Human Rights Watch is urging President-elect Joe Biden to strengthen human rights in the United States in a way that his successors will not be able to reverse, while also prioritizing them in his administration’s foreign policy.
“Donald Trump was a disaster for human rights,” HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth said Wednesday at the virtual launch of the organization’s World Report 2021. But he cautioned that while the election of Joe Biden presents “an opportunity for fundamental change,” it is not a panacea.
Roth said four years of Trump’s transactional foreign policy, reverence for autocrats, general indifference and “often hostility” to human rights have hurt U.S. government credibility on the issue.
“Even though there was an occasional condemnation of human rights in Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, sometimes China, these rang hollow when there was parallel praise bestowed on the likes of Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Israel,” Roth said.
The HRW report also criticizes the Trump administration for domestic policies, including those that separated undocumented migrant children from their parents, restricted access to women’s reproductive health services and set back LGBTQ rights.
“Biden’s big challenge is not simply to reverse Trump’s damage to human rights — important as that is,” Roth said. “But also to change the narrative on human rights in a more fundamental way, so that way it can better survive future changes in administration.”
The Trump administration did not immediately respond to the criticism but has portrayed itself in the past as a leading defender of human rights around the world.
“At home and abroad, we continue to advocate for the universal freedoms of religion, speech, including for members of the press; and for the rights of individuals to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva Andrew Bremberg said at a meeting in November.
At a separate meeting in November, Bremberg said, “We remain committed to advancing human rights worldwide, as well as accountability for those who abuse those rights.”
Roth said the incoming Biden administration should enshrine human rights measures in domestic legislation to make them harder to reverse, while reshaping public appreciation of human rights. Roth also urged Biden to make human rights a “guiding principle” in foreign policy, including not giving security assistance or selling arms to countries that abuse rights or engage in conflicts that are harming civilians, such as Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
The rights report did credit the Trump administration for imposing sanctions on senior officials in China, Syria, and Uganda for serious human rights abuses.
HRW also had strong criticism in its more than 700-page annual report for several systemic rights abusers, including China, for its repression of Uighur Muslims and its crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
Roth also pointed to the censoring of Chinese doctors who tried to warn of the seriousness of the coronavirus when it first appeared in Wuhan province in 2019.
“That shows what happens when a government prioritizes its own political interests, self-preservation, over public health,” Roth said.
HRW rebuked Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his government’s weakening of environmental laws that protect the Amazon and its indigenous population. HRW condemned his government’s use of intimidation and violence against advocates who seek to protect the forest.
In Turkey, HRW says President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to hold tight to power, sidelining opposition parties and interfering in the judiciary. His government has targeted journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers, activists and opposition politicians.
Uganda, which holds presidential elections on Thursday, has seen President Yoweri Museveni, who has held power since 1986, exploit coronavirus restrictions as a pretext to stifle his election competition. HRW says authorities have beaten and arbitrarily detained people for allegedly failing to comply with COVID-19 restrictions. They have also broken up candidate rallies while letting Museveni’s go ahead, and arrested and harassed journalists.
“Museveni is clearly terrified that he is going to lose,” Roth said.
Roth also called on the world’s top diplomat, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, to use the full influence of his position to name and shame rights abusers.
“He rarely identifies a particular perpetrator, so nobody feels the heat,” Roth said. “He says he prefers behind the scenes diplomacy, but public commentary doesn’t preclude behind the scenes diplomacy; it’s as if he’s abandoning half the powers of his office.”
The annual report looks at the situation of human rights in more than 100 countries.