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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Consequential Human Rights Diplomacy

On the one-year anniversary of President Biden's inauguration, reposting my Harvard Human Rights Journal article highlighting new opportunities to implement impactful policies to advance fundamental freedoms abroad.

Visiting the U.S. Holocaust Museum with a Rohingya Muslim activist brings the reality of 21st century persecution into stark relief. I experienced this when touring with Wai Wai Nu, a brave young woman we had brought to the State Department in 2019 to share about her imprisonment in Myanmar’s notorious Insein prison. She told me the Museum’s pictures reminded her of Myanmar today for the Rohingya.

We want the Museum to be a testament to past atrocities, of horrors never to occur again. But we are far from that hope, with gross violations of human rights continuing globally. To see a freer and more just world, the United States must energetically lead, both to advance our interests and reflect our values.

President Biden’s vision of promoting human rights in foreign affairs is still coming into focus. While confronted with many domestic challenges, President Biden has so far prioritized democracy promotion, combating climate change, and restoring and expanding the United States’ refugee program. These are important goals, but as human rights falter around the world, the Biden administration is presented with an opportunity to implement a broader vision.

Consistent and bold American leadership is needed to meet this challenge. To move the needle, the United States must move beyond “naming and shaming” to consequential diplomacy that impacts foreign relationships in concrete ways. The events of January 6th in Washington, D.C. demonstrated we have work to do at home, but the United States should not walk away from human rights promotion abroad. There are several steps the Biden administration can take to demonstrate seriousness toward the protection of human rights and make a difference.

American Exceptionalism

Sometimes people call me an idealist. Well, that is the way I know I am an American… America is the only idealistic nation in the world. — President Woodrow Wilson’s Address at Sioux Falls (1919)

America’s founding ideals separate us from all other nations, and through our imperfect history, we know the importance of respecting human rights. The U.S. government devotes significant levels of resources to promoting human rights abroad, such as through special diplomatic positions and offices,[1] reports,[2] and millions of dollars in annual grants.[3] While something to be proud of as Americans, advancing human rights raises tough questions. How much are we willing to give, so others may gain? How much do we value our values?

Embodying these high standards in our international relations requires tying the advancement of human rights to consequential diplomacy. If we say human rights matter, then relationships with foreign powers cannot remain the same if abuses occur. To do otherwise risks turning our bold commitments into hypocritical euphemisms.

Working on human rights from within the State Department is the equivalent of being the ethics department for U.S. foreign policy. We aim to be the angel on the shoulder constantly asking, “can there be a better way?” Unfortunately, regardless of administration, there are a lot of devils in the policy details. Every administration juggles these challenges. But I experienced firsthand the jumble of contradictions that constituted the Trump administration’s human rights policies abroad. On the one hand, they were marked by troubling decisions like Muslim bans and effectively ending refugee resettlement.[4] Despite these and other serious shortcomings, positive efforts were undertaken on religious freedom[5] and combatting trafficking in persons,[6] while also vocally criticizing Chinese persecution of Uyghur Muslims[7] after a trade deal failed to materialize.

As the Biden team comes together, the new administration can keep the good and jettison the bad. Many were encouraged by President Biden’s decision to nominate Tony Blinken as Secretary of State. During the Obama administration, I worked with him and saw his commitment to human rights, such as calling ISIS atrocities against religious minorities a “genocide.”[8] But from my twenty years of government service, including at the State Department, I know his job will not be easy. The Biden administration’s sincerity will be tested by whether human rights abuses alter our engagement with other countries.

Values and Interests

Human rights advocacy isn’t naïve idealism. It’s the truest kind of realism. — Senator John McCain in The Restless Wave (2018)

Bringing our values into sensitive relationships will cause trouble. While it may be politically easy to place a spotlight on Iranian or Venezuelan transgressions, we cannot ignore India’s treatment of Muslims and Christians,[9] the jailing of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia,[10] Egypt’s mass arrests and trials,[11] and the increase of religious persecution[12] and anti-Semitism worldwide.[13] Indeed, it would be simpler to not care about human rights. Russia, China, and others do not burden themselves with these concerns.

Charges of hypocrisy are always present, and some question how the United States can advance its values after the shocking events of January 6th in Washington, D.C. Clearly, our body politic has ills; we as a nation must recommit to protecting our democracy and ensuring equal rights for all in our pluralistic country. But our shortcomings are not new developments. The United States has never been perfect. Just consider the original sins of racism introduced at our birth and the ongoing challenge of dismantling our nation’s structural racism. I see our history as an ongoing effort to perfect our union, with generations of Americans consistently challenging our nation to meet our high ideals.

