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Human Rights Advocacy Is Changing Tones Under The Biden Administration

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Human rights advocacy is taking on a new tone during the Biden administration. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says he's not only placing a priority on promoting basic freedoms. He's also brushing aside the Trump administration's attempt to make some rights more important than others. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo often complained about the proliferation of human rights. He had his State Department focus on a more narrow view, with property rights and religious freedoms at the forefront. Secretary Blinken repudiates that, saying human rights are coequal.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: There is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others. Past unbalanced statements that suggest such a hierarchy, including those offered by a recently disbanded State Department advisory committee, do not represent a guiding document for this administration.

KELEMEN: Blinken made the statement as he released the annual report on human rights, which is mandated by Congress. He says this year, he'll have his staff add addendums to the report to cover reproductive rights around the world.

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BLINKEN: Because women's rights, including sexual and reproductive rights, are human rights.

KELEMEN: Pompeo had removed those sections in the annual report. Blinken says human rights will be a priority for this administration, and he says the U.S. will speak out more as human rights defenders, anticorruption activists and journalists come under attack.

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BLINKEN: Too often in recent years, these defenders heard only silence from us. President Biden says that America is back. We are back for those brave advocates, as well. We will not be silent.

KELEMEN: But getting countries to improve their rights record will be a challenge. Blinken accuses China of an ongoing genocide against Muslim Uyghurs. He's spoken out about atrocities in Ethiopia's Tigray Region, ongoing attacks in Syria and the targeting of dissidents in Russia and Belarus. The U.S. has also tried targeted sanctions to pressure coup leaders in Myanmar to end a crackdown there. So far, that pressure hasn't worked.

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BLINKEN: One thing is clear. It's that the people of Burma are speaking clearly. They don't want to live under military rule. And that is evident from what we're seeing and hearing and witnessing.

KELEMEN: The coronavirus pandemic has created more problems. The State Department says some governments have used the crisis as a pretext to restrict human rights.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.