Throughout his presidential campaign, then-candidate Joe Biden promised to “revitalize our national commitment to advancing human rights and democracy around the world.” More than a year after the election, however, his administration hasn’t gone far enough to significantly move the needle on human rights.
The United States’ meager commitments presented before last week’s Summit for Democracy are illustrative. Instead of undertaking new initiatives to protect democracy, advance racial justice, and implement U.S. obligations on human rights, the Biden administration chose, with few exceptions, to essentially repackage existing and ongoing actions.
The White House’s statement ahead of the Summit for Democracy contained more than 10,000 words on strengthening democracy, fighting corruption, and advancing human rights, but there was not a single word about implementing U.S. human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention against Torture (CAT), or the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).
Strengthening democracy and fighting corruption are noble causes, but it is essential that the Biden administration translate its commitment to center human rights in foreign and domestic policy into concrete actions. If the Biden administration wants to get serious on human rights, it can act now on three essential areas to further demonstrate its commitment.
First, it can establish an inter-agency working group dedicated to implementing our human rights obligations. This is a critical component to ensuring that we are fulfilling our promises to international human rights bodies and leading by the power of example. We have yet to fully implement a number of international human rights treaties, including the ICERD and CAT.
The failure to create a federal body to oversee implementation of human rights treaties that many other democracies have had in place for years or even decades is a stain on the U.S. human rights record and one that can be easily fixed with action from the Biden administration.
The U.S. has claimed in multiple reports issued this year that it is “committed to performing its obligations” under treaties including the ICCPR, CAT, and ICERD, but the reports fail to even mention exploring new mechanisms to promote U.S. accountability and fail to accurately address policies and practices — including the treatment of asylum seekers — that are in direct conflict with the treaties. This is unacceptable, and the Biden administration has a responsibility and a mandate to accurately reflect our limited progress on human rights and to take bold action to realize our promises.
The administration’s prioritization of racial justice and equity at home and abroad are laudable improvements compared to the prior administration, but the U.S. must also prioritize the inclusion and implementation of our human rights obligations, especially under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which the U.S. ratified nearly three decades ago.
The executive branch can play a pivotal role here. An administrative review of racial equity across the federal government already mandated by President Biden’s executive order can be easily expanded to cover review and implementation of the ICERD.
After four years under the Trump administration during which human rights were repeatedly violated and international human rights bodies were attacked and boycotted, the implementation of human rights treaties would send a powerful message that the United States firmly supports these agreements and is reengaging on the world stage in a meaningful way and building the necessary domestic infrastructure to sustain our progress on human rights and prevent future assaults.
Second, the United States can heed the over 340 recommendations from the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, which in November called on the U.S., among many human rights issues, to abolish the death penalty, extreme sentencing, and disproportionate punishments and take more action to end systemic racism, especially in the context of law enforcement.
The U.S. recently won an uncontested election for a seat on the Human Rights Council, but reengagement on human rights requires more than membership in the world’s largest human rights body. It requires that the Biden administration look critically at the U.S.’ human rights record and commit to making these important changes at the executive level and advocating for Congress and states across the country to take additional action to ensure we are leading on human rights at home and abroad.
Third, the Biden administration can pledge to study the feasibility of a National Human Rights Institution, which advocates including the ACLU have been calling on the U.S. to establish for years. A NHRI charged with monitoring and promoting international human rights standards would serve as a key watchdog in ensuring we are up to date on our obligations and that federal, state, and local governments are protecting human rights norms and fostering a respect for universal human rights here at home.
President Biden’s Summit for Democracy wasn’t completely devoid of important new commitments, however. New actions by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and Small Business Administration to improve access to voter registration are important steps to help protect and expand access to the ballot box. But those commitments would be further strengthened by the Biden administration taking action on human rights and racial justice.
We are at a critical inflection point on human rights. President Biden’s promise to take “decisive action to restore and strengthen American democracy” requires a transformative investment in domestic human rights, including by incentivizing state and local governments to uphold human rights here at home, as the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights called for in her landmark report on systemic anti-Black racism this summer.
Centering human rights in domestic policy need not wait for another summit, but should be turned into reality to positively impact the lives of millions of people in the United States. There is no time to waste.