abusive surveillance measures - and urge other actors to impose similar sanctions. Biden should develop a model of how to combat the influence of the Chinese Communist Party in the US without promoting intolerance towards the Chinese. And - in conclusion, once again - he must pursue a principled human rights policy at home abroad so that his criticism of China's repression is not dismissed as an instrument in the competition of superpowers, but is perceived as a genuine concern for the rights of one sixth of humanity . A concern that the US expresses equally wherever people are being persecuted.


It will not be enough for Biden to respond to Trump by simply turning the clock back four years, as if abandoning Trump's policies could undo the damage it caused. The world has changed and commitment to human rights must also change. Many human rights-minded governments have stepped forward and provided leadership to fill the void left by Trump's indifference and hostility towards human rights. The Biden government should join this expanded human rights commitment and not seek to replace it.

Meanwhile, Biden must acknowledge that traditional policy changes between successive US administrations under Trump have reached new heights. They have become a crisis to the credibility of the US government and a major threat to the rights of people in the US and around the world. Biden should put the U.S. people's appreciation of human rights in a new context to anchor human rights protection in ways that his successors will find difficult to reverse. Only if Biden can do this can the US government be a constructive long-term partner in defending human rights around the world.