The United States will speak out about human rights everywhere including in allies and at home, secretary of state Antony Blinken has vowed, turning a page from Donald Trump as he bemoaned deteriorations around the world.
Presenting the state department’s first human rights report under President Joe Biden, the new top US diplomat took some of his most pointed, yet still veiled, swipes at the approach of the Trump administration.
“Some have argued that it’s not worth it for the US to speak up forcefully for human rights – or that we should highlight abuse only in select countries, and only in a way that directly advances our national interests,” Blinken told reporters in clear reference to Trump’s approach.
“But those people miss the point. Standing up for human rights everywhere is in America’s interests,” he said.
“And the Biden-Harris administration will stand against human rights abuses wherever they occur, regardless of whether the perpetrators are adversaries or partners.”
Blinken ordered the return of assessments in the annual report on countries’ records on access to reproductive health, which were removed under the staunchly anti-abortion Trump administration.
Blinken also denounced a commission of his predecessor Mike Pompeo that aimed to redefine the US approach to human rights by giving preference to private property and religious freedom while downplaying reproductive and LGBTQ rights.
During Pompeo’s time in office, the state department was aggressive in opposing references to reproductive and gender rights in UN and other multilateral documents.
“There is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others,” Blinken said.
In another shift in tone from Trump, Blinken said the United States acknowledged its own challenges, including “systemic racism.”
“That’s what separates our democracy from autocracies: our ability and willingness to confront our own shortcomings out in the open, to pursue that more perfect union.”
Blinken voiced alarm over abuses around the world including in China, again speaking of “genocide” being committed against the Uighur community.
The report estimated that more than one million Uighurs and other members of mostly Muslim communities had been rounded up in internment camps in the western region of Xinjiang and that another two million are subjected to re-education training each day.
“The trend lines on human rights continue to move in the wrong direction. We see evidence of that in every region of the world,” Blinken said.
He said the Biden administration was prioritising coordination with allies, pointing to recent joint efforts over Xinjiang, China’s clampdown in Hong Kong and Russia’s alleged poisoning of dissident Alexei Navalny.
Blinken also voiced alarm over the Myanmar military’s deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, attacks on civilians in Syria and a campaign in Ethiopia’s Tigray that he has previously called ethnic cleansing.
The report, written in dry, factual language, did not spare longstanding US allies.
It pointed to allegations of unlawful killings and torture in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, quoting human rights groups that said Egypt is holding between 20,000 and 60,000 people chiefly due to their political beliefs.
Biden earlier declassified US intelligence that found that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman authorised the gruesome killing of US-based writer Jamal Khashoggi.
While the human rights report remained intact under Trump, the previous administration argued that rights were of lesser importance than other concerns with allies such as Saudi Arabia – a major oil producer and purchaser of US weapons that backed Trump’s hawkish line against Iran, whose record was also heavily scrutinized in the report.
The latest report also detailed incidents in India under prime minister Narendra Modi, an increasingly close US ally.
It quoted non-governmental groups as pointing to the use in India of “torture, mistreatment and arbitrary detention to obtain forced or false confessions” and quoted journalists as assessing that “press freedom declined” including through physical harassment of journalists, pressure on owners and frivolous lawsuits.