The Biden Administration Is Committed to Human Rights: Except When It Isn’t

President Joe Biden recently met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, causing some complaint in Washington. After all, the latter runs an authoritarian state. To highlight his public commitment to democracy, Biden told the press: "I made it clear to him that I believe the consequences of [opposition leader Alexei Navalny dying in prison] would be devastating for Russia."

That sounds serious, yet after being elected Biden quickly forgot his promise to make a "pariah" of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The latter turned his nation’s consulate in Istanbul into an abattoir where his minions sliced and diced journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an American resident. The many activists, journalists, and other critics arrested, kidnapped, and imprisoned by MbS, tens of thousands of civilians killed in Riyadh’s attack on Yemen, and multitudes killed, injured, and displaced in the Libyan and Syrian civil wars in which the Kingdom intervened also went down the administration’s collective memory hole.

Moreover, last week an equally brutal dictatorship, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt, went through the faux legal process of having the country’s top court uphold death sentences for a dozen top political and government leaders arrested during his coup in 2013. His security forces slaughtered hundreds of demonstrators and his government promiscuously imposed death sentences, often sentencing hundreds of people en masse in trials without even the pretense of fairness. When will the administration hold al-Sisi, a far worse dictator than the earlier Hosni Mubarak, accountable?

Of course, consistency is difficult to maintain in international affairs. However, the Biden administration hasn’t even tried. How has the president treated the many countries worse than Russia?

The group Freedom House rates Moscow as "not free," earning just 20 out of 100. That’s 5 for political rights and 15 for civil rights. Explains the group: "Power in Russia’s authoritarian political system is concentrated in the hands of President Vladimir Putin. With loyalist security forces, a subservient judiciary, a controlled media environment, and a legislature consisting of a ruling party and pliable opposition factions, the Kremlin is able to manipulate elections and suppress genuine dissent. Rampant corruption facilitates shifting links among bureaucrats and organized crime groups."

Not good, all can agree.

Yet Azerbaijan comes in with 10 (2/8): "Power in Azerbaijan’s authoritarian regime remains heavily concentrated in the hands of Ilham Aliyev, who has served as president since 2003, and his extended family. Corruption is rampant, and the formal political opposition has been weakened by years of persecution. The authorities have carried out an extensive crackdown on civil liberties in recent years, leaving little room for independent expression or activism. In 2020, Azerbaijan won a conflict over control of Nagorno-Karabakh, at the cost of over 2,700 soldiers."

The administration has yet to announce a plan to democratize Azerbaijan.

Bahrain rates 12 (2/10): "Bahrain’s Sunni-led monarchy dominates state institutions, and elections for the lower house of parliament are no longer competitive or inclusive. Since violently crushing a popular prodemocracy protest movement in 2011, the authorities have systematically eliminated a broad range of political rights and civil liberties, dismantled the political opposition, and cracked down harshly on persistent dissent concentrated among the Shiite population."

The administration has remained strangely silent about the sectarian dictatorship whose port in Manama conveniently hosts America’s Fifth Fleet.

Belarus receives 11 (2/9), though that was before the regime skyjacked the Ryanair flight and kidnapped opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, orchestrating his 1984-style transformation to professed admirer of President Alexander Lukashenko: "Belarus is an authoritarian state in which elections are openly rigged and civil liberties are severely restricted. After permitting limited displays of dissent as part of a drive to pursue better relations with the European Union (EU) and the United States, the government in 2020 cracked down on a massive antigovernment protest movement, sparked by a fraudulent presidential election, and severely limited fundamental civil liberties."

The administration has criticized the Lukashenko regime, but not yet threatened "devastating" consequences over Protasevich’s fate.

Burundi comes in at 14 (4/10): "Burundi has been in political and economic crisis since 2015. Democratic gains made after the 12-year civil war ended in 2005 have been undone by a shift toward authoritarian politics and violent repression against anyone perceived to oppose the ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD–FDD)."

