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Boardman writes: "Addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council on February 24, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had an opportunity to demonstrate the Biden administration's break with the past by establishing a new level of human rights leadership. He failed."

President Joe Biden. (photo: Saul Loeb/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden. (photo: Saul Loeb/Getty Images)

Biden's Flaccid Stance on Human Rights Offers Little Hope

By William Boardman, Reader Supported News

28 February 21


ddressing the United Nations Human Rights Council on February 24, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had an opportunity to demonstrate the Biden administration’s break with the past by establishing a new level of human rights leadership. He failed. Judging by Blinken’s speech, the US is determined to break no new ground in a world awash in continuing human rights atrocities.

To be sure, Blinken began with the high-minded rhetoric expected on such occasions:

I’m here to reaffirm America’s commitment to respect and defend the human rights of all people, everywhere. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims: all human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated.

Blinken needs to “reaffirm” America’s commitment because President Trump broke it in June 2018 when he pulled the US out of the Human Rights Council for, in effect, failing to hew to US policy, especially with regard to Venezuela, Iran, and Israel. As the US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley diplomatically said at the time, the council is a “protector of human rights abusers, and a cesspool of political bias.” She added that “America should not provide it with any credibility.”

Blinken, by avoiding any reference to such past unpleasantness, in effect claimed that America always held the moral high ground. That’s not only an expression of the myth of American exceptionalism, it’s a claim that has never been more than selectively true. It would not be offensive if the Biden administration showed any evidence that it would live up to the standards of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Blinken made no such express promise.

Blinken’s issue of greatest concern – one the Trump administration made into an excuse for leaving the council – was the council’s treatment of Israel:

As the United States reengages, we urge the Human Rights Council to look at how it conducts its business. That includes its disproportionate focus on Israel. We need to eliminate Agenda Item 7 and treat the human rights situation in Israel and the Palestinian Territories the same way as this body handles any other country.

This has about it a superficial veneer of fairness: address Israel with the same process as is used for every other country. But the US has never done that, time and again protecting Israeli predation with a UN veto or massive military firepower. Until the US shows some willingness to recognize Palestinians as human, the US has no moral ground for calling out anyone else. The reality in Israel/Palestine has long been brutal, with the Israelis committing the overwhelming majority of human rights abuses against Palestinians over more than seven decades.

That is the only issue Blinken highlighted. In terms of policy, this position is hardly different from Trump’s, except in tone. This is a huge and useless continuity in American policy that has failed and failed again.

After another half-dozen paragraphs of decent-sounding human rights boilerplate generalizations, Blinken outlines some specifics of US foreign policy under Biden, a list most remarkable for its omissions:

We will continue to call out abuses in places like Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Iran. We reiterate our call for the Russian government to immediately and unconditionally release Alexei Navalny, as well as hundreds of other Russian citizens wrongfully detained for exercising their rights. We will speak out for universal values when atrocities are committed in Xinjiang or when fundamental freedoms are undermined in Hong Kong. And we are alarmed by the backsliding of democracy in Burma, which is why our first action upon re-engaging the Council was on this very crisis.

We encourage the Council to support resolutions at this session addressing issues of concern around the world, including ongoing human rights violations in Syria and North Korea, the lack of accountability for past atrocities in Sri Lanka, and the need for further investigation into the situation in South Sudan.

If you stop to think about it for a nanosecond, this is a depressingly backward-looking manifesto. This is not a call for meaningful action so much as a ridiculous knee-jerk expression of Cold War values. It makes a mockery of Blinken’s proclamation that “The United States is fully committed to the universal protection and promotion of human rights.” The US may have had good days in the past, but the US has never been fully committed to the universal protection and promotion of human rights.

Continuing to “call out abuses in places like Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Iran” is a stale ritual denunciation of countries we have victimized for decades, from imposing dictatorships to conducting economic warfare. These are countries to which we have long owed an olive branch, no matter what human rights issues they may have. US judgment here is narrow, political, one-sided, and mindless.

No one with a serious commitment to human rights should single out Cuba and fail to breathe a word about Haiti, a country whose sufferings include more than 200 years of US predation.

No one of decent conscience should single out Venezuela without addressing the decades of suppression and murder the US has supported in Colombia.

No one with any sense of moral balance could single out Nicaragua while ignoring the destruction the US continues to support in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Nicaragua treats refugees from those wretched US “friends” better than the US does.

No one with a rational view of the Middle East could pretend that the worst place in the region is Iran. Surely Saudi Arabia is worse, a vicious family police state that oppresses women and foreigners, wages aggressive war on its neighbor Yemen, and executes a US-based journalist in the most blood-curdling fashion in a foreign country with hardly a ripple of official displeasure from the US, even now. Saudi Arabia commits crimes against humanity on a daily basis, but the US doesn’t call out such abuses.

American hypocrisy covers the region. Authoritarian governments go unreprimanded by Blinken, from the petty despots of Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar, to the war criminals of the United Arab Emirates, to the torture regime of Egypt, to the merciless genocides in Syria (mentioned in passing) and Turkey. Yes, the behavior of some of these states makes Israeli treatment of Palestinians look benign in brutal comparison, but the US Secretary of State called out none of them and showed no sign of shame.

Blinken pulled his punches with Russia and China, with nary a word about Crimea or Tibet. He cited North Korea and he mentioned Burma but not Thailand, Sri Lanka but not India, South Sudan but not Somalia (another victim of American diplomacy).

Early in his speech, Blinken wrapped the cloak of American exceptionalism around America’s own human rights record:

The United States is placing democracy and human rights at the center of our foreign policy, because they are essential for peace and stability. This commitment is firm and grounded in our own experience as a democracy – imperfect and often falling short of our own ideals, but striving always for a more inclusive, respectful, and free country.

This is traditional American hogwash. America promotes peace and stability by making war on Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, among others, and by basing American troops in more than 80 countries, including some of the most hideous human rights violators. It is a myth that the US is “striving always for a more inclusive, respectful, and free country.” The historical record is a bit more spotty than that, as descendants of slaves and native peoples know all too well. Perhaps we are moving into a period of progress, but current US human rights atrocities still include the treatment of migrants and migrant children, the treatment of prisoners in a time of plague, and the tolerance of widespread poverty in the richest nation on earth. Addressing such issues in generalities, Blinken put a pollyanna gloss on them.

The American Secretary of State has delivered a foreign policy speech that could have been delivered a decade or two ago and would have been a skewed vision of the world then. The only new element here is that the US is rejoining the Human Rights Council, something of a minimum requirement. That reflects the reality that Trump is gone, at least for now. That also reflects a point of view that everything was hunky-dory before Trump. It wasn’t. Trump is gone. That’s good. If he’s replaced by some imaginary version of the past, that’s not hopeful, it’s awful.

William Boardman has over 40 years' experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary and a stint with Captain Kangaroo. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. A collection of his essays, EXCEPTIONAL: American Exceptionalism Takes Its Toll, published September 2019, is available from Yorkland Publishing of Toronto or Amazon.

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