Washington needs a new approach to human rights promotion

Washington needs a new approach to human rights promotion - in China and beyond
6 min read

Rachel Esplin Odell

10 June, 2021
Opinion: Biden’s human rights agenda should run parallel, but separate, to geopolitical competition, writes Rachel Esplin Odell.
Protesters attend a rally in Hong Kong to show support for the Uighur minority in China on 22 December, 2019. [Getty]

In an address to Congress marking his first 100 days in office, President Joe Biden pitched a plan of domestic investment and revitalisation, galvanising Americans around the need to "win" a competition with China. He affirmed that, "America won't back away from our commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms," echoing a pledge by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to put human rights at the centre of US foreign policy. 

The change from the Trump administration's mockery of human rights is notable, but flaws in America's approach to human rights promotion did not begin and won't end with the Trump administration. The Biden administration's effort will not succeed without profound changes.

The Biden administration should compartmentalise human rights promotion from geopolitical competition. Our objections to human rights abuses by states like China, Russia, or North Korea should not be linked to efforts to contain those countries militarily or to compete with them economically. Likewise, we should not ignore human rights violations by others for purposes of coalition building. Wielding human rights abuses as a cudgel against adversaries while downplaying abuses by partners bolsters the notion that our human rights advocacy is politically motivated, potentially inducing a nationalist backlash in adversary states while exacerbating violations in partner states. Of course, this does not mean that the US should hector potential partners over abuses while ignoring those of rivals. Heavy-handed public lectures and punitive sanctions are likely to be counterproductive with friends and foes alike.

Instead, where the US exercises direct control - such as its own refugee policy, arms sales, train-and-equip programmes, or the practices of its companies overseas - it can do more to alleviate human rights abuses. America can provide targeted support to persecuted minority groups by welcoming more refugees and funding cultural preservation among diaspora populations. It can restrict arms sales and military aid that are funding human rights abuses, such as in the Philippines' violent war on drugs

Washington should act as a constructive member of the international system rather than unilaterally and selectively imposing its values on others, working within international fora like UN human rights institutions to strengthen norms around civic, political, religious, and indigenous rights. It should strengthen efforts to partner not only with European allies, but also nations from relevant geographic areas or cultural communities in order to persuade offending states to reform. The Biden administration's re-engagement in the UN Human Rights Council is an encouraging (if small) step in this direction.

Washington should also raise human rights abuses in direct dialogues with the governments in question, communicating the specific changes and improvements that the US wants to see. While such dialogue may result in little short-term progress, it sends an important signal that the US prioritises an issue and favours reform but is not seeking to use the issue to score geopolitical points or undermine the government in question.

Lastly, the US should recognise legitimate human rights concerns about America's own domestic and foreign policy and actively seek to address those concerns. While raising such concerns is sometimes dismissed as "whataboutism," it is undeniable that earnest efforts to improve our own human rights practices would make the US a more credible advocate for human rights abroad. If US leaders exhibited more awareness of our own human rights struggles, it would also help to disarm the retorts of authoritarian leaders who respond to criticism by decrying American's own abuses.

 Such an approach could be immediately applied to the Chinese government's ongoing repression against the Uighurs of Xinjiang. The US should centre its public advocacy for the Uighurs in multilateral institutions like the UN Human Rights Council, continuing to push for a UN investigation into China's actions in Xinjiang, ideally with unrestricted access to the region but even without such access. Having already worked with the EU, UK, and Canada in condemning these atrocities, the US should focus on encouraging Muslim-majority nations and countries in the Global South to press China to change course in Xinjiang. Efforts by those countries - which may look different than the public reproofs deployed by Western nations and could entail more direct, private expressions of concern - may be more effective in shaping Chinese government attitudes.

Uighur Crisis

In its direct engagement with Beijing, Washington should grandstand less in favour of private persuasion to illustrate how repression of Uighurs undermines not only US conceptions of rights but also China's own cultural values and constitutional precepts. US policymakers should be specific about the changes that need to be made — such as the closure of internment facilities, restoration of Uighurs' ability to communicate with family members outside Xinjiang, and elimination of forced labour transfers of Uighurs. US diplomats should also be clear that the US does not wish to weaken China and recognises the government's duty to ensure adequate public safety, while noting how the US has learned from its own mistakes that repression of ethnic and religious minorities is neither morally right nor conducive to genuine public safety. 

Meanwhile, the US can more directly aid Uighurs by offering them asylum and granting them priority group status in its refugee admissions programme, and by incentivising third countries, especially in Central Asia where most Uighurs outside of China live, not to extradite them to China. The US can also limit its own complicity in the crimes against Uighurs by urging American companies to ensure their supply chains do not include products made with forced labour from Xinjiang or elsewhere in China. 

Caution should be exercised though in the implementation of explicit or de facto bans on trade with Xinjiang that would devastate the region's economy and most harm marginalised people, including Uighurs. Efforts to eliminate forced labour in supply chains also ought to adopt a more sophisticated global approach not limited to China or reliant on broad bans on trade that weaken global economic integration.

Most importantly, US advocacy for the rights of Uighurs - and human rights more broadly - cannot be subsumed by the drive toward "great power competition" or a new cold war with China. Such a dynamic would endanger human rights not just in China - fueling a nationalist backlash and hardening Chinese defensiveness on human rights issues - but also worldwide. 

As in the 20th-century Cold War, assembling a coalition to contain a rival power would inevitably lead the US to align with and support other repressive regimes, so long as they are sufficiently opposed to China. This Cold War redux would also undermine cooperative efforts to combat climate change and could drive carbon-intensive arms racing and military conflict, which would, in turn, undermine human rights and well-being globally.

The repression of the Uighurs and the crackdown on Hong Kong - as with the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Myanmar, increasing abuses against Muslims in India, and other atrocities in the region and world - demand attention and action from the US government. In few cases, however, does Washington possess the means to directly stop these atrocities; rather, it must persuade or compel local actors to do so. This means that human rights promotion must be calibrated to maximise benefit to victimised populations while avoiding making the situation worse.

Rachel Esplin Odell is a Research Fellow in the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute and an expert in US strategy toward Asia, Chinese foreign policy, and maritime disputes. 

Follow her on Twitter: @resplinodell

This article was originally published by our friends at Responsible Statecraft.

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