Biden Nominees Signal Turn to Human Rights-Centered Leadership in Security and Foreign Policy

WASHINGTON – Tuesday’s Senate confirmation hearings strongly suggest that the Biden-Harris administration intends to move the United States government in positive new directions in terms of policy and philosophy. The nominees’ responses to many of the senators’ questions suggest a turn toward an era of human rights-centered leadership on the issues that are the work of Human Rights First and affect so many people.

At the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s hearing, Alejandro Mayorkas, the incoming administration’s nominee to be Secretary of Homeland Security underscored his deep commitment to upholding asylum law, saying, “The asylum laws are well established, and they provide that an individual who’s fleeing persecution by reason of his or her member[ship] in a particular social group is deserving of protection.”

Mayorkas also made clear his intention to end the Migrant Protection Protocols, the Trump administration policy Human Rights First has long opposed, “President-elect Biden has spoken of his commitment to end the Migration Protection Protocols, and I would execute on that commitment should I have the privilege of serving as secretary.”

Antony Blinken, the former vice-chair of Human Rights First’s board of directors and President Biden’s Secretary of State-designate, appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and reaffirmed President Biden’s pledge to put the strengthening of democracy and the protection of human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

Blinken committed to re-engage multilaterally in the defense of human rights, rather than ceding ground to abusive governments.  He told senators, “We can revitalize our core alliances—force multipliers of our influence around the world. Together, we are far better positioned to counter threats from Russia, Iran, North Korea, and to stand up for democracy and human rights. And in everything we do around the world, I believe that we can and we must ensure that our foreign policy is actually working to deliver for American working families here at home.”

Blinken also lauded targeted human rights and anti-corruption sanctions and committed to strengthening those efforts, saying, “We’ve gone from Magnitsky to global Magnitsky to different countries now adopting their own Magnitsky-like laws and now just recently the European Union. So I think this has been a tremendous success story in actually bringing the democratic countries of the world together and giving them an effective tool to actually push back against abuses of democracy and human rights.”

In response to a question from Senator Markey, Secretary-designate Blinken also affirmed his commitment to “repudiating the findings of the report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights.”

Regarding outdated but still operative war authorizations, Blinken said, “I think it’s long past time we revisit these [authorizations for the use of military force] and review them. In many instances, they have been cited and used in countries and against groups that were not part of the original authorization and so it’s long past time that we do this.”

Before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Lloyd Austin III, the new administration’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, touched on areas of importance to the work of Human Rights First, like extremism and racism in the military.

In his testimony, Gen. Austin said, “We owe our people a working environment free of discrimination, hate, and harassment, and if confirmed, I will fight hard to stamp out sexual assault and to rid our ranks of racists and extremists and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity.” He continued, “I truly believe that…if you’re fit and qualified to serve and can maintain the standards, then you should be allowed to serve.”

At her confirmation hearing in the Senate Intelligence Committee, President Biden’s now-confirmed Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines affirmed her commitment to make public an unclassified report documenting the role played by senior Saudi government officials in directing the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, as required by law.

Haines’ testimony also made clear her opposition to torture. “I believe that waterboarding is, in fact, torture — constitutes torture under the law,” she said.  “And all those techniques that use cruel and inhuman treatment are unlawful.”

Human Rights First’s work focuses on many issues that are the responsibility of the Departments of State, Homeland Security, and Defense, as well as the Directorate of National Intelligence.  We expect to work with these leaders, their departments, and those departments’ various agencies to make sure the administration’s work matches their insightful testimony.


Published on January 21, 2021


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