Human Rights Watch present their 2021 global report

Protest signs posted on the gate surrounding the White House, June 2020. Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

China remains the biggest threat to global human rights

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has recently published its 31st annual World Report on human rights. The report is a reflection and summary of the extensive investigative work that the organization conducts in nearly 100 countries and territories across the world. As well as providing a human rights-focused analysis of the current situation in each of these countries, the report also contains a foreword from HRW director, Kenneth Roth, highlighting recent progress and potential avenues for the development of global human rights.

At a presentation of the report, Roth pointed out that China remained the biggest threat to global human rights and that President Xi Jinping had “embarked on the most intense repression” in the country since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

Essays published along with the report cover subjects such as the human rights implications of the Covid crisis, the climate crisis and asylum, the situation of people with disabilities, online gender-based violence as well as “the pandemic of inequality”.

The disastrous effect of the Trump presidency

Unsurprisingly, Roth dedicates a significant portion of his discussion to emphasizing the disastrous effect that the Trump presidency had on the protection and development of human rights in the US and the world beyond. Additionally, he highlights positive developments that have been made as a result of the vacuum created by the absence of the US president in the past four years. Roth also discusses how Joe Biden fits into the current picture, and how he can seek to repair the damage caused by Trump.

The past four years of Trumps’ presidency saw significant backsliding from the US on human rights protection at home and across the world. As the report shows, Trump flouted legal obligations to protect refugees and their children, racial and religious minorities, LGBTQI people, and women’s sexual and reproductive health rights. He has persistently overlooked systematic racism in policing and simultaneously empowered white supremacists. This was epitomized by the president inciting his followers to fight against his election defeat, resulting in the invasion of the Capitol building and the death of two people. Trump subsequently became the first president in US history to be impeached twice. Abroad, Trump consistently built relations with autocrats at the expense of their abused populations, promoted the sale of weapons to governments implicated in war crimes, and withdrew from key international initiatives to defend human rights, promote justice, advance public health and forestall climate change.

Other states stepped up

While the election of Biden rightly provides hope to those who were left dejected by Trump’s tenure, Roth warns against regarding the change of presidency as a Panacea. Regardless of who has occupied the oval office, the US has always regarded itself as an omnipotent presence in global affairs. However, despite insisting on being a global protector, their human rights record in the past few decades has been poor.

Roth argues that although Trump was catastrophic for global human rights, encouragement can be taken from the proactivity of other states that stepped up and worked together to fill the void left by Washington. Examples of this include the Lima Group which saw 11 states come together to persuade the UN to investigate the repressive rule of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the EU collaborating to lead an initiative at the Human Rights Council to investigate the Myanmar military’s abuse of Rohingya muslims, and Liechtenstein and Qatar’s successful effort to circumvent Russia and China’s veto in the UN Security Council to establish an international, independent Mechanism for Syria to collect evidence of war crimes and other atrocities for prosecution – the first such mechanism ever created.

An adapted role for the US?

Roth suggests that these developments open the door for a change in the dynamic of global human rights defense. The US could and arguably should adapt their role to being a collaborator rather than a dictator with regard to international decision-making. Biden should therefore seek to engage with these coalitions rather than supplant their collective efforts.

To bolster the global defense of human rights, Biden plans to host a “Summit for Democracy.” However, Roth argues that he should not repeat the mistake of Bill Clinton who invited allied authoritarian governments to his Community of Democracies in the hope that they might become democratic. Rather, Biden should ensure that clear evidence of showing respect for democratic standards is the price of admission to such an event.

Rather than focusing on repositioning the US as the guardian of global human rights, Roth argues that Biden should focus on what action the US can do themselves to promote global human rights in the international arena. Roth suggests that Biden could start by reversing Trump’s backward steps, re-embracing the Human Rights Council, restarting funding for UN relief, voiding sanctions on the International Criminal Court and renewing US efforts to tackle climate change.

Selection of the UN Secretary-General

Finally, with regard to the future running of the UN, it was reported recently that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will seek a second five-year term. According to HRW, Guterres’ performance on human rights over the past four years has been mixed. HRW’s UN director Louis Charbonneau commented that “he should not be handed a new term on a silver platter”, adding that “the process should include multiple candidates who all publicly present concrete plans to improve the UN, including how to reinforce its human rights pillar at a time when some governments are actively working to undermine it.” In terms of improving the UN, Democracy Without Borders has called on Guterres to consider putting the creation of a UN Parliamentary Assembly and a UN World Citizens’ Initiative on the agenda.

Ryan Whyte
Ryan is a graduate from The University of Edinburgh (Law LLB) and The University of Glasgow (International Relations MRes) currently based in Berlin.