Congress Blog

Next steps for foreign policy

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

President-elect Joe Biden promises to cooperate with our allies on economic, political and environmental issues that span borders. That's a big step forward in reasserting America's global leadership, but Biden needs to do even more: He needs to swiftly address issues of human rights, justice and poverty in the Global South, especially for people whose voices are heard the least - people living in poverty, Indigenous communities, ethnic and religious minorities, women and girls and LGBTQI+ people.

We realize it will take years to address the many complex foreign policy challenges that loom large, especially related to China, Russia and other powerful countries. In that context, this new administration can immediately show the world that it is putting American foreign policy on the right track by focusing urgently on human rights for the most vulnerable people. To that end, Biden has taken a reassuring step by announcing that he will nominate Antony Blinken, who strongly believes in global diplomacy and human rights, to serve as secretary of State.

We are leaders of a global human rights group with nearly four decades of experience in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Based on our collaboration with hundreds of partners in grassroots social movements in 18 countries around the world, we see six ways the Biden administration can swiftly make a difference:

Stand up to dictators: In the countries where we work, the U.S. still has outsized influence; we can be a bulwark against authoritarianism and abuses of human rights. Over the past four years, this has not always been the case. In Guatemala, for example, the Trump administration failed to push back on former President Jimmy Morales' attack on a joint United Nations-domestic anti-corruption commission in 2018 - the same body investigating Morales for campaign finance fraud. Morales kicked out the top investigator, refused to renew the commission's mandate and sent armed jeeps to patrol its headquarters in Guatemala City. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent a message of strong support for Morales, despite the U.S. being the top donor to the anti-corruption body, signaling our retreat from supporting justice and all but ensuring the body's demise. We are heartened that Blinken pledges to promote basic rights of all people, everywhere. We recommend that he started by underscoring the rule of law, respect for international agreements and support activists around the world who have courageously spoken up for transparency and democracy.

Defend the most persecuted racial, ethnic and religious minority groups: Ethnic and religious minorities are being scapegoated and attacked as authoritarianism strengthens its grip around the world. The new U.S. administration must utilize all its diplomatic and economic tools to support these minorities, building on some of the practices of the Trump administration but doing so more consistently and strategically. For example, the Trump administration sent a powerful signal in 2019, when it used Global Magnitsky sanctions against human rights abusers in Myanmar, sanctioning top army brass implicated in the genocide against the Rohingya people and other abuses against the country's other minorities. The Biden administration should go further in countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka, where abuses against minorities are rampant, by exerting diplomatic pressure, extending targeted sanctions on human rights abusers and supporting any ongoing legal efforts internationally and domestically designed to address abuse and achieve justice.

Stand by women and girls and LGBTQI+ people: Pompeo has worked actively to denigrate the human rights of women, girls and LGBTQI+ people. To that end, he appointed a Commission on Unalienable Rights, which was, in fact, a thinly veiled effort to curb the rights of LGBTQI+ people and women under the guise of "religious freedom." Continuing these efforts, Pompeo unprecedentedly expanded the "global gag rule," a draconian policy that bars any foreign organization from receiving U.S. global health or development funding if it is also provides legal abortions or referrals with other funds, dramatically restricting the rights of girls and women around the world. The effect has been chilling. Our partners in Kenya report that their clinics that serve women, girls and LGBTQI+ clients have been forced to close, compromising reproductive health and treatment for HIV/AIDS. By contrast, Blinken's record shows he will not weaponize a narrow and punitive view of religion in foreign policy -a  shift that cannot come too quickly.

Seek climate justice: Climate change is the existential threat of our time, which most affects people who have done the least to create it - small famers and indigenous communities. Thankfully, Biden's nomination of former Secretary of State John Kerry as the first-ever special presidential envoy for climate shows a commitment to work with the global community on this crisis. Yet we underscore that complex issues call for complex solutions: To slow climate change, the U.S. must initiate a global transition away from industrial agriculture and food systems that depend on the profligate use of fossil fuels. Instead, we must support efforts of small farmers, peasants and Indigenous communities in the Global South to ensure food production that focuses on the rights and needs of local communities, rather than the profit margins of global markets.

Bolster our foreign policy fundamentals at home: President Trump and his appointees gutted the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, turning them into political organs, silencing experienced diplomatic staff and sidelining or firing those who sought to promote the rule of law, making a mockery of foreign policy. Biden has promised to put "foreign aid at the center of foreign policy." His team will need to reinvigorate foreign policy agencies, putting a premium on supporting career workforce and hiring qualified experts who can pursue serious strategic policies that honor human rights and respect minorities.

Reestablish global leadership through international cooperation: The new administration needs to follow through immediately on its promises to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement; reengage at the United Nations; and support international justice efforts in countries such as Myanmar. Americans should be heartened by Biden's determination to rejoin the World Health Organization on Jan. 20, to coordinate the fight against this pandemic as well as emerging health threats.

We can no longer be the country that embraces dictators, disdains science and disregards global cooperation while trampling on the human rights of the most marginalized people in the world. Our moral leadership in justice, human rights and the environment is critical not only to reestablishing the standing of the United States, but also to making the world safer for the most vulnerable. We'll know that we have succeeded when the people whose rights are most frequently violated report that they are experiencing justice in their communities and lives.

Robert Bank is President and CEO of American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Rori Kramer, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, is director of U.S. advocacy for AJWS.

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