Last month, a number of human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch sent a joint letter to the Biden administration with a plea for the life of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. Al-Khawaja is the 62-year-old co-founder of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. He has been imprisoned by the dictatorial government of Bahrain for 12 years, and “subjected to severe physical, sexual, and psychological torture.” His health has been deteriorating, and he has been denied necessary medical care. Al-Khawaja is currently on a hunger strike along with hundreds of other political prisoners in the country. The dictatorship in Bahrain is infamously brutal, and this kind of dissent is rare.
In their letter to the Biden administration, the human rights organizations implored the president to use his leverage with Bahrain to secure the release of al-Khawaja. But they needn’t have bothered sending their letter. A few days ago, the Biden administration happily agreed to sign a new security pact with Bahrain, and only a tiny passage at the end of the announcement mentions human rights.
The pact is a legally binding agreement that commits the U.S. to defending Bahrain in military disputes with other countries. The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft pointed out that the U.S. commitment to defending Bahrain has no compelling justification: “For the United States to commit itself in advance to take the side of some other country that becomes involved in an international conflict is an extraordinary step that is justified only under extraordinary circumstances.” The regime does not in face an external threat, even. Rather, “to the extent the regime in Bahrain faces a security threat, it involves not external aggression but instead internal strife stemming from an unpopular Sunni regime repressing a largely Shia population.”
The Biden administration, in announcing its “comprehensive security integration and prosperity agreement” with the dictatorship, boasted of all the ways that the partnership will involve “enhancing deterrence, including through expanded defense and security cooperation, interoperability, and mutual intelligence capacity-building.” . As for human rights, we are just told that both countries agreed that human rights are important and will continue to “engage in constructive dialogue on the importance of universal values, human rights, and fundamental freedoms.”
Biden’s embrace of the dictatorship must have been bitterly disappointing for Maryam al-Khawaja, the daughter of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. She told NPR that as her father’s condition has deteriorated, so far there had nothing but “lip service” from the U.S. government on human rights. The security agreement “angered and disappointed Bahraini activists and other critics of the Gulf monarchy, which crushed an uprising that swept the kingdom in 2011, during the Arab Spring.”
It’s clear the Biden administration couldn’t care less what the activists against the Bahraini dictatorship wanted. It would have been very easy to say to Bahrain: we’re not going to commit to a military partnership with you while you continue to hold political prisoners. The U.S., as the Institute for Responsible Statecraft pointed out, has no actual “national security” interest in defending Bahrain. But the administration has been trying to strengthen ties with Persian Gulf states to counter China and Russia in its competition for global dominance. The human rights of Bahraini activists are considered unimportant next to the geostrategic goal of remaining more powerful than the other large countries.
The pattern is consistent. Biden believes that U.S. global power matters far more than freedom and democracy. As a result, he has totally ignored the pleas of human rights activists to exert even mild pressure on authoritarian regimes.
Consider the case of Egypt. Earlier this month, the U.S. “approved $235 million in military aid for Egypt that it had withheld for the past two years because of the country’s repressive policies.” The details of the policy are ugly. That money was legally only supposed to be provided to Egypt if it met basic conditions of human rights. Eleven members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee sent a letter to Biden imploring him to withhold the aid, citing Egypt’s jailing of “journalists, peaceful civil society activists, human rights defenders and political figures.” Biden ignored the plea and waived the legal requirement that Egypt respect basic human rights in order to receive this aid. The New York Times says the administration concluded that “national security interests outweigh congressionally mandated benchmarks for Egyptian progress on human rights.” Of course, nobody ever says how our “national security” is served by giving Egypt hundreds of millions of dollars without imposing any of the human rights requirements that Congress had demanded. Egypt has certainly learned the lesson that it need not make any human rights concessions to the U.S., because the money will keep flowing regardless. Biden’s administration concluded, according to the Times, that “America’s relationship with the most populous country in the region is too important to risk fracturing despite pleas from human rights activists for a much harder line from Washington.”
Incredibly, the Times reminds us that “the remaining $980 million in annual U.S. military aid [to Egypt] is not subject to human rights conditions.” This means that the Biden administration wasn’t even being asked to withhold all aid, just the part of the aid that is legally subject to human rights conditions. They wouldn’t even do that, despite the pleas of Human Rights Watch to go further than the initial symbolic withholding of the minor fraction of the aid in previous years. Because, as I say, Joe Biden couldn’t care less about human rights.
