Foreign policy issues arising from the actions of the Donald Trump administration over the years are diverse and affect a wide range of areas, including national and international human rights protection, humanitarian aid and diplomacy. Trump’s provocative rhetoric during his campaign and presidency was a concern for human rights defenders and civil society organizations around the world. What does the election of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and President-elect Joe Biden mean for international law, and will the new administration mark a monumental change in US foreign policy?
US human rights foreign policy has suffered from a number of damaging decisions by the Trump administration over the past four years. The United States withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council and UNESCO in 2018 and from the World Health Organization in 2020 amid the Covid-19 pandemic, while withdrawing all financial aid. Only recently, the United States, a country that accounts for around 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, officially withdrew from the Paris Agreement – the first country in the world to leave the treaty – one of the major international agreements that is in place to strengthen it the global response to the threat of climate change has emerged. For the international community, Trump’s actions not only hit attempts to combat global climate change, but also raised questions about the effectiveness and possibly fragility of international agreements.
Reproductive rights were attacked by the Trump administration in 2017. Mexico City’s policy, also known as the “Global Gag Rule,” banned financial support from the United States to foreign family planning NGOs, even if it was forbidden. Services only provided information about abortions . This has been described by the Center for Reproductive Rights as a “dangerous, ideological proposal” that would “threaten essential programs for women and families and target vulnerable populations”.
The actions of the Trump administration were heavily criticized during his tenure, particularly when it was discovered that migrants had been detained for extended periods during the Covid-19 pandemic. Amnesty International, in its April 2020 report on the inhumane treatment of detainees in US immigration detention centers during the pandemic, stated: “The US authorities are, and therefore can, fully responsible for all persons in the care of immigration and customs will be held liable for avoidable deaths under their observation. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has the power and obligation to grant immigrant detainees humanitarian parole before other people in their custody contract sign Covid-19 and suffer irreparable damage. “In October 2020 the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit fearing that immigrants in civil custody are at high risk of serious illness or death if infected with COVID-19. The Freedom of Information Organization’s request to receive important documents explaining the ICE’s (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) response to the pandemic was not responded to.
The omission of widespread human rights violations from the US State Department’s annual country reports on human rights practices, which provide details of human rights violations abroad, is one of the most striking examples of what Amnesty describes as “an unprecedented and alarming level of politicized processing” in the international US. Investigations by the Asylum Research Center revealed serious omissions in the reports compared to the reports published by the previous administration. In the country reports of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reference to human rights violations in foreign countries was expressly excluded, in particular with regard to violence by LGBTI people, prolonged solitary confinement and sexual humiliation, sexual violence against women and torture. Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea, Pakistan were some of the countries where such references have been removed.
While it is early days to assess the impact of the U.S. election result, Joe Biden’s presidency raises hopes that the new administration will reverse the damaging effects of the Trump administration on several levels. For the first time in US history, an influential and well-respected Black Vice President, Kamala Harris, will serve alongside Biden. While foreign policy is largely dictated by Biden himself, Harris’ past as a prosecutor and her strong stance on the environment is likely to play an important role in coordinating and possibly leading global efforts to combat climate change in the US. Joe Biden during his election campaign promised to spend more resources on addressing environmental issues and tackling greenhouse gas emissions with a series of pledges in the range of approximately $ 2 trillion for that purpose, one of which is to finance the Green Climate Fund. Biden had also stated that the US would rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement after his election. It is worth noting that in her campaign, Harris also believed that the US should rejoin the Paris Agreement.
Biden promised during his campaign that the US would rejoin the World Health Organization and restore funding as well. He also promised to end Mexico City politics.
Changes to immigration regulations may also be imminent under Biden. In 2017, Donald Trump issued a series of implementing orders to prevent nationals from predominantly Muslim countries (Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Syria) from entering the United States for the purpose of preventing terrorism, the so-called “Muslim ban “”. In 2020, the Trump administration added six more predominantly Muslim countries to the ban: Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan, and Tanzania. Biden promised to end this ban in the election campaign.
Biden’s election is not the only cure for the harm Trump caused. However, it is fair to argue that the arrival of Biden and Harris in office presents an opportunity for the United States to embark on the path of restoring confidence in its global response and impact on human rights.
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