Biden-Harris Administration: Dawn of a New Era?

As Joseph R. Biden, Jr  assumed office as President of the United States of America, he faces a plethora of issues ranging from bringing back majority of troops from war fronts in Afghanistan and Middle East to one of the most significant issue of protection of human rights  that requires the US in complying with its obligations under the International Human Rights Law  by protecting the human rights of its people and at an international level. This is something that US has done in the past by writing the rules, forging the agreements, strengthening the institutions that regulate relations among nations and advancing security under both Republican and Democratic Presidents such as the Universal Deceleration of Human Rights which laid the foundation for the International Bill of Rights that include covenants on civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights and the UDHR itself.

What needs to be understood, is the contradiction in the approach that US has adopted in past when it becomes part of international human rights covenants but refuses to enforce its obligations at the municipal level. To make matters worse, the US Supreme Court in the judgement  of  Medellin v. Texas had ruled that  the President  cannot obligate the states to comply with treaty obligations that means even though the obligations  constitute international commitment , it cannot be implemented unless the Congress enacts a separate legislation or the treaty under consideration is “self-executing” which does not require enactment of a separate legislation.

As of 2020, only two  ratifications of human rights treaties resulted in the changes of the US domestic laws and the governmental policies. One of which is holding those responsible both criminally and civilly for committing torture and other mistreatment and the other being the outlawing of genocide under the conventions dealing with torture (UNCAT) and prevention and prohibition and of genocide.

It cannot be overemphasized that the foremost issue which the Biden-Harris administration would have to deal with is the strengthening of the internal administration in the US such as a divided Congress, resistant federal judiciary and loss of faith on the competence and credibility of the UN  system organizations.     

Coming to the last four years under Trump administration, the consistent pulling out of treaties after treaties, mass migration and rise in authoritarianism and nationalism has resulted in grave violations because of which the group that has suffered the most are the refugees. As soon as Trump administration took charge, the entry of Syrian refugees were indefinitely suspended as well as the refugee admission ceiling for nationals from other countries were reduced and the most staggering step was banning nationals of 11 countries including Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen that has been revoked by the Biden administration.

Most recently, former President Trump and his administration labeled the Houthis  as “foreign terrorist organization”  that has limited the humanitarian support provided to the people in Northern Yemen that is controlled by Ansar Allah movement i.e. the Houthis. However, the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken has stated that the administration would review the designation keeping in mind the hindrance caused to supply of humanitarian assistance especially in times of COVID -19

From an international perspective, the US needs to take charge and the Biden administration needs to prioritize certain issues affecting the international human rights regime. The foremost priority being commitment to multilateralism by playing  a proactive role in the working of the HRC by rejoining the same ; reestablishing the funding of UN agencies which has been initiated by Biden administration by rejoining the WHO  and most significantly ratifying the core international human rights treaties  dealing with issues like economic, social and cultural rights ; rights of persons with disabilities , elimination of discrimination against women and rights of child.

Further, in order to show its commitment toward diplomatic relations, the US should reinvest in treaty alliances with countries like Australia, Japan and South Korea and integrate Latin American and African countries as well as deepen partnerships with countries in Asia like India, Indonesia etc. especially given the increase in the interventionist activities of China  through its bullying diplomacy and extraterritorial belligerence and the recent military coup in Myanmar combined with the treatment meted out to the Rohingya community in the past

For US to emerge as the torchbearer of peace and harmony, it needs to establish National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs)  that aim to promote and monitor implementation and compliance with human rights obligations. The setting up of NHRIs  would eventually help the US to re-emerge as global leader of human rights that sets an example for others to follow . This would  further strengthen the belief and hope from the Biden-Harris administration to deliver on its promise that democracy and liberalism will triumph over  fascism and autocracy.

Taking a step further, the Biden-Harris administration should emphasize policies that provide clear, simultaneous benefits at home whose impacts are visible and tangible given the death of George Floyd at the hand of  Minneapolis Police Department which led to mass protests over the whole country and around the world .

Seen in this light, the US needs to assume the role that is expected from them by taking along all the concerned stakeholders and building partnerships and most significantly taking the lead and establishing the NHRIs to show its seriousness towards the cause of international peace and security that would mean less rhetorical emphasis on the abstract cause of “the liberal international order” and more practical demonstrations of the United States’ distinctive ability to deliver on issues that matter right to the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

Such expectations were also expressed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who hopes that issues like refugee resettlement in US;  return of US to the U.N. Human Rights Council confronting racial discrimination  and  acting upon the reversal of orders on issues pertaining to US Mexico border that the Biden administration  has already issued.

Abhinav Mehrotra
Abhinav Mehrotra
I am Assistant Professor at OP Jindal Global University, India.. I hold an LL.M. in International Human Rights Law from University of Leeds . My research interests include International Law, Human Rights Law, UN studies, Refugee law, Child Rights and Transitional Justice.