And so, while that vital work is undertaken today at home, we must not walk away from human rights work abroad. Recent events have humbled us, but humility better enables us to share how we strive to improve and encourage change. Our influence is unparalleled, so inaction will leave other places struggling with similar challenges to inevitable calamity.

Yet our idealism is not just about values. Pressing for a freer and more just world is in our nation’s self-interest. As the late Senator John McCain wrote in his final book, it is the opposite of naivety to fight for these rights. If we protect autocrats, we turn populations against the United States. Supporting people instead of dictators will produce long-term benefits, winning the goodwill of millions.

It is also an exercise in realism to understand the costs for winking at abuses. Countries that fail to respect their people’s rights will break trade deals, ignore commitments, operate opaquely and unfairly. As demonstrated by China, hoped for reforms never materialized from our “all carrots and no stick” economic engagement strategy over previous decades. Beijing pocketed our stated concerns on human rights and pushed ahead because we failed to enforce consequences.

We must be smart about it. Oppressors and opponents understand U.S. election cycles and each administration’s shelf life. They will run out the clock, agreeing to the theater of “strategic dialogues” on human rights, hoping to outlast us while we talk in circles. Our arguments about the negative long-term impact of repressive systems, future threats of violent extremism, or increasing isolation fall on deaf ears. For an authoritarian, their time horizon is the next morning, doing whatever is necessary to ensure they are alive and in charge the next day.

Consequential Actions

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. — President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address (1961)

The Biden administration will be under a microscope from the instant it comes into office, especially on issues of human rights abroad. Will the new administration follow well-worn approaches that make exceptions for friends like India or partners like Saudi Arabia? It can chart a different course, rejecting the binary, either/or question of unquestioned support or complete disengagement.

The United States can press for progress without upsetting their bilateral relations. I worked with the Obama National Security Council to encourage then-President Obama to raise concerns about minority rights during his India trip. To Obama’s credit, he gave a major speech on the issue during his January 2015 visit.[14] I heard repeatedly from Christian and Muslim leaders that his speech improved the domestic environment and paused the negative slide. It was a huge encouragement to these pressed communities. And while Prime Minister Modi was less than thrilled, the bilateral relationship continued to expand.

This kind of American leadership is needed. Many nations will welcome the Biden administration reprising our traditional role on key human rights issues. For instance, calling Myanmar’s atrocities against Rohingya Muslims a “genocide” in the first 100 days would send a strong signal and rally other countries. The United States could also support The Gambia’s case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice and enforcement of the Court’s preliminary decision.[15] And the United States is in a uniquely powerful position to push back against China’s efforts to intimidate abroad and repress at home, such as against Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, independent Christians, and democratic activists in Hong Kong. One simple and immediate response is rejoining the UN Human Rights Council. While dysfunctional, an active U.S. presence in Geneva can prevent China from undermining international human rights standards and deny them a safe harbor from criticism. Working within the UN system, the United States could press for international justice mechanisms or offshore fact-finding missions of Chinese abuses, much like the UN-organized 2013 North Korea Commission of Inquiry.[16]

China does not operate alone, and new networks of bad actors will try to counter U.S. demands. We must continue to highlight abuses, “naming and shaming” to insist on change. But there must be more, shrewdly leveraging our power to incentivize better behavior either with specific actions against officials or targeted sanctions. Working with allies to coordinate human rights consequences will be a force multiplier, such as Mr. Biden’s proposed democracy summit and maintaining the ministerial events focused on religious persecution launched by the Trump administration.

Additionally, coupling multilateralism with tools like the Magnitsky Act[17] (which others are adopting[18]) can create consequences for the first time. Persecutors will feel the pinch, as it targets provincial officials or federal ministers wherever abuses occur. The Biden administration should expand Trump administration policies of targeted sanctions against government officials under “GloMag,” employing it and similar tools from our soft arsenal of democracy to promote human rights.

I have seen how these tools and targeted sanctions can incentivize reforms by the worst abusers. During the Trump administration, I worked directly with the Uzbek and Sudanese governments on religious freedom reforms, which were incentivized by the “country of particular concern” (“CPC”) designation for violations. This designation created leverage and motivation for these nations to implement long-sought changes, and they were both delisted after verifiable improvements.[19]

Unfortunately, Congress often includes a waiver authority when passing these types of legislative tools, which allows our government to selectively avoid tough choices despite identifying human rights violations. These backdoors are almost automatically employed. Regimes happily take the PR hit if they still receive coveted arms or trade deals, while we sell out the victims and our values. Of the current CPC countries listed for religious freedom violations, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan all have waivers.[20] While legal, misusing waivers has been a bipartisan approach to human rights diplomacy for decades to avoid uncomfortable costs, which undercuts the point of the mechanism. Ending the use of waivers for human rights abuses would create consequences for authoritarian regimes, making them more likely to comply with their international obligations while boosting American credibility.

