Why U.S. Leadership Matters for the Global Defense, Protection and Promotion of Human Rights

An overarching human rights strategy to support the “globalization of freedom” is needed.


The United Nations General Assembly adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, France, on Dec. 10, 1948.
STF / AFP / Getty Images

Eleanor Roosevelt, president of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, holds a poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in November 1949.
FDR Presidential Library and Museum

The United States is founded on the simple, radical idea of universal human rights. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” our Declaration of Independence says, that just by being born human, a person gains rights that no one—including her own government—can violate without accountability. The Bill of Rights spells out rights to due process of law, free expression, religion, freedom of the press and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures and cruel and unusual punishments. These freedoms made the United States Constitution, in its time, into the world’s leading human rights instrument.

But these rights were not conceived as just an ideal for the good times. Before the world’s most cataclysmic war, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made clear that America was fighting for the “Four Freedoms”—freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from fear and want. In the war’s bloody aftermath, his widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, helped draft and promulgate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which more than 70 years later remains the seminal articulation of basic human rights. That declaration recognizes that equal and inalienable rights for “all members of the human family [are] the foundation of freedom, justice and peace.” These universal human rights include a wide range of rights, consistent with both the principles on which our country was founded and the more equal and inclusive rights that our Constitution has evolved to represent.

In these challenging times, at home and abroad, what should be the United States’ priorities for promoting and defending human rights? Historically, the United States has been a global leader in the creation and promotion of human rights. American diplomats, scholars, activists and nongovernmental organizations have all contributed to the dramatic global embrace of rights and remedies that became the international human rights movement, permanently altering governmental practice and forging international agreements and law.

Three Principles

At the turn of the millennium, when I was privileged to serve as assistant secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), I argued that the United States should conduct its 21st-century human rights policy according to three simple principles that still apply: (1) Always Tell the Truth; (2) Set an Example through our own domestic human rights practices; and (3) Act Consistently toward the Past, Present and Future. Simply put: toward past human rights abuses, consistently promote a policy of accountability combined with reconciliation; toward ongoing abuses, consistently engage bilaterally with foreign governments that violate human rights and multilaterally with allies and private civil society partners who can work with us to promote human rights improvements; and toward the future, consistently give early warning of impending human rights disasters, using preventive diplomacy to prevent atrocities, and supporting democracy worldwide as a long-term antidote against future human rights violations.

These three principles, I argued, should not be applied piecemeal or by the United States alone, but as part of an overarching human rights strategy to support the “globalization of freedom”—both as an end in itself and as a means to build a more humane process of globalization. Promoting global freedom and cooperation offers the best route to humane solutions to such vexing modern problems as cyberconflict, climate change, food insecurity, international crime and terrorism, transborder trafficking and refugee flows, income inequality and the spread of global disease (exemplified by COVID-19, which plagues us as these words are written).

During the last two decades, these global developments have exposed the negative face of globalization. The United States’ response has been “exceptional” in two senses. On one hand, the United States has at times been an exceptional leader, pioneering global advances in civil rights, freedom of expression and religion, and the rights of criminal defendants and minorities, particularly disabled persons and LGBTQ individuals. Yet, at other times, the country’s global influence has led leaders of both parties to claim exemption from the rules that bind weaker nations, creating a human rights double standard, with the United States on the lower rung. The United States’ ongoing challenge is how to prevent its impulses toward “negative exceptionalism” from weakening its “positive exceptionalism”: its global legitimacy and capacity to provide exceptional human rights leadership.

The present administration has too often chosen the lower rung. It has not consistently told the truth: spreading disinformation and prejudice, calling the truth “fake news,” and routinely attacking the free press, the intelligence community, the independent judiciary and what it calls the “deep state.” At home, the administration has set a disturbing example, relentlessly scapegoating foreigners and ordering draconian immigration measures, some that effectively discriminate based on religion. It has torn families apart and subjected refugees and immigrants—especially innocent children—to severe medical risk and psychological damage. Such policies are not just wrong in themselves; they effectively condone and encourage similar misbehavior by dictators abroad. Nor has the Trump administration shown consistency with regard to past, present or future human rights violations. It has declined to demand accountability toward the past, falling silent about the human rights abuses inflicted by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). The administration has been strikingly inconsistent in its human rights engagement: selectively criticizing human rights violations in Cuba, Iran and Venezuela, while conspicuously ignoring the same violations when committed by such “strategically important” foreign governments as Hungary, Poland and the Philippines.

President Donald Trump has rhetorically supported such leading human rights violators as MBS, Erdogan, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin. His short-term focus has hollowed out prior efforts to prevent future atrocities by strengthening early warning or using preventive diplomacy, and his administration has done little to build strong democracies to foster global cooperation. And it has unwisely weakened multilateral cooperation by exiting the United Nations Human Rights Council, undermining human rights in the U.N. Security Council and attacking the International Criminal Court, the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization. The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord will exacerbate climate change and food insecurity worldwide.

Where, instead, has the Trump administration chosen to devote its human rights energies?

