Foreign PolicyForeign Policy

The Old Human Rights Playbook Won’t Work Anymore

By Suzanne Nossel

02 Aug 2022 · 7 min read

Editor's Note

FP analyses how human rights diplomacy shouldn't be reduced to a single soundbite or statement, but be judged over time on the basis of lives saved and justice upheld.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent visit to the Middle East showed human rights advocates that even a sympathetic Oval Office is no guarantee that rights won’t be shunted to the sidelines by competing priorities. Biden opened his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by implicitly accusing the de facto leader of ordering the butchering of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But the message was rendered hollow by images of the president fist-bumping the crown prince as well as by the security and economic agenda that dominated the meeting.

In an era of resurgent great-power rivalry, rights advocates may have to get used to being disappointed when it comes to high-stakes human rights brinkmanship. But while human rights may have lost this round, the cause is hardly down for the count. Although the media treats splashy trips and pronouncements as the mark of a human rights commitment, the true measure is broader and deeper. Those concerned with defending rights in the Middle East and worldwide need to take stock of the geopolitical constraints of the moment and find ways to work around them.

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