We can go around the world and see the same tendency, over and over. None of it gets much attention in the press, because the U.S. press generally isn’t very interested in how our country’s policies affect people in other countries. For instance, buried in a Times article on the increasing number of coups in the world is the observation that “The United States…has repeatedly carved out exceptions to laws requiring foreign aid to be cut off after coups, particularly in countries where national security interests make the US reluctant to jeopardize its relationship with military leaders.” The U.S. makes it clear that it doesn’t care whether a leader came to power in a coup, but about whether they loyally serve U.S. interests abroad. (Note how “national security” is once again invoked as a justification without any explanation as to how sucking up to coup leaders ultimately makes us safe.)
Some examples are extreme. Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia had a Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, dismembered with a bone saw. The Biden administration, despite concluding that MBS was responsible for the murder, decided not to do anything because the “diplomatic cost” would be “too high.” They even granted MBS legal immunity for the killing. (When that news was made public, Khashoggi’s ex-fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, commented “Jamal died again today…We thought maybe there would be a light to justice from #USA But again, money came first.”) Biden even gave MBS a fist bump, which appalled the publisher of the Washington Post, who was understandably aggrieved at the premeditated murder of one of the paper’s writers. Once again, human rights groups warned that Biden’s refusal to impose any standards would encourage “further violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.” Once again, the Biden administration’s response was that U.S. global power matters much more than human lives.
The killing of Khashoggi was not the only atrocity by the Saudi regime that the Biden administration ignored (and thereby implicitly condoned). Last year, the U.S. found out that Saudi Arabia was murdering Ethiopian migrants at its border, but the Biden administration “chose not to raise the issue publicly.” Eventually, the government did say that they “remain concerned by alleged abuses against migrants,” but doing anything to try to stop Saudi Arabia from engaging in mass murder has just not been on the U.S. agenda. Of course, despite the Saudi government’s atrocities in Yemen, the U.S. has consistently sold arms to the country. Biden is reportedly now negotiating a defense pact with Saudi Arabia, which as foreign policy analyst Matt Duss notes, would mean “committing U.S. men and women to defend a repressive autocracy in hopes of boxing China out of the region.” In other words, we’d not just be willing to sell Saudi Arabia arms, but actually go to war for them. As Daniel DePetris observes in TIME, it “would in effect turn U.S. soldiers, sailors, fighter pilots, and marines into security guards for the Saudi royal family running the kingdom.”
It’s been the same with India’s Narendra Modi. Biden warmly embraced Modi (again, in part to counter the power of Russia and China). The Times reported that “even as Mr. Biden treated Mr. Modi to a coveted state dinner at the White House in June, the news media in India has come under pressure, opposition figures face legal threats and Hindu supremacists have impunity to attack mosques and harass religious minorities.” As TIME’s Knox Thames reported, for Indian democracy activists, it can be very frustrating to see the U.S. “pretending that all is well in India”:
Indian activists and political analysts I contacted all expressed deep concern about the state of affairs, most only agreeing to talk off the record. One highlighted, “Serious violations of human rights, especially of Muslims, Christians, and other minorities, and of human rights defenders and dissenters, have been increasing in India over the past years, some becoming widespread and systematic.” Another analyst described the defamation case against opposition leader Rahul Gandhi as “pure vendetta politics.” A third activist spoke of the ongoing “desecration, destruction and torching of over 300 Churches in Manipur [that] is unprecedented in the history of religious violence in India,” which continues in India’s far east.