This tragic nation appears to have escaped the president’s attention.

Cameroon gets 16 (7/9): "President Paul Biya has ruled Cameroon since 1982. His Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) has maintained power by rigging elections, using state resources for political patronage, and limiting the activities of opposition parties. Press freedom and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are restricted, and due process protections are poorly upheld. A conflict between security forces and separatists in the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions is ongoing, and has resulted in widespread civilian deaths and displacements."

Four decades of dictatorship apparently do not unduly bother the administration.

The Central African Republic receives only 9 (3/6): "The Central African Republic suffers from pervasive insecurity and an absence of state authority in much of the country. A series of peace deals between the government and various armed groups have not produced improvements in the security situation. Violent attacks against civilians, including sexual violence, are an acute risk in many areas. There is little support for independent journalists, and workers with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), particularly aid workers, operate at great personal risk."

CAR does not appear to be any administration priority list.

Chad comes in at 17 (3/14): "Chad has held regular presidential elections since 1996, but no election has ever produced a change in power. Legislative elections are routinely delayed, and have not been held since 2011. Opposition activists risk arrest and severe mistreatment while in detention. The state faces multiple insurgencies led by rebel militants in the north, and Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin."

This nation also has not rated president attention.

The People’s Republic China receives 9 (-2/11): "China’s authoritarian regime has become increasingly repressive in recent years. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is tightening its control over the state bureaucracy, the media, online speech, religious groups, universities, businesses, and civil society associations, and it has undermined its own already modest rule-of-law reforms. The CCP leader and state president, Xi Jinping, has consolidated personal power to a degree not seen in China for decades, but his actions have also triggered rising discontent among elites within and outside the party. The country’s human rights movements continue to seek avenues for protecting basic liberties despite a multiyear crackdown."

At least the administration criticizes Beijing for its practices, but no threat of imposing "devastating" consequences appears to be in the offing.

Cuba lands a bit higher, at 13 (1/12): "Cuba’s one-party communist state outlaws political pluralism, bans independent media, suppresses dissent, and severely restricts basic civil liberties. The government continues to dominate the economy despite recent reforms that permit some private-sector activity. The regime’s undemocratic character has not changed despite a generational transition in political leadership between 2018 and 2019 that included the introduction of a new constitution."

The president has left his predecessor’s ineffective sanctions in place while offering no attention to the fate of dissidents and critics who have been arrested or otherwise mistreated.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo matches Russia’s score of 20 (5/15): "The political system in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been paralyzed in recent years by the manipulation of the electoral process by political elites. Citizens are unable to freely exercise basic civil liberties, and corruption is endemic. Physical security is tenuous due to violence and human rights abuses committed by government forces, as well as armed rebel groups and militias that are active in many areas of the country."

Biden appears to be too busy to worry about the DRC.

Egypt comes in at a dismal 18 (6/12): "President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who first took power in a 2013 coup, has governed Egypt in an increasingly authoritarian manner. Meaningful political opposition is virtually nonexistent, as expressions of dissent can draw criminal prosecution and imprisonment. Civil liberties, including press freedom and freedom of assembly, are tightly restricted. Security forces engage in human rights abuses with impunity. Discrimination against women, LGBT+ people, and other groups remain serious problems, as does a high rate of domestic violence."

Aid continues to flow and weapons continue to be sold. Apparently, the administration’s motto is, why let human rights get in the way of a beautiful friendship?

Equatorial Guinea receives 5 (0/5): "Equatorial Guinea holds regular elections, but the voting is neither free nor fair. The current president, who took power in a military coup that deposed his uncle, has led a highly repressive authoritarian regime since 1979. Oil wealth and political power are concentrated in the hands of the president’s family. The government frequently detains the few opposition politicians in the country, cracks down on civil society groups, and censors journalists. The judiciary is under presidential control, and security forces engage in torture and other violence with impunity."