Lastly, a human rights vision must also hold accountable companies, including U.S-based and multinational entities, profiting from atrocity crimes in places like Myanmar and China. In China’s case, the Uyghur Forced Labor Act enjoys bipartisan support that would impose real costs on perpetrators. Once passed, aggressive enforcement should follow. Despite opposition from powerful corporations like Nike and Coca-Cola, we should not sacrifice our morals for economic advancement.[21]

Tough, but Important, Decisions

To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it. — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Where Do We Go From Here? (1967)

Diplomacy is hard work, often about choosing the least bad option. The tyranny of the urgent forces short-sighted decisions, sacrificing the enduring for the immediate. The incoming Biden administration can chart a better course by establishing a strategic framework for advancing human rights and ensuring its incorporation into all facets of U.S. engagement – diplomatic, security, and trade – with real consequences for violators.

Carrying our values forward will force hard choices. To change these dynamics, the Biden administration must smartly exploit points of leverage to maximize effectiveness. American partners should be the best in the world for respecting human rights, not for abusing them. Steadfastly advocating for fundamental freedoms with friend and foe can be a reliable pole star in these uncertain times, reflecting American history and values and ultimately leading to more durable gains. While Americans have work to do at home to protect and improve our “citadel of liberty,”[22] we can and should continue encouraging others to meet their international human rights obligations.

If human rights truly matter, then they must matter in every relationship.

Knox Thames served as the State Department Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia under both the Obama and Trump administrations. He is currently writing a book on 21st century strategies to combat religious persecution.

[1] Bureaus and Offices, U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights (2021),

[2] Reports, U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights (2021), See, e.g., State Department Followed an Extensive Process to Prepare Annual Country Reports, Government Accountability Office (May 31, 2012),

[3] Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance, (2021),

[4] Donald Trump, Full Text of Trump’s Executive Order on 7-Nation Ban, Refugee Suspension, CNN (Jan. 28, 2017),

[5] Emma Green, The Trump Administration Convenes the ‘Super Bowl’ of Religious Freedom, The Atlantic (July 27, 2018),

[6] Carol Morello, State Department Accuses 10 Countries, Including China and North Korea, of Government-Sponsored Human Trafficking, The Washington Post (June 25, 2020),

[7] Colum Lynch et al., Pompeo Weighs Genocide Designation for China, Foreign Policy (Dec. 23, 2020),

[8] Antony Blinken, Release of the 2015 Annual Report on International Freedom, U.S. Department of State (Aug. 10, 2016),

[9] Michelle Boorstein & Joanna Slater, Religious Freedoms in India Deteriorated Last Year, U.S. Government Watchdog Says, The Washington Post (Apr. 28, 2020),

[10] All Things Considered: Saudi Arabia Sentences Prominent Women’s Rights Activist To Nearly 6 Years In Prison, NPR (Jan. 1, 2021),

[12] In 2018, Government Restrictions on Religion Reach Highest Level Globally in More Than a Decade, Pew Research Center (Nov. 10, 2020),

[13] Madeline Roache, Surge in Anti-Semitic Attacks Has Caused a ‘Sense of Emergency’ Among Jews Worldwide, New Report Says, TIME (May 2, 2019),

[14] Frank Jack Daniel & Roberta Rampton, In Parting Shot, Obama Prods India on Religious Freedom, Reuters (Jan. 27, 2015),

[15] Top UN Court Orders Myanmar to Protect Rohingya from Genocide, UN News (Jan. 23, 2020),

[16] Lauren Baillie & Rachel Vandenbrink, China: The International Community is Failing Xinjiang’s Uyghurs, U.S. Institute of Peace (Dec. 30, 2020),

[17] Alex Horton, The Magnitsky Act, Explained, The Washington Post (July 14, 2017),

[18] Hagar Hajjar Chemali, The European Magnitsky Law—A Milestone with a Lot of Potential, New Atlantacist (Dec. 10, 2020),

[19] Jeremy Weber & Jayson Casper, US Adds Nigeria to Top of Religious Persecution List, Removes Sudan and Uzbekistan, Christianity Today (Dec. 7, 2020),

[20] U.S. State Department, Secretary of State’s Determination Under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 and Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016 (Dec. 26, 2019),

[21] Ana Swanson, Nike and Coca-Cola Lobby Against Xinjiang Forced Labor Bill, The New York Times (Nov. 29, 2020),

[22] Philip Ewing & Brian Naylor, Biden Says Capitol Attack was ‘Culmination’ of Trump’s Assaults on Democracy, NPR (Jan. 6, 2021),

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