Updated Jan 14, 2022 - World

HRW criticizes Biden over "mixed signals" on human rights

President Biden speaking at Atlanta University in Atlanta on Jan. 11.

Photo: Dustin Chambers/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Human Rights Watch criticized President Biden and other leaders of democratic nations for sending "mixed signals" on human rights in its annual World Report published on Thursday, saying they "are not meeting the challenges before them."

Why it matters: Though Biden pledged to put human rights at the center of his foreign policy, HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth wrote that weapon sales to repressive governments and public reticence on certain human rights violations place those promises in question.

  • The report also accused Biden and other Western leaders of failing to make a strong enough case for democracy to counter the global rise of authoritarianism.

What they're saying: "Biden took office promising a foreign policy that would be guided by human rights. But he continued to sell arms to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel despite their persistent repression," Roth wrote.

  • "During key summits, Biden seemed to lose his voice when it came to public denunciation of serious human rights violations," he added.
  • "The US State Department has issued occasional protests about repression in certain countries, and in extreme cases the Biden administration introduced targeted sanctions on some officials responsible, but the influential voice of the president was often missing."
  • Roth clarified that Biden contrasts sharply with former President Trump's "embrace of friendly autocrats when he was US president."

HRW also specifically criticized French President Emmanuel Macron for condemning the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang but being "blind" to violations in Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Myanmar.

  • It said German Chancellor Angela Merkel undermined Europe's condemnation of crimes against humanity in Xinjiang by helping negotiate an unconditional European Union investment deal with China.
  • "[If] democratic officials continue to fail us, if they are unable to summon the visionary leadership that this demanding era requires, they risk fueling the frustration and despair that are fertile ground for the autocrats," Roth wrote.
  • "If democracies are to prevail in the global contest with autocracy, their leaders must do more than spotlight the autocrats’ inevitable shortcomings. They need to make a stronger, positive case for democratic rule."

"The struggle for human rights can’t be won in a single year," a state department spokesperson said in a statement.

  • "This Administration does not and will not approve arms transfers where we believe there is significant risk of diversion, civilian harm, or misuse, including human rights abuses," they added.
  • "We are ensuring that our relationships in the [Middle East] better reflect our interests and our values, while also reaffirming our commitment to help our partners defend themselves and deter external aggression."

The big picture: Other international organizations concerned about human rights and the global status of democracy have also recently warned that autocratic countries, like Russia and China, are on the rise.

  • The nonprofit Freedom House said the world is in a "long democratic recession" and estimated that democracy improved in only 28 countries in 2021 and worsened in 73.
  • The European think tank International IDEA concluded in a report that the number of "backsliding democracies" had doubled over the past decade and the number of countries moving in an authoritarian direction since 2020 outnumbered those going in a democratic direction.

Go deeper ... Democracy vs. China: Biden's top priorities are sometimes in conflict

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