Double standard: Will Biden truly champion human rights?
Human rights are in freefall across 156 countries, including here in the United States. This is driven by increased conflicts that are more deadly; rampant repression of peaceful protests in country after country, unmitigated climate catastrophes and a deeply broken global economic system that abandoned billions of people during the pandemic. These are the findings of my organization, Amnesty International, in its latest State of the World Report — showing people are facing deep human rights perils in every country we researched.
As a candidate, Joe Biden committed to “revitalize our national commitment to advancing human rights and democracy around the world.” However, as president, Biden has engaged in double standards, and that has done untold damage.
If the Biden administration wants to sustain global recrimination against Russia for its war of aggression in Ukraine, it cannot continue to condone or ignore violent repression by allies, like Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt. President Biden should not have fist-bumped Saudi Arabia’s Mohamed Bin Salman in exchange for a “Jeddah Communique” with zero human rights commitments. The White House should not give Israel a pass on an apartheid system, where in 2022 we saw an escalation in unlawful killings, home destructions and laws designed to oppress Palestinians. Nor should Biden have congratulated Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi for hosting COP 27, while peaceful protestors were being arrested.
U.S. double standards encourage Russian President Vladimir Putin that his belligerence will outlast Western commitments to Ukraine and embolden Chinese authorities to give peace lectures overseas while they oppress ethnic and religious minorities and imprison human rights defenders in their own territory.
As the United States and Europe compete with China and Russia for allies and credibility, human rights hypocrisies — including what appear to be racist migration policies (welcoming some while demonizing others), disproportionate responses to conflict (prioritizing conflicts in Europe while failing to prevent hundreds of thousands from dying in Ethiopia, Haiti, Mali, Sri Lanka, Venezuela and Yemen),as well as a pandemic response that continues to prioritize profit for U.S. pharmaceutical corporations over vaccine equity — undermine any case for human rights that Western governments might make.
It never makes sense to ask politicians to act against their political self-interests. That is why real change will require activists in the West to demand the end of double standards on human rights. In this 75th year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I see three reasons to be hopeful that they will:
1) Activists are increasingly challenging Western governments when human rights standards are being selectively or expediently applied. For the United States government, more and more people are insisting it confronts allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt on their human rights records and treats conflicts like those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Myanmar and Venezuela with the attention it gives to Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine.
2) While human rights have always depended on a rules-based international order, more activists are now engaging with a different question: Who makes those rules and who do they serve?
The global Amnesty International movement works across borders to interrogate how and why rules are generated in historic centers of economic and military power, and in its Western form, by an overwhelmingly white-dominant, male elite. We see double standards for what they are, and so does our growing 10 million-strong movement. That is why we are so focused on ensuring equity at the international policy-making table.
3) Activists increasingly recognize that the United States cannot credibly advance human rights overseas while applying a human rights double standard at home. We know the growing attacks on women’s rights, as well as sexual and reproductive rights, all around the world, are deeply connected to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobb’s decision and subsequent onslaught against U.S. abortion rights in state legislatures across the country.
Just as our report documents systemic racism against Indigenous peoples and Black people across South and Central America, it also centers how discriminatory structures and policies in the United States continue to drive immigration policies and foster a culture of gun violence.
Human rights activists want a rules-based international order with legitimacy in not only how rules are made, but we also want to put the “universal” back in human rights for all people, everywhere. We will continue to call out foreign policies that demand standards from other countries that don’t apply at home in the United States. The days of double standards are done.
Paul O’Brien is the executive director at Amnesty International USA.
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