by Samuel Boehms

The Coronavirus pandemic is proving to be a global crisis the likes of which the world has not seen for almost a century. Not since the Second World War have so many people from countries across every continent been affected by a single event. Diseases like this are not contained by borders; they show no prejudice for nation or creed. 

The spread of the virus presented an opportunity for the nations of the world to stand united against this global threat. However, as the pandemic grows, nations have acted with uncoordinated responses to stem its spread. Instead of turning to mechanisms like the World Health Organization or the UN that have spent decades preparing for a global crisis such as this, we have instead closed our borders, placed blame on international partners, and turned inward to our own isolated efforts to protect our citizens and economies. 

It is true that this crisis will pass. A vaccine will be discovered, people will go back to work, and a sense of normalcy will return to our daily lives. I am less optimistic, however, about what lasting effects this pandemic will have on the international community and the institutions and commitments that embody it. But the decline of internationalism did not begin with Covid-19. It may just be the final nail in the coffin. The last few years have seen the United States withdraw from the Paris Accord, Russia use its veto power in the UN Security Council to block intervention in Syria, and the United Nations’ inability to prevent China from violating the human rights of millions of its ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet. Any one of these events could be pointed to as the beginning of the end.

Some could argue that institutions like the UN were never as effective as we had hoped they would be. But what could we expect when one of its founding members and largest patrons, the United States, consistently behaves as if the rules that they advocate for others do not apply to them? Out of 18 treaties that compose the corpus of international human rights law, the United States has ratified only 5 of them. Even non-democracies like China or Saudi Arabia have ratified more. If the United States is seriously interested in the success of the international project, then it has an obligation to fully cooperate in, and hold itself subject to, the same human rights norms and commitments that are expected from every other nation of the world. 

Some would argue that by subjecting the United States to the conventions of the United Nations, it would force it to forfeit its sovereignty and abandon its greatness. Nothing could be further from the truth. The US’ engagement in the human rights system should be considered as an opportunity to fulfill the unique promise that is enshrined in the founding spirit of the nation. American exceptionalism is not a condition that exempts it from its obligations to the international community, it is the ever-evolving challenge that the nation must strive to achieve by embodying the rights and responsibilities fundamental to a democratic society and world.

If the international project is to survive the challenges posed by pandemics, authoritarianism and climate change, then it will depend upon all nations of the world to reaffirm their commitment to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of their citizens. For the US, this means taking a deep look at how its government is actually living up to its obligations to Americans within its own borders, but it also means fulfilling its commitments internationally. It is true that some nations will continue to infringe upon the human rights of their citizens. But by committing itself to human rights, the US deprives them of the excuse of American hypocrisy and double standards while at the same time cultivating a global environment that will be less and less tolerant of violators of international norms. In fact, the quickest way to ensure the legitimacy of international law is for a powerful country like the United States to respect the norms and abide by the institutions that enforce them. 

It is difficult to expect that the current administration will do an about-turn and engage with the international community. President Trump has already withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord, The UN Human Rights Council, and UNESCO. Even more alarmingly,  the Trump administration announced that it would halt funding for the World Health Organization even as a serious pandemic continues to spread unabated across the globe. 

Instead, much will depend on the success of Joe Biden, the expected Democratic presidential nominee. If Biden is serious about winning over progressives who supported Bernie Sanders, as well as reversing American isolationism under Trump, then his international platform should reflect this commitment. Biden should pledge to not only re-engage with the international institutions that Trump has abandoned, but also to the ratification of the international human rights instruments that the US has yet to recognize. Principally, the International Convention on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, which is at the bedrock of the progressive movement’s call for social justice in response to rising inequality.

However, these are just symbolic pledges unless the US actually allows itself to be held subject to the existing mechanisms that enforce human rights standards. For example, the US should cooperate with the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court in her investigation into human rights violations committed during the Afghan conflict. Doing so would demonstrate the country’s willingness to truly hold itself accountable to its human rights obligations.

The Coronavirus crisis has presented us with a telling example of why we need international cooperation. The worst outcomes of this global pandemic could have been averted had we truly had a global community, defined by common values and commitments, where states could have shared resources and strategies. Unfortunately, this time the global community was not prepared, and tens of thousands of victims will have died as a result. However, this is not the last crisis that we will face, and we still have time to strengthen ourselves for the next one. 

The prospects for the global community depend upon world leaders like the US re-engaging with international institutions. This engagement can no longer be based upon pragmatism alone, but instead upon a true commitment to human rights and meaningful cooperation. As the world remains frozen in the face of the pandemic, the nations of the world must take this opportunity to stop and take stock. What is it that unites us? Do we only recognize our common links in the vulnerability that we face in times of crises, or can our pledge to human rights be the shared bond that joins humanity together?