No "devastating" consequences have yet been threatened, publicly at least.

Among the world’s most hideous dictatorships is Eritrea, which rates just 2 (1/1): "Eritrea is a militarized authoritarian state that has not held a national election since independence from Ethiopia in 1993. The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), headed by President Isaias Afwerki, is the sole political party. Arbitrary detention is commonplace, and citizens are required to perform national service, often for their entire working lives. The government shut down all independent media in 2001."

Washington appears to be too busy to mention the outrageous lack of any form of liberty there.

Eswatini gets 19 (1/18): "Eswatini (known internationally as Swaziland until 2018) is a monarchy currently ruled by King Mswati III. The king exercises ultimate authority over all branches of the national government and effectively controls local governance through his influence over traditional chiefs. Political dissent and civic and labor activism are subject to harsh punishment under sedition and other laws. Additional human rights problems include impunity for security forces and discrimination against women and LGBT+ people."

So far Eswatini’s king has escaped "devastating" American consequences for any of his actions.

Iran collects 16 (6/10): "The Islamic Republic of Iran holds elections regularly, but they fall short of democratic standards due in part to the influence of the hard-line Guardian Council, an unelected body that disqualifies all candidates it deems insufficiently loyal to the clerical establishment. Ultimate power rests in the hands of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the unelected institutions under his control. These institutions, including the security forces and the judiciary, play a major role in the suppression of dissent and other restrictions on civil liberties."

Washington has criticized Tehran for its awful human rights practices but the administration is focused on reviving the nuclear pact by relieving the economic devastation unleashed as part of the Trump administration’s failed "maximum pressure" campaign.

Laos rates an unlucky 13 (2/11): "Laos is a one-party state in which the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) dominates all aspects of politics and harshly restricts civil liberties. There is no organized opposition and no truly independent civil society. News coverage of the country is limited by the remoteness of some areas, repression of domestic media, and the opaque nature of the regime. Economic development has led to a rising tide of disputes over land and environmental issues, and growing debt to China. In recent years, a wide-ranging anticorruption campaign has had some positive impact."

There is no evidence that the name Laos has ever passed the president’s lips.

Libya comes in at 9 (1/8): "Libya has been racked by internal divisions and intermittent civil conflict since a popular armed uprising in 2011 deposed longtime dictator Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi. International efforts to bring rival administrations together in a unity government have repeatedly failed, and interference from regional powers has exacerbated the fighting. A proliferation of weapons and autonomous militias, flourishing criminal networks, and the presence of extremist groups have all contributed to the country’s lack of physical security. The ongoing violence has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and human rights conditions have steadily deteriorated."

Perhaps since Biden and many of his top officials were part of the administration which helped destroy Libya, he figures the "devastating" consequences were preemptively imposed.

North Korea falls near the bottom with 3 (0/3): "North Korea is a one-party state led by a dynastic totalitarian dictatorship. Surveillance is pervasive, arbitrary arrests and detention are common, and punishments for political offenses are severe. The state maintains a system of camps for political prisoners where torture, forced labor, starvation, and other atrocities take place. While some social and economic changes have been observed in recent years, including a growth in small-scale private business activity, human rights violations are still widespread, grave, and systematic."

The administration remains readier to issue threats about the North’s nuclear program than its human rights practices.

The Republic of Congo also matches Russia with 20 (2/18): "President Denis Sassou Nguesso has maintained nearly uninterrupted power for over 40 years by severely repressing the opposition. Corruption and decades of political instability have contributed to poor economic performance and high levels of poverty. Abuses by security forces are frequently reported and rarely investigated. While a variety of media operate, independent coverage is limited by widespread self-censorship and the influence of owners. Human rights and governance-related nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) scrutinize state abuses, but also self-censor to avoid reprisals. Religious figures are also known to self-censor."

No word on whether the Nguesso regime’s many abuses rate a threat of "devastating" consequences.

