To Regain Our Credibility on Human Rights, America Must Start At Home

Rep. Jim McGovern
4 min readJun 17, 2020

Scrolling through social media recently, you could be excused for confusing America with the authoritarian regimes the United States government regularly calls out for failing to respect the human rights of their people. Though the vast majority of protests over the murder of George Floyd have been peaceful and many leaders and police responded appropriately, it has been shocking to see some authorities attack and berate citizens and journalists.

As a Member of Congress I’ve often sat across from foreign leaders of countries with atrocious human rights records who are annoyed when I name victims of abuses in their countries and urge an end to oppression and state-sanctioned violence. As Chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, I’ve shined a light on human rights abuses all over the world and sought to end them by enacting legislation to make sure America’s soaring rhetoric on human rights is reflected in our diplomacy and the foreign and security assistance we provide.

I’ve done this recognizing that our own human rights record is far from perfect. I know that police brutality and voter suppression have long existed in the United States. I know that racism did not end with slavery but has pervaded our institutions and distorts policy to this day. To paraphrase de Tocqueville, what has set us apart and given us the moral authority to stand up for human rights all over the world, is not that we are more enlightened than other countries, but that we have sought to repair our faults by continuously striving to live up to our founding ideals.

When Americans in all their diversity poured into the streets to demand justice for George Floyd and countless others, they were continuing our greatest traditions.

After all, America is a country born from rebellion. American colonists took up arms against “a long train of abuses and usurpations” after their “repeated petitions” were answered by “repeated injury.” After we won the war for independence, the first amendment to the constitution declared that freedom of speech, the press, and assembly were as central to the American experiment as the separation of powers and checks and balances.

That is why it was so awful to hear the president of the United States call American protesters “terrorists” and threaten to send the U.S. military into the streets to crush them. Nothing is more un-American than for our nation’s leader to treat citizens exercising their rights and the journalists covering them as the enemy.

Nothing is more anti-American than putting up miles of fencing to wall off the People’s House from the public the president is elected to serve. American presidents are not supposed to act like tinpot dictators or hide from their own people.

Sadly, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the president and his enablers responded as they did. Since the moment he was elected, this president has reveled in his affinity for dictators.

His admiration for despots is well-documented, while he finds little good to say about the leaders of America’s democratic allies. He loves the power-grabbers, the strongmen, the breakers of norms and institutions. His go-to response to our nation’s cry for racial justice mirrored the heavy-handed authoritarian tactics he applauds abroad.

The president’s skewed concept of strength and his preference for bullying have been at the center of a foreign policy that has cost us greatly. His administration has ridden roughshod over alliances and withdrawn willy-nilly from treaties, multilateral institutions and arms control agreements that took decades to construct.

While he claims to defend human rights, his administration has denied refuge and asylum to people in wretched conditions in violation of U.S. law. The self-described “president of law and order” has pardoned American war criminals. His government is viciously attacking the International Criminal Court and seeks to redefine human rights in keeping with the narrow religious views of a minority.

These last four years have been an appalling spectacle. No administration has done more to damage international respect for America or undermine its moral voice than Trump’s. Then came George Floyd, and anger at American hypocrisy exploded around the world. Enough already.

I believe that the United States can and should defend human rights around the globe. To do that, we must stand up for human rights at home, too. It’s not enough to talk the talk, we must walk the walk.

To begin, that means embracing the protests set off by George Floyd’s killing and the changes that will come from them.

It means condemning police brutality in the U.S. as strongly as we condemn it in Hong Kong.

It means analyzing U.S. elections with the same lens we use for the rest of the world.

It means defending journalists and the free press at home just as we would in the Middle East.

It means standing up for the rights of African-Americans just as strongly as we do for Uyghurs and Tibetans.

Only by working to end human rights violations everywhere they occur, at home or abroad, will we as Americans regain our moral voice and recover the credibility we’ve lost.

After the last four years there is a lot of work to be done. But I am confident we will earn the world’s respect again, and soon.

Rep. Jim McGovern

Dad. Husband. #Worcester born & raised. Chairman of @RulesDemocrats & @CECCgov. Co-Chair of @TLhumanrights. Fighting to #EndHungerNow #OverturnCitizensUnited