Human Rights Priorities for the Next U.S. President

This blog is part of the series "Ten Critical Human Rights Challenges for the Next President," sponsored by Freedom House. The series will feature renowned experts writing on some of the top human rights issues that should be addressed by the presidential candidates and the next administration. As the candidates participate in policy debates we look forward to a lively discussion of these and other important foreign affairs issues facing our country. For the full series please visit the Freedom at Issue Blog.

It may be largely absent from the presidential campaign, but the promotion of human rights is central to American foreign policy -- and has been for decades in both Democratic and Republican administrations. The next president, whether a second-term Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, will face critical human rights challenges and must be ready to address them from day one.

We joined twenty-three leading human rights organizations and experts to endorse a recently released report to highlight ten critical human rights priorities for the next administration. This is the first time that such a range of groups, including Freedom House, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA and the American Civil Liberties Union, has come together to produce a policy paper covering a variety of major issues and recommending concrete steps for the U.S. government to advance human rights. We urge each candidate to evaluate the issues and recommendations included in the report and explain how he will address them if he were to win.

The United States should review its relations with all authoritarian regimes to give human rights greater attention. While it may cooperate with them on counter-terrorism and other shared interests, it cannot turn a blind eye to the abuses these regimes commit. Crackdowns in civil society, such as restrictive laws in Ethiopia and blatant threats against peaceful demonstrators in Russia, merit a stronger response. The Bahraini government should not receive U.S. military aid while it continues to suppress popular demands for reform.

The promise and excitement of last year's Arab uprisings left many with hope that some of the world's most entrenched authoritarian regimes were coming to an end in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. The opening of Middle Eastern political systems is historic, and the United States should give sufficient political support and foreign aid to boost the prospects for successful democratic transitions in these countries. In the case of Egypt, the U.S. should also rethink its three-decade-old assistance to the military and refashion it so that it supports political and economic reform with an emphasis on respect for human rights and civil society.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's willingness to use whatever means necessary to stay in power presents an immediate challenge for the U.S. and international community. The U.S. government needs to step up diplomatic and economic pressure on Assad's regime now to cease the mass atrocities and come January 2013, the next president should focus on how to promote a transition to a democratic government in Syria.

Elsewhere around the globe, authoritarian regimes and extremist groups from China and Iran to Belarus and Mali continue to flout internationally accepted principles and undermine U.S. values and interests through their ongoing human rights abuses. To address these issues effectively, U.S. leadership is critical, both in direct bilateral relationships and through multilateral institutions.

International responses to gross violations of human rights tend to have the greatest impact when the United States exercises leadership. The United States must remain active at the United Nations and continue cooperation with the International Criminal Court. As a member of the UN Human Rights Council, the United States has been able to improve the council's record in exposing and condemning the worst abuses of human rights.

Human rights affect almost every other aspect of U.S. engagement overseas. 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. The protection of human rights is not only an expression of universal values that Americans share with people around the world, it also is of strategic benefit.

Effective leadership abroad must begin at home. In addition to placing human rights high on the agenda with foreign governments, the U.S. must ensure that its own policies and practices are consistent with the values it promotes abroad. It should, for example, explain how decisions on targeted killings of terrorist suspects comply with international law.

The next administration's record on foreign policy will depend to a significant degree on its ability to effectively protect and advance human rights. Sadly, human rights challenges do not take a break while we elect a president. Accordingly, come Jan. 20, 2013, the next administration must be prepared to address these challenges head on. Doing so would make a distinct contribution in promoting U.S. values and interests internationally.

David J. Kramer is President of Freedom House. Elisa Massimino is President and CEO of Human Rights First. Ambassador Nancy E. Soderberg is President of the Connect U.S. Fund.