Ten Critical Human Rights Challenges For The Next American President | Freedom House

Ten Critical Human Rights Challenges For The Next American President

Download a PDF version


The upcoming presidential election and inauguration of the next administration is a critical moment to review and update U.S. policy on human rights. Among the challenges the United States faces in the coming years are human rights abuses committed by governments and other actors across the globe that flout internationally accepted principles and undermine U.S. values and interests.

The next administration, whether a second Obama administration or a Romney administration, will need to address a range of international issues. We believe that human rights merit particular attention. The promotion of human rights is both an expression of the universal values that Americans share with people throughout the world and an integral component of the pursuit of American interests abroad. The next administration’s record on foreign policy will depend to a significant degree on its ability to effectively protect and advance human rights.

U.S. leadership is critical to effectively address international human rights issues. International responses to gross violations and systematic abuses of human rights around the world tend to have the greatest impact when the United States plays a prominent role or is otherwise actively engaged in promoting a rights-based response. Multilateral human rights institutions similarly make the greatest progress in drawing attention to abuses and maintaining human rights standards when the United States exercises leadership.

Human rights affect almost every aspect of U.S. engagement abroad. Governments that abuse human rights make unstable and unreliable partners across the range of U.S. interests, from business to arms control to counter-terrorism. By strengthening the protection of human rights, the United States not only promotes its own values but also advances its strategic interests.

The next administration should articulate clear priorities and implement credible policies on human rights, address human rights in its relations with all foreign governments that commit significant violations, and select senior officials who have the expertise and authority to carry out effective human rights policy,
while ensuring that America’s own policies and practices are consistent with the universal values it promotes around the world. The National Security Advisor should have sufficient authority to ensure consistent implementation of human rights policy across U.S. government departments and agencies, and a key criterion in the selection of the Secretary of State should be the candidate’s commitment to human rights.

While there are many human rights challenges that will confront the next administration, some are so severe, consequential, or open to U.S. influence that they merit the next administration’s attention. In this paper, we highlight ten issues for the next administration to address. If the U.S. response to these issues is inadequate, they may come to harm U.S. interests and credibility abroad. If, however, the next administration crafts and executes robust policies to overcome these human rights challenges, it can make a distinct contribution in promoting U.S. values and interests internationally.

We recommend that the next presidential administration give priority in pursuing the following policies:

1. Prioritize U.S. leadership on international norms and universality of human rights
2. Act to prevent genocide and mass atrocities and ensure accountability
3. Pursue policies that protect people from the threat of terrorism while respecting human rights both at home and abroad
4. Oppose the coordinated global assault on civil society, including the murder, criminalization, and vilification of human rights defenders
5. Proactively address the democracy and human rights opportunities and challenges presented by the Arab Uprisings
6. Ensure that corporations avoid contributing to human rights violations in their operations and through their supply chains
7. Bolster accountability and access to justice for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence
8. Review the United States’ relationships and alliances with governments that violate human rights
9. Support international justice and accountability for human rights violators present in the United States
10. Support policies both at home and abroad and norms that respect the rights of and equal treatment for refugees/migrants/immigrants

The presidential campaigns have to date addressed some human rights issues and benefitted from the insights of individual human rights experts, but leading human rights organizations have yet to weigh in to the debate surrounding the presidential campaigns in a substantial way. This policy paper is a collective effort by leading U.S.-based human rights organizations and experts to contribute to the debate and to the human rights policies of the next administration as it prepares to take office.

This paper is a product of Freedom House, the Connect US Fund, and the Human Rights Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based forum for human rights organizations and expert individuals to share practices, discuss policy challenges, and coordinate advocacy strategies. The policy paper takes into account the priorities of 22 human rights organizations that contributed in some way to its content. However, not every group has a position on all of the issues in this paper, and individual organizations and experts have additional views that are not included in this paper but are nonetheless important positions on critical issues. The analyses and recommendations presented here reflect the views of human rights organizations and experts on particular issues within their organizational mandates and expertise.

Participants in the Human Rights Working Group voted on the top ten issues to highlight in this paper. They were guided by three factors: (1) the severity of the human rights violations, (2) the extent of the harm or threat caused by these violations, and (3) the ability of the United States to influence the situation.

The absence of an issue in this paper does not suggest a lack of importance. In fact, many issues, including LGBT rights, Internet freedom, and general women’s rights, are not covered in this paper because they are current priorities of the United States, which has led efforts to address them worldwide.
We anticipate and strongly recommend that work in these areas continue to be a priority for the next administration.

Each of the top ten issues in this paper is covered in one page. Background to frame each issue is followed by a summary of the U.S. record to date on the issue and then by key recommendations.

The top ten issues presented in this paper merit discussion during the presidential debates this fall. We look forward to a sustained conversation on these issues with both candidates and ultimately with the next president.

Read the rest of the policy paper here.