The Commission on Unalienable Rights

When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched the Commission on Unalienable Rights in 2018, he acknowledged the “truly great achievements” of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But he conspicuously omitted the United States’ founding commitment to a “more Perfect Union”—an America built on inclusion and diversity that grants equal citizenship to minorities of color, women, the disabled, children, LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups. Instead, the commission has focused narrowly on religious freedom, not sustaining a global effort to protect all rights for all people. Some commission members seem more focused on limiting women’s reproductive rights and the rights of LGBTQ persons than on protecting an inclusive basket of 21st-century identities, activities and liberties.

U.S. law requires that a federal advisory committee “be fairly balanced in its membership in terms of the points of view represented and the functions to be performed”; but the commission’s composition visibly lacks ideological diversity. In erecting this unneeded body, the administration has both diverted much-needed resources from and sidelined career human rights experts in the State Department’s own Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, the dedicated entity charged by law with advising the Secretary on human rights issues.

The 1993 Vienna Declaration of Human Rights famously recognized that “all human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis.” But the commission’s initial meetings suggest that, instead, it is picking and choosing among those rights it chooses to deem “unalienable”—particularly religious freedom and, within that, Judeo-Christian freedom—and those it now deems “ad hoc,” establishing the kind of artificial hierarchy of rights usually mouthed by autocrats.

Promoting global freedom and cooperation offers the best route to humane solutions to vexing modern problems.

Yet like all governments, the United States is legally bound to obey all international human rights obligations embedded in customary international law or treaties that the United States has ratified. The fundamental rights enshrined in the UDHR encompass not just freedom of thought, conscience and religion, but also the rights of immigrants; the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; and the right to equal protection from discrimination; as well as such crucial economic, social and cultural rights as the right to health, including reproductive health.

The commission’s initiative to reframe a distinctively U.S. version of human rights gives license to every other country to define for itself which human rights it will choose to recognize: Compare this effort with China’s claim to respect only those “human rights with Chinese characteristics.” Should the commission continue down this path, its work will only sharpen the U.S. reputation for “negative exceptionalism” and diminish our “positive exceptionalism”: our long-term capacity to lead international human rights institutions and innovation.

By downgrading and slanting the role of human rights, this administration has not just rejected the bipartisan foreign policy pursued by many past administrations; it has rejected a time-tested approach to international cooperation to promote human rights and advance the rule of law. When I served as DRL assistant secretary under Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, we worked to pioneer a continuing State Department initiative to build a “Community of Democracies.” That initiative’s simple underlying notion—echoing Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace (1795)—was that law-abiding nations should live not under world government, but in a law-governed international society, where free sovereign states can engage in mutual discourse to achieve shared goals based on shared respect for the rule of law.

A Global System to Promote Human Rights

Remarkably, after World War II, the United States helped to erect a version of the global system that Kant envisioned. Through the Marshall Plan, the United States supported the revival of an economically united Europe, led by the European Union and protected by NATO, that became our indispensable global partner in promoting human rights. This approach to global governance formed the basis for the United Nations—our system to end war and promote human rights—and associated international institutions to govern international monetary flows, trade and development. The United States became the indispensable balance wheel of a values-driven system of global governance that empowered like-minded nations to organize ambitious multilateral attacks on all manner of world problems.

The last few years have offered instead a disturbing counter-vision—hauntingly evocative of the “spheres of influence” painted by George Orwell’s 1984—of a system where global megapowers are increasingly indistinguishable from one another in their authoritarianism and commitment to disinformation. These great powers ignore the violation of human rights and the rule of law in other spheres and violate them within their own, forging cynical alliances and manipulating public opinion to make today’s adversaries tomorrow’s allies. Physical and economic barriers are going up everywhere; European unity is cracking; and the global commitment to human rights and the rule of law seems to be eroding. Without consistent U.S. leadership, we risk returning to the balkanized world that helped bring about the devastations of the last century.

As a nation, we must ask: Are we really ready to follow this dead end? If we downgrade human rights in favor of a more “pragmatic” foreign policy, what makes us different from any other country? After all, advancing human rights is our founding national credo. Abandoning America’s leadership role is both contrary to our interests and risks further global destabilization.

It is a false dichotomy to claim that a pragmatic foreign policy must “balance” the pursuit of our national interests with the preservation of our fundamental values, including the defense and protection of human rights. Paramount among our national interests must always be the preservation of our fundamental values. For ours is not a country built on a common race, ethnicity or religion. Instead, America is an idea: “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” If we do not consistently defend, protect and promote human rights at home and abroad, we will lose our distinctive national identity.

Particularly in a time of COVID-19, climate change and refugee outpourings, U.S. leadership matters in the global defense, protection and promotion of human rights. The coronavirus pandemic has unveiled the close global intertwining of environment, health, economy and human rights. Climate-caused injury destroys animal habitats, triggering zoonotic (animal-to-human) diseases, causing pandemics that shatter lives, exacerbating income inequality and spurring the rise of authoritarian governments that perpetuate climate injury. Unless we break this vicious cycle, more pandemics will surely come.

This unsettling moment of instability and uncertainty makes it all the more urgent that we get back to first principles, both at home and abroad. There is still time to return our human rights policy to simple values: telling the truth, setting an example, and pursuing a consistent vision of human rights protection for the past, present and future.

Harold Hongju Koh is Sterling Professor of International Law at Yale Law School. He has served as the State Department Legal Adviser (2009-2013) and as assistant secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (1998-2001).