The US Election and Human Rights

(The feature image is from GETTY IMAGES)

Dr. Todd Landman

Americans have a strong conviction that our country has a commitment to human rights. Whether this commitment centres on certain sets of ‘self-evident’ and inalienable rights protected through political and legal institutions or as the basis for pursuing foreign policy, rights run through our birth as a nation and through our history as a grand experiment in collective self-governance and as a global power.  

The history of the United States is one in which the advance of rights has partly closed the gap between de jurecommitment and de facto realisation. Women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, and minority rights have seen an expansion in their legal protection; however, these different advances have been highly contested, subject to partial reversal, and have not yet been fully realised for many. 

Moreover, some categories of rights, such as the right to health, remain alien to a country founded on rugged individualism and a deep suspicion of government control over what many perceive are private decisions. The United States is the only OECD country without universal healthcare and yet has the highest per capita expenditure on healthcare. Health inequality is high, in terms of both expenditure and outcomes.

The 2020 US Elections brought to high relief these different tensions between democracy, human rights, and the role of government in shaping the good life. Joe Biden’s victory projects a new lens on these fundamental questions for American democracy and its commitment to human rights, but it will not be a panacea.

Human Rights at Home

Biden repeatedly campaigned on Americans’ fundamental right to vote, while the challenges of running an election in a country severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic have been evident throughout all phases of this electoral cycle. Mixed measures for voting, rules for registration and eligibility, timing, and the final tabulations have all affected the sanctity of this fundamental right for all Americans to take part in the democratic process. Biden’s commitment to this right has been an important pillar to his success and will likely be a key feature of his time as President.   

The protection of minority rights will return under the new presidency, where Biden remains committed to the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and has pledged to provide a path to citizenship for the more than 820,000 people affected by this policy. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 saw the first African-American President, while the 2020 election of Kamala Harris as Vice President sees the first woman of colour to hold that office in history. The campaign also ran on addressing longer-term trends of institutional racism and a pledge to combat racial injustice, themes fuelled by the widespread social unrest following the police killing of George Floyd and other African-Americans. 

This past year will long be remembered for the outbreak and spread of COVID19 across the world, which also deeply affected the United States. Biden made combatting the pandemic a recurring theme of his candidacy through words and deeds. His early use of ‘basement broadcasts’ gave way to socially distanced campaign events, debates, and virtual town halls. He repeatedly supported the use of scientific evidence on how best to address the most serious public health crisis to affect the United States in over 100 years, and he has pledged to ‘listen to the scientists’ in crafting his response. 

Fundamental to his approach is a commitment to the right to health, which he will pursue during his presidency with reform of the Affordable Care Act to include a public mandate, new tax credits, expansion of coverage to low income Americans, protection of those with pre-existing conditions, and reduction of complexity in accessing healthcare. His commitment to healthcare does not go as far as full universal coverage evident in other developed countries and will be a highly contested feature of his presidency. 

The renewal of these and other rights commitments will be mediated and adjudicated through legal and political institutions, where the Republicans are likely to control the Senate, the Democrats to control the House, and a 6-3 conservative balance of power in the Supreme Court after the confirmation of Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett.  This separation of powers at the national level is coupled with variation of partisan control at the state and local level, where commitments to rights will continue to be debated and contested. 

Human Rights Abroad

There is a long held belief that US foreign policy is committed to democracy and human rights. The defeat of Nazism in World War II, and the foundational work of Eleanor Roosevelt and the United Nations helped bring about the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The rhetoric and reality of the US commitment to human rights, however, has vacillated through the years to include covert and overt foreign interventions, the use of extraordinary renditiontorture, and targeted assassination of foreign terror suspects using drones, as well as lukewarm support for the International Criminal Court.   

The tension between US national interest and international norms, rules, and laws has been a key feature of US Foreign policy during the ‘War on Terror.’ Biden is part of this policy world, both as Senator and as Vice President. He will, however, seek a return to multilateralism, repair strained alliances such as NATO, the EU, and other partners, and has already pledged to re-join the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal.  

Biden inherits ongoing conflicts around the world and significant foreign policy challenges with respect to trade, immigration, and terrorism. His renewed embrace of international institutions and a turn away from unilateral nationalism may reintroduce more attention to international human rights, but there are significant legacies and liabilities from his own record that should make human rights scholars and practitioners maintain their vigilance.

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Todd Landman is Professor of Political Science, Executive Director of the Rights Lab Beacon of Excellence, and Pro Vice Chancellor of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham. Previously, he was Professor of Government and Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Essex. He is author of Citizenship Rights and Social MovementsIssues and Methods in Comparative PoliticsProtecting Human RightsStudying Human RightsMeasuring Human Rights, and Democracy and Human Rights: The Precarious Triumph of Ideals. He is also host of The Rights Track podcast.  

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