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Human Rights Imperatives for Biden’s Summit

Human Rights Imperatives for Biden’s Summit

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward

Amb. Curtis A. Ward

(25 September 2021) – When U.S. President Joe Biden announced his Summit for Democracy and identified ‘advancing respect for human rights’ as one of three key themes for discussion it gave some encouragement to human rights advocates and hope to those who are victims of human rights abuses. It signaled a renewal of American support for human rights and a commitment by the Biden Administration to reclaim America’s moral high ground as a global advocate for human rights protection. But restoring American leadership on human rights internationally is a major undertaking. In addition to human rights the discussions on the challenges to democracy include ‘defending against authoritarianism’ and ‘addressing and fighting corruption’.

Pres. Joseph Biden, Jr.

Mistrust of America’s role on the global stage and the integrity of the so-called American core values, particularly related to democracy and human rights, descended to unprecedented new nadirs during the four years of former president Donald Trump’s administration. The very foundation of the integrity of American foreign policy engagements was destroyed by the “America First” policies of the Trump administration. President Biden was left with the task of rebuilding integrity and trust in America’s foreign policy from the ground up. His plan to bring the world’s foremost democracies together in a virtual Summit for Democracy is an important part of this geopolitical rebuilding process.

However, President Biden’s aim to restore trust in American core values in the defense of human freedoms abroad must begin at home. He must first correct major deficiencies in human rights protection at home, and he must rebuild confidence in and ensure the security of America’s democratic processes. Before American values can be accepted again as universal standards for other countries, the Biden administration must demonstrate the political will to undertake and focus on the task of fixing the problems in America, both in terms of the challenges to American democracy from within and the growth of human rights violations in the domestic space. The Biden administration must erase the unveiled systemic racism in America which exploded across the US and the world in 2020, by staunching the growth and countering the destructive effects of white extremism, xenophobia, misogynism, and Islamophobia which were openly abetted and supported by Trump’s administration policies.

On the international stage, protection of human rights was not a priority or given any level of importance in US foreign policy and geopolitical engagements during the four years of the Trump administration. Trump, as president, betrayed all principles of democracy by embracing and encouraging autocratic and autocratic-leaning heads of governments, and he ignored gross human rights violations by autocratic regimes around the world. Their often-egregious practices went unchecked. Upon reading Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) autocrats and that ilk of political leaders around the world must have concluded they had the imprimatur of the US president to abuse the human rights of their citizens and deny them their freedoms with impunity.

Importantly, it was not what Trump’s NSS said about the role of human rights in US foreign policy engagement, but it was what was omitted. Trump’s NSS referred to human rights only once and discussed democracy and freedoms sparingly and in a very narrow context.

In contrast, former president Barack Obama’s 2010 and 2015 National Security Strategies embraced the defense of human rights as central to American foreign policy engagements and US national security interests. According to former president Obama, America “will advocate for and advance the basic rights upon which our Nation was founded, and which peoples of every race and region have made their own. We will strengthen international norms that protect these rights, and create space and support for those who resist repression.” President Obama rejected “the notion that lasting security and prosperity can be found by turning away from universal rights.” He stated in his NSS that US support for universal rights is both fundamental to American leadership and a source of US strength in the world.

Specifically, President Obama’s NSS emphasized, that under his administration “The United States support democracy, human rights, and development together, as they are mutually reinforcing.” His NSS advocated high standards for “key institutions of democratic accountability – free and fair electoral processes, strong legislatures, civilian control of militaries, honest police forces, a free and independent press, a vibrant private sector, and a robust civil society.” Accordingly, the administration of former President Obama would “welcome all legitimately elected, peaceful governments, provided they govern with respect for the rights and dignity of all their people and consistent with their international obligations.” He rejected autocratic and corrupt regimes and embraced democratically elected leaders. He used his authority under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act judiciously to impose sanctions on human rights violators.

In setting the context for his Summit for Democracy, President Biden must not only return America to the standards practiced by the Obama-Biden administration but exceed them. The imperatives for advancing human rights must consider the impact of human rights abuses on the maintenance of international peace and security. The need to enhance respect for human rights as a key element of preventing conflicts must be elevated by the US on the UN Security Council agenda. The US must take the lead in protecting human rights while combating terrorism. The US has been found wanting in this regard in its “war on terrorism.” A new direction by the Biden administration must be demonstrated to ensure credible change is possible. The impact of human rights on international peace and security merits far greater discussion and analysis and will be covered later in The Ward Post.

The US must lead by example at home and abroad. Recent abuse by US Border Control agents of Haitian refugees on the border with Mexico reminds us that the mere change of a president and administration in Washington does not automatically correct the problems. Americans and the world were shocked and angered by the horrendous inhumane treatment of migrants from Central America by the Trump administration. We are equally shocked and angered by the initial inhumane treatment of Haitians under the Biden administration. The Border Control agents who served the Trump administration are the same serving the Biden administration. There must be cultural transformation within the agency, and non-conforming agents must be held accountable and removed. President Biden has stated that they will be held accountable and changes in the operations of border control agents are imminent. We look forward to these changes and the advancement of human rights in the treatment of immigrants.