In this case, Biden actually took what, for him, was an extreme step in the direction of protecting human rights: he “raised the issue.” That is to say, when meeting with Modi, he said something like: the United States is very concerned about human rights. And Modi replied: human rights are very important. And Biden said: Good, I am glad we agree that I have raised the issue and that you have affirmed that human rights are important. As the Khashoggi incident showed, this approach means the U.S. goes silent even when its allies engage in outright murder. Recently the Canadian government said it was investigating the Indian government’s possible role in assassinating a Sikh Canadian citizen. As the Times reports, this puts Biden in an awkward position, because his administration tries to avoid alienating autocratic allies by mentioning their crimes. So far the administration has just said it is “deeply concerned,” and a member of the National Security Council assured the press that the administration has been “taking steps to push back on this practice [i.e. murdering dissidents].”1
The Biden administration’s basic policy is to put “interests before values,” which means that countries that murder people and suppress free speech are not even given a slap on the wrist if we would like to get something out of them. The most that happens is the U.S. will put out a statement saying that it has “concerns” and that it trusts these concerns are shared by all parties. As Carolyn Nash of Amnesty International observed after Biden’s visit, “the Biden administration is clearly sidelining human rights in the interest of advancing partnerships with governments it sees as strategically important – and sending a message that the U.S. is willing to tolerate blatant failures to protect and uphold human rights.”
Same with Israel. Israel is an extreme human rights violator and rules over an outright apartheid state. The Biden administration has, of course, not done anything to try to rein in Israel’s crimes or get it to stop occupying and dispossessing Palestine. In fact, even telling the truth that Israel is an apartheid state (a conclusion shared by the major human rights organizations) is not allowed; a professor who used that language had his nomination to a human rights position dropped by the administration. When Israel killed an Al Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, rights advocates decried the Biden administration’s indifferent response as “abhorrent.” The executive director of Amnesty International USA said Biden’s deference to Israel in the case was “symptomatic of the US government’s role in continuing to shield the Israeli government from accountability for their violations of human rights, of war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Again, the examples are endless, because the standard is consistent around the world. This magazine has previously covered the despicable treatment of Afghanistan, where the U.S. claims to support women’s rights while contributing to starvation and the decimation of the economy. In the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba, dozens of men are still being held without having been charged with a crime (the most blatant violation of basic legal procedural rights), with reporters denied the ability to document conditions. At the southern border, Biden has reportedly separated a number of children from their parents, an atrocious act of abuse and violation of the basic right of families to remain together.
On his trip to Vietnam, one of the worst countries in the world for civil liberties, Biden made “barely a mention of repression there.” In Africa last year, “human rights advocates argue[d] that the administration is undermining its own promotion of American values abroad by courting [Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea] and sidestepping his 43-year record of corruption and grave rights abuses by feting the dictator.” (The only thing wrong with the analysis is the notion that Biden is engaged in the promotion of “American values abroad,” if these values are understood to be anything to do with rights and freedom.) Biden even nominated “one of America’s worst living human rights abusers” to a diplomacy commission.
Maryam al-Khawaja has been trying to travel to Bahrain to protest her father’s ongoing detention. She knows that in doing so, she risks being arrested or killed. Human Rights Watch has made the simple moral point that “If Maryam al-Khawaja can have the courage to risk her life for democracy and human rights in Bahrain, the least the Biden Administration can do is show the political strength to use its leverage to call on its allied government to free its political prisoners.” But on human rights, the Biden administration has shown consistent moral cowardice. The result is that some of the worst, most abusive regimes in the world are emboldened. Want to dismember a dissident? Shoot a journalist? The U.S. will look the other way if you keep buying weapons from us and selling us oil.
This is not new. Despite much stirring rhetoric about the noble U.S. commitment to democratic values, in practice U.S. presidents have always supported hideous dictatorships when doing so was in the perceived “U.S. national interest.” Joe Biden is not unique among U.S. presidents in this respect, although he is more hypocritical than Donald Trump (who has never pretended to care about human rights). Nevertheless, Biden’s atrocious record should deeply outrage anyone who believes in the basic rights of human beings around the world. There is blood on his hands, and we have no excuse not to notice it.
A new Wall Street Journal op-ed encourages Biden to push Canada to withdraw the accusation even if it’s true, saying that “morally murky as it may be, the allies need to find a way to get Mr. Trudeau to walk back his accusation,” on the grounds that “you hold your nose and shake hands with Prime Minister Narendra Modi because you need him in the trenches against Xi Jinping.” That has been an accurate description of Biden’s approach up until now, so we’ll see what he does in this case. Note the implicit assumption that we are in the “trenches against Xi Jinping,” with certain parts of the press working to bring about a major conflict with China by insisting that it is already happening or inevitable. ↩