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SPLC President: Marking International Human Rights Day as U.S. democracy is under attack

Later this week, President Biden will host an international Summit for Democracy, inviting more than 100 government leaders from across the world to join in a discussion on protecting democracies under attack. The summit will take place on Dec. 9 and 10, aligning with the commemoration of International Human Rights Day on the 10th.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations does not endorse democracy nor advocate for a particular model of government. When the declaration was signed in 1948, it was adopted by nearly every country around the world, not just those with democratically elected governments. And every government, whether elected, inherited or established by force, is still obligated by international law to respect human rights laws and norms.

But as the United Nations and the international community have developed legal treaties and conventions to define and better protect human rights, there has been a recognition that democratic societies are more likely to foster an environment that respects human rights and the will of the people. It is often the case that a democratic country can acknowledge a problem, publicly debate the issue and demand that elected representatives take action to address the problem. So, there is a broad consensus across different regions of the world and different cultural practices that democracy and human rights go together.

The alignment between democracy and human rights is perhaps most evident when both are threatened or attacked. An example of such an attack that seems most relevant to this week’s Summit for Democracy is the United States itself. Case in point, the Voting Rights Lab documented more than 2,500 elections bills introduced in the last year. Of these bills, 275 were enacted in 45 states. While some new laws sought to protect or expand voting rights, 47 laws seek to restrict voting rights and voter participation. For example, 13 states adopted laws to restrict voting by mail; five states imposed new barriers to registering new voters; seven states established new or tougher voter identification laws; and 15 states adopted laws that shift election authority, likely making the administration of elections more partisan.

At this very moment, the U.S. Senate is considering two pieces of legislation that would stop the escalating attacks on voting rights. The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore and strengthen provisions of the landmark Voting Rights Act adopted by Congress in 1965 and weakened by recent Supreme Court decisions. Additionally, the Freedom to Vote Act would overturn many of the recent state laws seeking to restrict voting or to use partisan redistricting. The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed both pieces of legislation, but the Senate is stuck because the Republican Party has refused to allow a vote on the bills.

If the United States, which prides itself on its democratic roots and ideals, is no longer able to protect its citizens’ right to vote, then we must ask whether the country is able to stop any other human rights violations. If American citizens do not have a voice in electing their representatives, can they expect the U.S. government to address problems such as poverty, harmful policing or hate crimes? Can the United States claim leadership as a champion of human rights when our own democracy is eroding? The answer is a clear and resounding “no.”

If the Summit for Democracy is intended as an opportunity to demonstrate the value of democratic governance, then the Biden administration must deliver on protecting the right to vote here at home in the United States. The top priority for this administration should be getting the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act passed through the Senate this month. Otherwise, democracy becomes a rhetorical flourish, rather than a commitment to the people of the United States that our human rights matter.

Top photo: In this photo illustration, the logo for the Summit for Democracy - a virtual summit hosted by the United States - is seen displayed on a smartphone and on the background. (Rafael Henrique/Sipa USA/AP Images)