Human Rights First Statement on Human Rights Day 2020

NEW YORK – On December 10, 1948, nations from around the world formally adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a document imbued with the lessons of devastating war. In its preamble, the declaration affirms that upholding the human rights of all “is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Today, we celebrate Human Rights Day with the many brave activists and everyday people who, often at great personal risk, protect human dignity, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law.

“This Human Rights Day, we recommit to turning the United States toward more human rights-centered policies,” said Michael Breen, CEO and president of Human Rights First.  “With a new administration, and Vice-Chair of our Board of Directors Tony Blinken nominated to serve as Secretary of State, our expectations are high for real systemic changes that positively impact human rights around the globe.”

Since the last Human Rights Day, Human Rights First has worked to mitigate the Trump administration’s varied efforts to undercut human rights in our country and around the world, and worked to set conditions for rights-respecting policies in 2021 and beyond.

We expanded the reach of NGOs, lawyers, and governments working to hold corrupt actors and human rights violators accountable through targeted sanctions. Our efforts helped bring the expansion of “Global Magnitsky”-like sanctions programs to the U.K. and European Union. And we aided in implementing the first-ever sanctions against top Chinese officials responsible for the ethnic cleansing of China’s Uyghur population and other ethnic minorities.

We demonstrated how the administration used the pandemic as a pretext to undercut the U.S. asylum system. We fought the administration’s many onerous policies meant to block asylum seekers from entering the United States, like the ill-named “Migrant Protection Protocols,” and documented the harm that these policies have caused asylum seekers.

We also led a partnership of human rights advocates and public health experts to contest the Trump administration’s co-option of Centers for Disease Control in order to shut the border to asylum seekers under the spurious justification of preventing the spread of COVID-19. We used advocacy and courts from California to New Jersey to win the release of asylum seekers from immigration detention.

Human Rights First and our partner firms represented 2,233 people pro bono, helped 53 clients and family members win asylum, and connected almost a thousand people to social services.  In total, our pro bono partners contributed over $60M in free services to our clients since the last Human Rights Day.

We rallied retired flag officers and other military veterans to oppose the administration’s plans to deploy the armed forces into America’s streets following racial justice protests.  And during the 2020 presidential election, we initiated Vets Power the Polls, a program that brought almost one thousand veterans back into the service as poll workers in states across America.

Through the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which is being voted on by the Senate today, we worked to ensure that the Department of Defense erases the names of Confederate military figures from America’s military bases.

We also advocated for the NDAA to include reforms to the Department of Defense’s “1033” program, limiting the transfer of military-grade equipment to law enforcement agencies.  As Human Rights First’s Mike Breen and Representative Anthony Brown (D-MD)—both Army veterans—noted in a Baltimore Sun op-ed, these transfers blur the line between our military and law enforcement, and risk undermining public support for both.

And as we look to the future, we developed a series of in-depth policy recommendations for how the Biden-Harris administration can re-center U.S. foreign policy around the protection of human rights. Our series, Walking the Talk: 2021 Blueprints for a Human Rights-Centered U.S. Foreign Policyprovides policymakers with a guide for reasserting a commitment to the universal rights upon which security and prosperity rely.


Published on December 10, 2020


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