Biden signals intent to drive global progress on democracy, human rights, and free and fair elections

by Marc Limon, Executive Director of the Universal Rights Group Democracy, Thematic human rights issues

28 October 2020, Geneva

With the US presidential election only days away, and millions of votes already cast through early voting and absentee ballots, in an election cycle fraught with fears about voter suppression and the weakening of American democracy, a speech given by Democratic candidate Joe Biden that centers democracy at home and abroad has taken on greater meaning.

On 11 July 2019, former Vice President and now Democratic candidate for President of the United States, Joe Biden, delivered a speech at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY) in which he laid out his blueprint for American foreign policy should he be elected on 3 November 2020. As recounted in a recent URG Insights blog by representatives of Human Rights First, Biden’s blueprint focuses heavily on rebuilding America’s reputation abroad and a strengthened diplomatic service (the State Department) to tackle pressing global concerns such as resurgent nationalism and populism, backsliding on human rights, the threat of climate change, and the fight against corruption. However, a particular focus of a future Biden administration, he made clear, would be rebuilding American democracy as an essential basis for renewed US leadership behind the global fightback of democracy. The former (setting America’s own democratic house in order) is, he said, inextricably linked with the latter (credible US foreign policy): ‘the United States must lead not just with the example of power, but the power of our example.’

Rallying the world’s democracies

‘Democracy,’ Biden argued, ‘is the root of our society, the wellspring of our power, and the source of our renewal. It strengthens and amplifies our leadership to keep us safe in the world. It is the engine of our ingenuity that drives our economic prosperity. It is the heart of who we are and how we see the world—and how the world sees us.’

Regarding the importance of getting the US’ own house in order before moving internationally, Biden committed to ‘reinforce our democracy’ by ‘remaking our education system so that a child’s opportunity in life isn’t determined by their zip code or race,’ ‘reforming our criminal justice system to eliminate inequitable disparities,’ ‘restoring the Voting Rights Act,’ ‘seeking greater transparency in our campaign finance system so money, foreign and domestic, doesn’t pollute our politics,’ ‘dedicating greater resources, including cyber resources, to defending our election systems,’ and ‘instituting strict conflict-of-interest and anti-corruption policies for every member of the Biden administration so there will be no more self-dealing.’

This non-exhaustive list is important as it reflects an essential truth about democracy – namely that it is about much more than holding periodic elections. True democracy requires that elections are free and fair – i.e. that all citizens have an equal chance to vote in, stand for and be elected to public office, and that politics should be free from corruption, conflicts of interest and foreign interference. Interestingly, and in an important nod to economic and social rights, Biden also made clear that equality of opportunity, rule of law, and equal access to justice, a quality education and healthcare, are also important bedrocks of a functioning democratic society.

Turning to the world stage, Biden commits to using the US’ restored moral leadership to ‘revitalize our national commitment to advancing human rights and democracy around the world.’ This would include resetting US policy in the area of women’s and girl’s rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights (this would, he said, include ending the ‘global gag rule, which prevents money from going to international NGOs that even talk about abortion;’ ‘reaffirming the ban on torture;’ and restoring the US’ commitment to science and truth in government, including bringing back the words ‘climate change.’

Perhaps most eye-catchingly, the Democratic nominee said that: ‘Having taken these essential steps to reinforce the democratic foundation of our country and inspire action in others, [we] will organize and host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World.’ Accordingly, and during his first year in office, Biden promised to ‘bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront the challenge of nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda to address threats to our common values.’

The Summit, he said, would prioritise results by securing new country commitments in three areas: (1) fighting corruption; (2) defending against authoritarianism, including election security; (3) advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad. It would involve and include civil society organisations from around the world, organisations, he said, ‘that stand on the frontlines in defence of our democracies.’ Moreover, the Summit would ‘issue a Call to Action for the private sector, including technology corporations and social media giants, to make their own commitments, recognizing their responsibilities and their overwhelming interest in preserving open, democratic societies and protecting free speech.’ For example, ‘technology companies – which benefit from the fruits of democracy – should make concrete pledges for how they can ensure their algorithms and platforms are not empowering the surveillance State, facilitating repression in China and elsewhere, spreading hate, spurring people to violence, and remaining susceptible to misuse.’

Finally, reiterating his view that the world must pay far greater attention to expanding and defending the integrity of free and fair elections, Biden spoke of the importance of initiatives such as the ‘Trans-Atlantic Commission on Election Integrity’ (of which he is a founding member), ‘to lead the fight back against Russia’s attacks on Western democracies.’ ‘The Commission,’ he noted, ‘has asked politicians across Europe to sign a pledge committing to transparency in campaign finance and to reject the use of fabricated or hacked material.’

‘Working together,’ Vice President Biden concluded, ‘democracies can and must confront the rise of populists, nationalists, and demagogues; the growing strength of autocratic powers and their efforts to divide and manipulate democracies; and the threats unique to our time, including the renewed threat of nuclear war, mass migration, the disruptive impact of new technologies, and climate change.’

For more the US election and human rights, check out the following:

The impact of the 2020 US presidential elections on human rights & international institutions

Reinvesting in rights: Why the next US administration must prioritize multilateralism to protect human rights

Using digital technology to systematically violate the right to vote: How the Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign used AI to suppress the votes of Black Americans

For 18% of Americans social media is their main source of news – what does this mean for the presidential elections?

Is digital technology rotting British and American democracy from the inside out

US presidential candidates set out markedly different positions on human rights, the Human Rights Council and the UN

What the ‘US Commission on Unalienable Rights’ gets wrong about the UN

‘The stakes couldn’t be higher’: social media, disinformation, and the survival of democracy

Featured photo: Screenshot from former Vice President Joe Biden’s speech at CUNY, 11 July 2019.

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