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How is it possible to find any good for the world coming out of the blatant hostility towards human rights shown by the Trump administration? You have to hand it to Human Rights Watch and its executive director, Kenneth Roth. They are nothing if not creatively optimistic.

In an inciteful and challenging introductory chapter to this year’s annual HRW report, Roth fully acknowledges that the presidency of Donald Trump was ‘a disaster for human rights’: ‘At home, he flouted legal obligations that allow people fearing for their lives to seek refuge, ripped migrant children from their parents, empowered white supremacists, acted to undermine the democratic process and fomented hatred against racial and religious minorities.’

‘Abroad, he cosied up to one friendly autocrat after another at the expense of their abused populations, promoted the sale of weapons to governments implicated in war crimes, and attacked or withdrew from key international initiatives to defend human rights, promote international justice, advance public health and forestall climate change.’


And when the government did speak out, it was with a voice that had lost credibility because of its praise for blatantly abusive government. ‘Condemnations of Venezuela, Cuba or Iran rang hollow when parallel praise was bestowed on Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Israel.’ Similarly, ‘support for religious freedom abroad was undermined by Islamophobic policy at home.’

Yet Roth makes a key point: as the Trump administration largely abandoned the protection of human rights abroad, ‘other governments stepped forward’.

‘Rather than surrender, they reinforced the ramparts. So even as powerful actors such as China, Russia and Egypt sought to undermine the global human rights system, a series of broad coalitions came to its defence.’

And, no doubt to the surprise of many observers around the world, these coalitions ‘included not only a range of Western countries but also a group of Latin American democracies and a growing number of Muslim-majority states.’


As the Biden administration establishes itself in office, the US government should seek to join, rather than to take over, ‘these collective efforts,’ Roth says.

Among those involved in perhaps unexpected collective efforts on human rights, he reminds readers of the 2018 decision by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a group of 56 mainly Muslim-majority states, to join with the European Union in an initiative against atrocities in Myanmar by that government against the Rohinga people, and to collected evidence for possible prosecution. Out of this intiative came the equally unexpected – at least to outsiders – decision by Gambia, a member of the OIC, to bring a case before the International Court of Justice against Myanmar, with Gambia alleging violations of the Genocide Convention by Myanmar in its atrocities against the Rohinga.

When the Trump administration clamped down on abortion, worldwide, by prohibiting foreign organisations that receive US help, from providing information or services for legal abortion in their own countries, a number of European countries launched SheDecides, a global initial to defend sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Systemic racism

And, following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, African governments, led by South Africa, demanded ‘an inquiry into systemic racism and police violence around the world, building a cross-regional coalition to stand up to the US government.’

The more global defense of human rights ‘did not always prevail,’ HRW concedes: ‘Abusive governments remain a potent threat.’ However, ‘the greater breadth of the defence intensified the pressure on leaders who would flout the rights of their people.’

For other governments, the lesson of the Trump administration over the last years is that ‘they can make a big difference even without Washington.’

Double standards

‘Even under a rights-friendly US administration, this broader collective defence of rights should be maintained. Even if (incoming President Joe Biden) manages to overcome the swings and double standards that often plague US policy, the defence of human rights will be stronger if a wide range of governments continues to lead.’

HRW discusses some of the challenges faced by Biden and his government in finding a new role for the US in world politics and human rights in particular. It urges that the US should ‘re-embrace the UN Human Rights Council and fully participate in it’ – even when the council scrutinises human rights in the US.

Rule of law

‘And (Biden) should void Trump’s appalling sanctions on the International Criminal Court’s work – an affront to the rule of law – regardless of the prosecutor’s steps to investigate unprosecuted crimes that are sensitive to the US government’.

Biden should ‘similarly announce and live by human rights principles as a major determinant of US relations with abusive countries’. [This is a clear, advance alert for certain African countries whose governments are blatantly hostile to human rights and the rule of law – ed.].

Enhanced defence

In conclusion Roth writes, ‘It will not be enough for Biden to respond to Trump by simply turning the clock back four years, as if an abandonment of Trump’s policies can reverse the devastation he caused. The world has changed, and so must the promotion of human rights.

‘Many rights-respecting nations have responded to the void created by Trump’s indifference and hostility to human rights by stepping forward and playing a more active leadership role. The Biden administration should join the enhanced defence of rights, not seek to replace it.’