Washington’s seeming endlessly malign ally Saudi Arabia manages just 7 (1/6): "Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties. No officials at the national level are elected. The regime relies on pervasive surveillance, the criminalization of dissent, appeals to sectarianism and ethnicity, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power. Women and religious minorities face extensive discrimination in law and in practice. Working conditions for the large expatriate labor force are often exploitative."

The Saudi people await an administration willing to turn their oppressors into a "pariah," as promised by Biden.

Very different, but with the same numerical rating, is Somalia at 7 (1/6): "Somalia has struggled to reestablish a functioning state since the collapse of an authoritarian regime in 1991. Limited, indirect elections brought a federal government to power in 2012. By 2016, it had established five federal member states, though these semiautonomous regions are often at odds with the central government. The government’s territorial control is also contested by a separatist government in Somaliland and by the Shabaab, an Islamist militant group. No direct national elections have been held to date, and political affairs remain dominated by clan divisions. Amid ongoing insecurity, impunity for human rights abuses by both state and nonstate actors is the norm."

One suspects that the tragic human rights situation in Somalia does not top the president’s intelligence briefing.

If anything, South Sudan, with 2 (-2/4), is an even greater tragedy, especially since its independence was an American project: "South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011, descended into civil war in 2013, when a rift between President Salva Kiir and the vice president he dismissed, Riek Machar, triggered fighting among their supporters and divided the country along ethnic lines. A peace agreement reached in 2018 further delayed overdue national elections, instituting an uneasy power-sharing arrangement among political elites who have presided over rampant corruption, economic collapse, and atrocities against civilians, journalists, and aid workers."

The administration might figure that there is little additional devastation that it could impose on top of what already exists after years of civil war.

Sudan, from which South Sudan seceded, rates 17 (2/15): "Since military commanders and a prodemocracy protest movement ousted the repressive regime of Omar al-Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP) in 2019, Sudan has been ruled by a transitional government in which military and civilian leaders are to share power until national elections can be held. The government has begun to enact reforms, and space for the exercise of civil liberties is slowly opening, but security personnel associated with the abuses of the old regime remain influential. Violence involving security forces, other armed groups, and rival ethnic communities persists in many parts of the country."

With the transition away from dictatorship still a work in progress, Washington probably has more influence in Khartoum than Moscow, but no opinion yet expressed on the former’s human rights practices.

War-torn Syria collects 1 (-3/4): "Political rights and civil liberties in Syria are severely compromised by one of the world’s most repressive regimes and by other belligerent forces in an ongoing civil war. The regime prohibits genuine political opposition and harshly suppresses freedoms of speech and assembly. Corruption, enforced disappearances, military trials, and torture are rampant in government-controlled areas. Residents of contested regions or territory held by nonstate actors are subject to additional abuses, including intense and indiscriminate combat, sieges and interruptions of humanitarian aid, and mass displacement."

With Congress and the prior administration going out of their way to starve the Syrian people to punish the Assad regime, there truly are few additional "devastating" consequences left to impose for any reason.

Tajikistan is one of the Soviet breakaway republics that is worse than Russia, coming in at 8 (0/8): "The authoritarian regime of President Emomali Rahmon, who has ruled since 1992, severely restricts political rights and civil liberties. The political opposition and independent media have been devastated by a sustained campaign of repression, and the government exerts tight control over religious expression and activity. Wealth and authority are concentrated in the hands of Rahmon and his family."

The president has yet to threaten the authorities in Dushanbe with any consequences for anything.

Turkmenistan is even worse, falling to North Korea’s level with 2 (0/2): "Turkmenistan is a repressive authoritarian state where political rights and civil liberties are almost completely denied in practice. Elections are tightly controlled, ensuring nearly unanimous victories for the president and his supporters. The economy is dominated by the state, corruption is systemic, religious groups are persecuted, and political dissent is not tolerated."

Another black hole when it comes to administration attention.

