Last week’s insurrection at the Capitol made one thing clear:
This is not a moment for American exceptionalism.
As a mob incited by politicians refusing to accept the results of a free and fair election descended on the Capitol, President-elect Joe Biden sought to reassure the nation and the world, saying, “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are.”
And yet, it happened here.
We cannot pretend America is immune from political violence or that our democratic institutions are invulnerable to attack. We cannot ignore the potential for authoritarianism to take root in our country. At the Center for Justice and Accountability, we’ve learned that no society can take the rule of law for granted – we have seen this firsthand in countries around the world. And the United States is no different.
What we’ve also learned over two decades of responding to the most serious of human rights abuses is that impunity for the violations of today leads to the atrocities of tomorrow. Our country must hold those attempting to subvert our democracy accountable. The public must know the truth of what occurred. Wrongdoers must face consequences for their conduct.
CJA calls on the incoming Biden administration and the new Congress to take a stand for human rights and the rule of law. This starts with accountability for the political violence we saw last week.
We’ve seen what happens when world leaders who incite violence are not held to account: the violence simply continues. We’ve fought tirelessly for justice alongside survivor communities following atrocities committed under dictators in Cambodia, Syria, and Somalia. We’ve learned that atrocity begets atrocity, because impunity simply emboldens those who abuse their power over others.
While shocking, the events of last week were also a predictable culmination of years of systematic attack on human rights and the rule of law.
From pardoning war criminals to cozying up with countries accused of the most serious human rights abuses, the Trump administration demonstrated time and again that there would be no consequences for engaging in gross violations of law. We should not be surprised that the insurrectionists who erected gallows outside the Capitol or the politicians who incited them thought they could act with impunity.
The isolationist, “America First” policies of the Trump administration undermined the work of international bodies seeking to combat atrocity crimes. Through inconsistent and self-serving engagement with the international human rights framework, the administration rejected universally established human rights principles. And all the while, human rights abuses raged on at home – from police killings to immigration policies constituting torture.
The Biden administration and new Congress have the opportunity to chart a better course – for justice at home and abroad, and to prevent future abuses in the process.
First, they must combat human rights abuses occurring right now, right here in the United States. 2020 saw renewed outrage over the extrajudicial killings of Black Americans by police, and the events of last week laid bare the gross disparities in the way law enforcement engages with non-white communities. We urge the Biden administration and Congress to take steps to end impunity for state violence against Black Americans and ensure reparations for current and past human rights violations committed against Black communities.
The Biden administration has pledged to rejoin the international order. As part of that reengagement, we urge it to resurrect America’s leadership role on human rights and support international mechanisms dedicated to the pursuit of justice. This includes rescinding the Executive Order sanctioning individuals associated with the International Criminal Court. President Trump issued the Executive Order in response to the Court’s investigation of potential war crimes committed by the United States. If America is to restore its standing in the international community, it cannot be above the law.
Lastly, we ask that the Biden administration and Congress take steps to strengthen our domestic institutions to ensure that survivors of human rights abuses have an opportunity to seek justice and redress. We support legislative reform to expand criminal and civil accountability for a broader range of human rights violations, including crimes against humanity. We also urge the Biden State Department to address policies around immunity for foreign officials accused of committing atrocity crimes. We must ensure that victims of the most serious rights abuses have a remedy in U.S. courts.
President-elect Biden once said, “No president of the United States could represent the United States were he not committed to human rights.” We will work to hold him to that commitment.
Last week’s violent insurrection was a grim reminder that accountability failures for violations big and small create a culture of impunity where the unthinkable becomes reality. It is our hope that the Biden administration and new Congress will take meaningful action to renew our nation’s commitment to human rights and accountability at home and around the world.