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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Building a transatlantic alliance on human rights

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

The United States and Europe share common values around human rights. It makes our alliance strong, our democracies vibrant and our bonds durable. It also places special responsibilities on us to advocate for these rights internationally.

Secretary of State Tony Blinken recently spoke of the importance of alliances and the Administration's human rights policies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Yet to ensure consequences for violators in concrete ways, the United States needs a bolder approach. If the United States, Britain and Germany agreed to coordinate human rights promotion across all facets of our diplomatic, security and trade relations, it would create a game-changing alliance for human rights.

Such action is needed. The environment is increasingly grim. Freedom House reported the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, "the largest margin recorded since the negative trend began in 2006." Freedom House ominously noted, "The long democratic recession is deepening."

Headlines prove the point. China clamps down on Hong Kong while suppressing religious minorities. The Burmese military launches a coup, while perpetrating genocide against Rohingya Muslims. Iranian aggression continues with the threat of nuclear development. Violent conflicts victimize civilians, with close to 80 million displaced. Pew Research Center findings report religious restrictions impact almost two-thirds of humanity.

To challenge this bleak picture, only North America and Europe have the resources and commitment to fight these negative trends. The combined leadership of the United States, Britain and Germany can bring about positive change.

Why our three countries? Our diplomatic, economic and military might set our nations apart. All have extensive diplomatic resources to track human rights abuses, confront anti-Semitism, promote freedom of religion or belief, combat trafficking in persons and maintain robust development budgets. When I served at the State Department, I saw how the world took notice when we coordinated at the U.N. to highlight Chinese abuses against religious minorities.

But more is needed and the time is right for a new push.

President Biden announced "America is back" and will resume its traditional leadership role in world affairs. After its exit from the European Union, Prime Minister Johnson's "Global Britain" provides a clear avenue to advance human rights. And while Germany will have elections later this year, its leading role in the European Union will not change, nor its desire to work with the United States.

Highlighting abuses is the first step. Speaking out should continue. But mere words won't be enough. Just look at China. Hoped-for Chinese reforms never materialized from our "all carrots" economic engagement over previous decades. Beijing pocketed stated human rights concerns and pushed ahead because we failed to enforce consequences.

Creating real consequences is what will move repressive regimes. Doing so will require a strong commitment and shrewd stewardship of our collective influence. Linking favorable trade relations or military support with human rights protections would demonstrate seriousness. Tools like a global Magnitsky Act ensure violators feel the sting of sanctions. Each will need to prevent investment in persecuting countries, such as U.S. legislation to block goods made by Chinese slave labor or the European Parliament's proposal to require supply chains to examine potential violations.

Partnerships will be a force multiplier, like the European Union, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway and others. Consistent leadership from North America and Europe can move the needle through consequential diplomacy that concretely impacts foreign relationships.

Protecting democracies and promoting human rights will not be easy. China and Russia will exact a cost, pushing back, quick to highlight shortcomings. Certainly, no country is perfect, including our own. But they are the persecutors, not us. What distinguishes us is our shared commitment to continual improvement for our citizens' civil rights.

Disagreements over trade between the UK, U.S. and Germany could also hamper a game-changing partnership. And all three of us have dangerous liaisons with Russia — the UK financial sector, Germany and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and American presidential politics. Yet, if we can turn the page and set disputes aside, our three countries can make a positive impact.

The globally deteriorating rights environment begs an important question — how much do we value our values? Will we defend the rights we enjoy at home when violated elsewhere? A transatlantic alliance for human rights — with Washington, London and Berlin at the center — would positively impact millions, fostering human rights and human security.

In the 1950s, President Harry Truman, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer stood together to confront Communism and built a strong transatlantic alliance. The same commitment is needed today to confront rising human rights violations around the world.

Knox Thames served as the State Department special advisor for Religious Minorities in both the Obama and Trump administrations. He is writing a book on 21st-century strategies to combat religious persecution. Follow him on Twitter @KnoxThames.

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