The United Arab Emirates, praised by the Pentagon as "Little Sparta," receives a dismal human rights rating of 17 (5/12): "The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a federation of seven emirates led in practice by Abu Dhabi, the largest by area and richest in natural resources. Limited elections are held for a federal advisory body, but political parties are banned, and all executive, legislative, and judicial authority ultimately rests with the seven hereditary rulers. The civil liberties of both citizens and noncitizens, who make up an overwhelming majority of the population, are subject to significant restrictions."

As far as one can tell, not a single ill word has passed from the president to the ruling al-Nahyan family, viewed as important American allies, despite human rights practices as bad as those in the original Greek city state of Sparta.

Further demonstrating that Central Asia is a human rights wasteland, Uzbekistan receives 11 (2/9): "While reforms adopted since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took office in 2016 have led to improvements on some issues, Uzbekistan remains an authoritarian state with few signs of democratization. No opposition parties operate legally. The legislature and judiciary effectively serve as instruments of the executive branch, which initiates reforms by decree, and the media are still tightly controlled by the authorities. Reports of torture and other ill-treatment persist, although highly publicized cases of abuse have resulted in dismissals and prosecutions for some officials, and small-scale corruption has been meaningfully reduced."

No threats, at least public ones, have yet to go from Washington to Tashkent over the latter’s (in)human rights practices.

Venezuela gets 14 (1/13): "Venezuela’s democratic institutions have deteriorated since 1999, but conditions have grown sharply worse in recent years due to harsher crackdowns on the opposition and the ruling party relying on widely condemned elections to control all government branches. The authorities have closed off virtually all channels for political dissent, restricting civil liberties and prosecuting perceived opponents without regard for due process. The country’s severe humanitarian crisis has left millions struggling to meet basic needs, and driven mass emigration."

As in Syria, the previous administration preemptively imposed "devastating" consequences by using sanctions to starve already impoverished people, and Biden has yet to change U.S. policy.

Vietnam is 19 (3/16): "Vietnam is a one-party state, dominated for decades by the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). Although some independent candidates are technically allowed to run in legislative elections, most are banned in practice. Freedom of expression, religious freedom, and civil society activism are tightly restricted. The authorities have increasingly cracked down on citizens’ use of social media and the internet to voice dissent and share uncensored information."

The administration might believe Hanoi is too important for balancing against China to sanction over human rights.

Finishing this dismal list is Yemen, with a rating of 11 (1/10): "Yemen, home to a long-running series of smaller internal conflicts, has been devastated by a civil war involving regional powers since 2015. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and their allies intervened that year to support the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi against Ansar Allah (Supporters of God), also known as the Houthis – an armed rebel movement that is rooted in the Zaidi Shiite community, which forms a large minority in northwestern Yemen. The civilian population has suffered from direct violence by both sides, as well as from hunger and disease caused by the interruption of trade and aid. Elections are long overdue, normal political activity has halted, and many state institutions have ceased to function."

Washington is unhappy with Yemen’s Houthi movement, but failed to engage it while spending six years supporting an invasion by Saudi Arabia, with an even worse human rights record.

Hypocrisy is inevitable in any activist foreign policy. Most governments operate on the principle of getting as much for themselves while claiming to be looking out for humankind. However, more than most nations the US tends to leaven hypocrisy with sanctimony, which makes it uniquely indigestible.

As with Washington’s policy toward human rights. No doubt, Biden cares about the issue, but not enough to apply the same standard to all. Of course, Moscow should release political prisoners and hold free elections. But so should Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain, American allies all which are even less free than Russia.

If the administration wants to bolster its credibility and increase its impact on human rights, it should demand the most of its allies. If Washington instead makes its foreign policy business as usual – arming, subsidizing, and otherwise supporting those governments friendly to America – then its claimed commitment to human rights will be exposed as fake news. And will provide few if any benefits to the oppressed around the world.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.