Comment: Biden can resume human rights focus that JFK started

Biden can use that focus to drive policy not just abroad but on issues at home that serve democracy.

By Sarah B. Snyder / Special To The Washington Post

On Jan. 20, Joe Biden and his team will arrive in the White House to succeed an administration that was, at best, skeptical of the place of human rights in U.S. foreign policy.

The Trump administration generally viewed human rights as a plot to undermine U.S. national security and economic interests. For Trump officials, international human rights agreements and institutions threatened American sovereignty. President Trump’s decisions to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council and target International Criminal Court officials with sanctions represent clear expressions of these beliefs.

Trump’s stance on international human rights was similar in many ways to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s in the 1950s. Most notably, the Eisenhower administration abandoned American participation in international human rights treaties in the face of congressional pressure. When faced with the threat of a constitutional amendment — named for its chief proponent, Sen. John Bricker, R-Ohio — that would have limited executive branch prerogatives in foreign policymaking, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles promised the administration would not submit human rights treaties for Senate ratification.

President John F. Kennedy rejected Eisenhower’s skepticism about human rights when he arrived in the White House in 1961. Instead, Kennedy saw the Cold War utility of championing human rights. Criticizing other governments that violated the rights to due process, freedom of movement, participation in one’s own government and freedom from racial discrimination enabled him to portray the United States as superior to its Cold War adversaries; namely the Soviet Union and Cuba. Kennedy signaled his approach in a number of ways.

First, Kennedy declared in his inaugural address that a new generation of Americans was “unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.” His soaring rhetoric that day built upon his repeated discussion of human rights as a candidate; when he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination he asserted: “‘The Rights of Man’ — the civil and economic rights essential to the human dignity of all men — are indeed our goal and our first principles.”

Kennedy recognized America’s commitment to human rights needed to begin at home: “Only a party that understands human needs at home can understand the rising hopes of people overseas, and help them peaceably to find their way to freedom. Only a party that acts on behalf of the people at home can deserve leadership around the world.”

Kennedy affirmed, “If human rights and human dignity are not shared by every American, regardless of his race or his color, then those in other lands of other creeds and other colors, and they are in the majority, will treat our claims of a great democracy with suspicion and indifference.”

As president, Kennedy brought his rhetorical support for human rights to the United Nations, where he criticized Cuba’s treatment of political prisoners, condemned colonialism and apartheid and asserted his solidarity with the citizens of West Berlin trapped behind a wall.

In terms of policy, Kennedy announced a unilateral suspension of arms sales to South Africa and intervened in South Korean politics when that country’s leader sought to extend military rule. These steps signaled Kennedy’s opposition to apartheid and support for full participation in the political process. The Kennedy administration also feared that extending military rule in South Korea could lead to unrest, threaten South Korean stability and imperil American Cold War objectives on the Korean Peninsula.

Kennedy had the potential to be the first U.S. president to prioritize human rights abroad; yet, in office, he yielded to Cold War foreign policy priorities. For example, Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo’s status as a strong U.S. ally led the U.S. to ignore human rights violations there. Similarly, Kennedy’s administration often overlooked Portugal’s tight hold on its remaining colonies, given its status as an ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and because of American reliance on use of the Portuguese air base in the Azores.

Like Kennedy, candidate Biden said he would make human rights the “core of U.S. foreign policy.” He has an opportunity to build on that commitment by similarly championing human rights in his inaugural address and making early, key appointments, as Kennedy did, in the State Department that signal the priority he accords the issue.

Immediately thereafter, Biden has an opportunity to take additional steps to demonstrate the substance of his new approach. These include steps to disband Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, rejoining the U.N. Human Rights Council, lifting sanctions against and engaging with the International Criminal Court, reversing the politicization of the State Department’s annual human rights country reports, criticizing allies with abysmal human rights records such as Saudi Arabia and defending democracy in Hong Kong.

At home, Biden can work to address racial and religious discrimination in immigration, stamp out voter suppression, champion freedom of the press, reform the criminal justice system and eradicate systemic racism. All of these concerns are deeply connected to the larger goal of advancing human rights. On this platform Biden and his Cabinet could begin to assert moral leadership in the world.

Biden, like Kennedy, can demonstrate the depth of his administration’s commitment to human rights. Unlike his predecessor, Biden will be poised to sustain that commitment through the foreign policy challenges of subsequent years. Such an approach, which grounds human rights at the core of U.S. foreign policy, will enhance American power and strengthen its national security.

Sarah B. Snyder is a historian who teaches at American University’s School of International Service. She is the author of two award-winning books, “From Selma to Moscow: How Human Rights Activists Transformed U.S. Foreign Policy” and “Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War: A Transnational History of the Helsinki Network.”

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