The rightful president of Belarus, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, appeared via video last month before the United Nations Human Rights Council. Her country’s August election, she declared, had been “stolen.”
Despite objections from a representative of the Belarusian government, who said she had no right to address the body, Ms. Tikhanovskaya implored the United Nations to act. “Standing up for democratic principles and human rights is not interfering in internal affairs,” she insisted, “it is a universal question of human dignity.”
No one knows how Donald Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis will affect his presidential campaign, but before falling ill, he repeatedly suggested that he won’t accept the results of the election, should he lose. In that case, Joe Biden should follow Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s example and appeal to the world for help.
For many Americans — raised to see the United States as the natural leader of the “free world” — it may be hard to imagine requesting foreign intervention against tyranny in our own land. But as historians like Gerald Horne and Carol Anderson have detailed, there’s a long history of Black Americans doing exactly that.
From 1845 to 1847, Frederick Douglass delivered more than 180 speeches imploring British audiences to intervene against American slavery. After World War I, when President Woodrow Wilson unveiled the Fourteen Points that he hoped would structure the postwar world, the National Equal Rights League, led by William Trotter and Ida Wells-Barnett, asked the Paris Peace Conference to adopt a 15th: The “elimination of civil, political and judicial distinctions based on race or color in all nations.”
After World War II, the sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois edited a 94-page pamphlet that the N.A.A.C.P. presented to every ambassador to the new United Nations. “Peoples of the world,” it declared, “we American Negroes appeal to you; our treatment in America is not merely an internal question of the United States. It is a basic problem of humanity; of democracy.”
In 1951, the entertainer-activist Paul Robeson handed U.N. officials a 200-page document alleging that America’s treatment of its Black citizens violated the organization’s convention against genocide. In 1964, Malcolm X beseeched Africa’s newly independent governments to “recommend an immediate investigation” into American racism by the U.N. Human Rights Council.
This June, relatives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile and Michael Brown endorsed a letter calling on the council “to urgently convene a special session on the situation of human rights in the United States.”
Joe Biden is not W.E.B. Du Bois, let alone Malcolm X. But the party he leads now faces chronic racist disenfranchisement. The more the Democratic Party becomes a vehicle for Black political empowerment, the less its votes count.
Democrats must now win the popular vote by three, four or even five percentage points to be assured of winning the Electoral College. They must achieve that margin in the face of a strenuous Republican effort to ensure that many Democratic ballots are not counted. And even if they overcome both of those obstacles, Mr. Trump may still not concede.
That’s why Du Bois’s appeal to the world remains so relevant. By impeding Black voters, the United States still violates the democratic principles it has helped enshrine into international law. After observing America’s 2018 midterm elections, a team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe cataloged a long list of undemocratic practices, from the disenfranchisement of former prisoners to the District of Columbia’s lack of congressional representation to discriminatory voter identification laws, and concluded that, in critical ways, American elections “contravene O.S.C.E. commitments and international standards with regard to universal and equal suffrage.”
What Mr. Trump is doing this year, the election-monitoring expert Judith Kelley, the dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, recently told The Boston Globe, is the kind of activity that international election observers “would go to countries and write up huge reports about and say, ‘Red flag! Red flag!’”
Democrats should spend the coming weeks working to ensure that this year’s O.S.C.E. observer mission — despite being banned from many states, especially in the Deep South — can do exactly that. Then, if Mr. Trump and his allies halt the counting of ballots, or disregard them altogether, Democrats should use the O.S.C.E’s report as evidence in an appeal to the same body where Ms. Tikhanovskaya made hers: the U.N. Human Rights Council.
They should also lodge a complaint with the Organization of American States, a regional organization that has pledged “to respond rapidly and collectively in defense of democracy,” and which in 2009 used that mandate to suspend Honduras after its government carried out a coup.
To professed political realists, this may sound laughably naïve. In practice, international do-gooders at the United Nations and Organization of American States are virtually powerless against the most powerful government on earth.
But that’s not the point. While appealing to international bodies may not change the election’s result, it could change the Democratic Party itself. Today, many prominent Democrats remain enthralled by the very myths about American exceptionalism that Black activists have long challenged.
They routinely exempt American behavior from the international standards to which they demand other countries comply. If, for example, China regularly sent drones into other countries to conduct extrajudicial killings not just of suspected terrorists but also of government officials, Democrats would denounce it as a grave violation of the “rules-based international order” they extol.
But when the Trump administration assassinated Qassim Suleimani, one of Iran’s most powerful officials, in January, Mr. Biden said he “deserved to be brought to justice” and worried merely about the killing’s practical effects. The 2020 Democratic platform mentions international law just once.
Americans are not so inherently virtuous that they can safely disregard the moral discipline that international oversight provides. Wells-Barnett, Du Bois and Robeson understood that from brutal, firsthand experience. Now that Mr. Biden and other white Democrats are tasting disenfranchisement themselves, they need to learn that lesson, too.
Peter Beinart (@PeterBeinart), a professor of journalism and political science at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, is the editor at large of Jewish Currents and a fellow at the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
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