January 28, 2021

IntelBrief: Reinvigorating Human Rights and Foreign Assistance: Priorities for the Biden-Harris Administration

(AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Following a backsliding of human rights priorities domestically and abroad under Trump, the Biden administration is poised to alter course.
  • Biden’s cabinet picks emphasize the reprioritization of human rights and experienced policymakers, as well as likely alignment with Obama era foreign policy.
  • Key human rights matters will include reengaging in multilateral fora, as well as revisiting policies on asylum, sanctions, and social justice.
  • U.S. leadership in foreign assistance has geopolitical implications; as US contributions receded, China increased development aid and influence.

Following a dramatic backsliding of human rights priorities in both domestic and international spheres during the Trump administration, the Biden-Harris administration is now poised to alter course on human rights. President Biden earlier stated, “When I am president, human rights will be at the core of U.S. foreign policy.” Yet, for such an approach to be deemed credible by a global audience, U.S. human rights policy needs to begin at home. President Trump’s selective repudiation of human rights issues, such as in Iran, Venezuela, and China, yet open embrace of autocratic leaders, like Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has attenuated U.S. credibility. This will make it especially difficult for the U.S. – or even international actors like the UN – to hold accountable those states which are perpetrating human rights violations in the name of preventing and countering terrorism. U.S. human rights policy has tangible impacts on American security at home and abroad.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated inequalities and stressed resources available to fund and support human rights initiatives; in some cases, there are concerns that governments will use the pandemic and responses to it to violate human rights and civil liberties. The pandemic has laid bare the disparate impacts on global access to livelihoods, food, and health care. In order to move beyond simply repairing the U.S. position as a global advocate for democracy and human rights, the Biden-Harris administration will need to lead by example, demonstrating greater integrity, accountability, and follow through on human rights policy. Ensuring global access to vaccines and strengthening support for the World Health Organization will be key to this strategy.

Key Policy Fronts

Vital policy fronts for the Biden administration will be ensuring greater equality under the law, police and immigration reform, and ensuring that sanctions policies do not contribute to greater human rights and humanitarian violations. The law enforcement response to the January 6 insurrection laid bare the disparate law enforcement response to far-right rioters relative to protestors for racial justice. Accountability for the insurrectionists, including through ongoing Impeachment proceedings, will be a critical first step on national security and counterterrorism, while likewise serving efforts to combat escalating hate crimes and reckon with law enforcement reform.

Despite the Trump administration’s failed attempted to gut categories of asylum claims on the basis of gender, domestic abuse, or gang violence, the Biden-Harris administration’s approach to asylum and broader immigration policy will set an important tone for both the humanity of U.S. policy and adherence to international agreements, as party to the Refugee Convention. As signaled by the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, refugee resettlement suffered during the Trump administration. Yet, President Biden has stated his intention to raise the refugee admissions ceiling to 125,000. The recent Executive Orders revoking both the Trump administration’s so-called ‘Muslim ban’ and ban on transgender people serving in the military are initial indicators of human rights-driven policy for this administration.

More broadly, global leadership on human rights is severely lacking – paralysis on several issues in the United Nations Security Council leaves limited opportunities for meaningful multilateral action in support of human rights and accountability. The Biden administration has a chance to reset the tone of multilateralism in the Security Council. Opportunities include potential reengagement with the UN Human Rights Council, from which Trump withdrew, as well as a reformulated response to the International Criminal Court, following Trump’s sanctioning of the chief prosecutor.

Problematizing some of this multilateral rapprochement is U.S. sanctions policy, which has become overly encompassing to the detriment of humanitarian assistance. In particular, the Biden-Harris Administration will have important opportunities to consider how to ensure implementation of counterterrorism-related sanctions – both domestic and international – while mitigating negative impacts on principled humanitarian assistance. Most recently, this issue was evidenced by the Trump administration’s Foreign Terrorist Organization designation of the Houthis, despite calls to eschew such an action from the UN and other aid actors in Yemen. This week, President Biden instituted some exemptions for the next month to ease the impact on humanitarian operations. The Biden-Harris administration should reevaluate how to most effectively and selectively utilize sanctions without compromising other strategic priorities such as human rights accountability, humanitarian assistance in conflict zones, and counterterrorism.

Early Actions and Long-Term Goals

The prior experience of key cabinet nominees has already emphasized the Biden-Harris administration’s reprioritization of human rights and seasoned professionals in the field, as well as likely alignment with Obama era foreign policy approaches. Samantha Power, President Obama’s Ambassador to the UN, is nominated to lead USAID, with her position elevated to the National Security Council. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who served as Deputy Secretary of State for the Obama administration, has said, “We have a great deal of work to do at home to enhance our standing abroad,” part of which will undoubtedly include reinvigorating the State Department. UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield has a 35-year career in the foreign service, which includes overseeing the Bureau of African Affairs during the Obama administration. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield has particularly noted her intention of funding the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), whereas Trump had revoked funding for women’s health and reproductive rights.

Centering human rights in the foreign policy agenda will necessitate a drastic reevaluation of strategic partnerships and foreign policy in many contexts, with a particular eye toward Saudi Arabia, China, Israel, Yemen, and Syria. Contradictory U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia, despite the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and including support to Riyadh's intervention in Yemen, undermines U.S. authority on human rights. Likewise, only recently ‘naming and shaming’ the mass detention of Uighur Muslims as genocide is not sufficient to hold China accountable on human rights, including repression in Hong Kong. The Trump administration’s decision to move the embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in addition to pulling all funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), defied international norms and problematized the U.S. role as a peace broker for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Reaching the decade mark in the Syrian conflict, the Biden administration will need to reassess how to position the U.S. to most effectively provide humanitarian assistance and support political accountability.

Undeniably, the vacuum of U.S. leadership in human rights and foreign assistance has tangible geopolitical implications and has been filled by others. While American influence has receded, China has expanded its global development assistance through its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) – at a scale of approximately $128 billion in 2019 – particularly through its infrastructure projects in Africa and Asia. China has increased its proactive engagement and support to international and regional organizations and invested in strengthening counterterrorism capacities in Africa. U.S. foreign assistance in Fiscal Year 2019 was approximately $47 billion, about 1% of the federal budget. In order to reassert leadership and compete for influence, the Biden administration will need to reevaluate the scale of spending on foreign assistance. As framed in President Biden’s Inauguration speech – “As we look ahead in our uniquely American way: restless, bold, optimistic, and set our sights on the nation we can be and we must be” – this administration should endeavor to set the tone that human rights can be a valuable multi-purpose tool that reinforces national security and drives ethical foreign policy.