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Human Rights Under Siege

The cover of a report titled Human Rights Under Siege, with an image of Eleanor Roosevelt holding up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The cover of a report titled Human Rights Under Siege, with an image of Eleanor Roosevelt holding up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Executive Summary 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) marked its 75th anniversary this past December. For over half a century, the world embarked on a transformative journey to establish a new order founded on fundamental human rights. This period, mostly spearheaded by the United States, saw the building of bodies of international laws that have had a profound impact on the promotion and protection of human rights. However, the past two decades have witnessed a dramatic shift in the geopolitical landscape, characterized by the erosion of multilateralism, the rise of nationalism, the resurgence of authoritarian regimes, and the discernable retreat of US leadership in global human rights advocacy. Furthermore, there is a critical lack of trust in the US standing on human rights protection and a lack of confidence in international multilateral institutions now. The credibility of the United Nations, a cornerstone of the international human rights system, has increasingly been scrutinized due to perceived inefficiencies, partially because of great power rivalries, and its inability to adapt to the shifting dynamics of an ever-changing global environment. Amidst these changes, the global commitment to human rights has faced significant challenges, raising concerns about the future of human rights protection and promotion by leading nations such as the United States. By examining the policies and actions of the US as a leading state and the UN as the primary multinational institution through selected human rights case studies, this report delivers a comprehensive analysis of the pivotal factors shaping the current global human rights landscape. It zeroes in on the challenges and advancements within the frameworks underpinning human rights protection. Offering a critical evaluation of the US and other key members of the UN’s stance on human rights engagement—with a spotlight on Afghanistan (2001-2021) as a noteworthy instance of the UN’s and key member states’ extended commitment—the report delineates the factors contributing to the erosion of the international human rights architecture. It scrutinizes the repercussions of geopolitical shifts, the waning of US leadership in safeguarding human rights, and its relation with the inconsistent application of human rights norms. This scrutiny extends to the effects of US policies in various regions on America’s global moral standing. Ultimately, it seeks to present a nuanced external view on US reliability and UN effectiveness, underlining the perception of these global dynamics by those in the Global South and beyond, thus emphasizing the study’s significance in understanding and addressing the complexities of global human rights issues. 


The report outlines a concise set of recommendations to bolster international accountability for rights violations, reviving US leadership in human rights advocacy, enhancing multilateral collaboration, and boosting the effectiveness of global institutions such as the UN. These recommendations offer detailed explanations and examples to underscore their importance, aiming for practical and impactful improvements in the global human rights framework.

  • Strategic Pathways:Reviving US Leadership in Human Rights suggests reevaluating the US approach to global human rights, advocating for a recommitment to these universal principles amidst the challenges of major power competition and the increasing shift towards multipolarity.
  • Fostering Reform in the UN calls for the US to support reforms within the United Nations system, particularly within the Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, to enhance their effectiveness in promoting and protecting universal human rights.
  • Rebuilding Moral Authority emphasizes the need for US leadership that consistently upholds human rights standards, both domestically and internationally, to regain moral authority and its global leadership.
  • Prioritizing Victims in Human Rights and Humanitarian Crises advocates for a consistent and impartial US response to human rights and humanitarian crises, prioritizing the interests of victims over political or strategic considerations.
  • United in Action: Reinvigorate Bipartisan Support for Human Rights stresses the importance of reestablishing bipartisan support for human rights within US foreign policy to ensure consistency and reliability in the international arena. 
  • Enhancing the Efficacy of Targeted Sanctions: A Strategic Approach recommends a strategic use of sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, broadening their scope to include family members of violators and enhancing the verification process to ensure their effectiveness.
  • Between Courtesy and Consequence: Diplomatic Relations and Human Rights highlights the need for US diplomats to manage engagements with controversial political figures carefully to avoid inadvertently legitimizing human rights abusers. 
  • Expand the Coalition: A Multilateral Approach underscores the importance of building a broad and diverse coalition of international partners in both the Global South and North to strengthen the human rights regime. 

In conclusion, the report underscores the critical juncture at which the international community stands regarding the future of human rights advocacy. In this time of transition, it calls for a renewed commitment from the US and other global actors to navigate the complexities of the contemporary world order and reinforce the global human rights framework. Through strategic, principled action, it is possible to uphold the foundational values of dignity, freedom, and justice for future generations.

About the Author

A formal photo of Nader Nadery.

Nader Nadery

Senior Fellow;
Associate fellow, Asser Institute; Visiting fellow, Hoover Institute, Stanford
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Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more