© 2021 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post

For earlier articles on Summit for Democracy follow links below:

Biden’s Summit to address challenges to Democracy, Corruption, and Human Rights  

Corruption on Biden’s December Summit Agenda 


About the author

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward is a former Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of Jamaica to the United Nations with Special Responsibility for Security Council Affairs (1999-2002) serving on the UN Security Council for two years. He served three years as Expert Adviser to the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee. He is an Attorney-at-Law and International Consultant with extensive knowledge and experience in national and international legal and policy frameworks for effective implementation of United Nations (UN) and other international anti-terrorism mandates; the legal and administrative requirements to effectively implement and enforce anti-money laundering and countering financing of terrorism (AML/CFT); extensive knowledge of the legal and regulatory requirements for effective implementation and enforcement of United Nations multilateral and U.S.-imposed unilateral sanctions; and the imperatives for Rule of Law and governance. He is a geopolitical and international security analyst, and a human rights, democracy, and anticorruption advocate.


  • The term ‘Human Rights’ is used in a rather bland manner with assumptions of ‘second order’ rights without sparing a thought for how, actually, rights in the sense of ‘first order’ rights constitute the structural foundation upon which ‘rights’ in a holistic and comprehensive manner can be addressed.
    Food, shelter and clothing as the basic necessities in the social contract to sustain human existence is a necessary starting point. Consider, the West ( obviously, the US included) has largely overcome the provision of those basics for the majority of the population in their societies. Thus, the reference to ‘first order’ rights which provide the foundation upon which can effectively be built and meaningfully actualised for ‘second order’ rights effectively to exist – freedom of expression, right to assemble, freedom of association etc.

    Freedom and rights become mere ideological abstractions if one does not consider first conditions in a society which give rise to the actualisation of ‘survival rights’. Consider Haiti and the recent migrations as a practical example. What use in the abstract if the Haitian Constitution became a photocopy of the US Constitution tomorrow with all the built in protections and checks and balance duly stated in a legal paper. How would this then be actualised?

    Cart cannot move forward without the horse of survival leading the way otherwise Biden, as an otherwise rational and intelligent man, will be placing the cart of all those wonderful constitutional rights before the horse.

    • Mr. Barnett,
      Thank you for your comments.
      When we speak of ‘human security’ we are referring to some of the important fundamentals of “human right”. We are including all of the fundamentals of life – access to and guarantee of food, shelter, adequate health care, education, equal justice under law, protections against all forms of discrimination, and protection of all freedoms – religion, press, speech, assembly, etc. We don’t need to spell them out each time we use the term “protection/guarantee of human rights.” For those of us who are true advocates of human rights we should understand all the rights that are involved. It is not my responsibility or intention to do a tutorial on human rights each time I use the term. A little bit of research on the subject will fulfil that requirement.

      No country can claim perfection in the guarantee or protection of all rights, but the freedoms associated with democracy and rule of law in a free society allow us to advocate for those rights that are not fully accorded or guaranteed by each government. Human rights is an important pillar of democracy. I must also add that there are no “first order” or “second order” rights. All rights are important elements of a free civilized society.

      While I am not defending President Biden or the United States when it comes to human rights, it is my view that the United States is one of the very few countries that provide the best opportunity for achieving full implementation and guarantees of human rights. President Biden is taking a very important first step in returning America to the forefront of human rights advocacy. His planned Summit for Democracy is important for all of us who believe in democracy and rule of law, and certainly those of us who believe in the guarantee of human rights for all.

      • Ambassador Ward,
        I am grateful for you having taken the time to reply to my post.
        I note that you state:-
        “I must also add that there are no “first order” or “second order” rights. All rights are important elements of a free civilized society.”
        Myself a lawyer, I must respectfully beg to differ and state:-
        “Economic, social and cultural rights are socio-economic human rights, such as the right to education, right to housing, right to an adequate standard of living, right to health, victims’ rights and the right to science and culture. Economic, social and cultural rights are recognised and protected in international and regional human rights instruments.” ( I quote from Wikipedia).
        So, with respect, when one says, “all freedoms – religion, press, speech, assembly, etc.” same does not necessarily delimit the reality of what you quite astutely commented on in relation to Haitian migration in your carefully considered commentary. As you accurately and humanely observe, “Americans and the world were shocked and angered by the horrendous inhumane treatment of migrants from Central America by the Trump administration. We are equally shocked and angered by the initial inhumane treatment of Haitians under the Biden administration.” And Haiti is a good reference point for the observations I am making.
        Has the average Haitian actualised his/her right to “ an adequate standard of living”? Most definitely not. To my way of thinking, it is rather idealistic and an abstraction from reality not to focus first on those ‘survival right(s)’. Be it Biden or any other observer who merely says that all rights are encompassed and being addressed without the tangibles as to the realisation and improvements as glaringly exist before our eyes and request timely attention is engaging in no more or less than political well wishing and empty rhetoric without substance as regards directing words into constructive solutions.
        Without fear and/or favour I say that what I just made observation on is precisely what President Biden is engaged in coupled with more than no small measures of double-standards and hypocrisy when one more closely examines US foreign policy as pursued in the immediate post World War 11 era to the present day.
        Having expressed myself, I remain informed and grateful for your sharing of your experience and insights with the wider public.

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