The Trump administration said it didn’t attend two Tuesday hearings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights because the topics being discussed are related to matters currently in litigation, according to the U.S. State Department. The Commission, which is meeting in Washington, D.C. this week to discuss human rights issues in North and South America, planned to discuss on Tuesday, the new U.S. travel ban, the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement and detention policies, and the administration’s approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“The two thematic hearings held today related, directly or indirectly, to matters currently in litigation,” and “participants at both thematic hearings included parties to such ongoing litigation,” a State Department official said in a statement to Just Security. “We note that our decision not to participate in these hearings does not have any bearing on current or future U.S. engagement with the Commission.”
Legal experts at the State Department deemed it “not appropriate” to discuss these issues in open session while litigation is ongoing in U.S. courts, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday on a call with reporters.
But for some human rights advocates, the absence of the US at Tuesday’s hearing represented another troubling signal about the U.S. commitment to international bodies and human rights issues under the Trump administration. The George W. Bush Administration, for example, actively participated in proceedings before the Inter-American Commission on Guantanamo while litigation by Guantanamo detainees was ongoing in federal court.
According to the ACLU, the move is highly unusual if not unprecedented. In the past, the US has “occasionally protested by sending lower-level officials,” but the regional human rights body, which is part of the Organization of American States, has “enjoyed the support of every U.S. administration since its founding,” wrote Jamil Dakwar, the director of ACLU’s Human Rights Program.
The US was not the only country facing scrutiny at the Commission this week. The week’s worth of hearings also looked at the human rights situations in Mexico, Honduras, Panama, Chile, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.
Human rights advocates are warily watching the Trump administration for signs that it intends to continue the U.S. tradition of championing human rights around the world. But so far, the signs aren’t good. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson chose not to personally unveil State’s annual report on human right across the globe, as his predecessors have typically done. His absence attracted criticism from human rights groups as well as members of Congress. In February, POLITICO reported that the Trump administration was considering pulling the United States out of the UN Human Rights Council, partly because it sees the body as overly critical of Israel.
The responses that Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, gave at his Senate confirmation hearing also raised a few red flags.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) asked Tillerson: “In your opinion, is Saudi Arabia a human rights violator?”
Tillerson’s responded, “Saudi Arabia certainly does not share the same values of America. However, American interests have been advocating in Saudi Arabia for some time. And I think the question is what is the pace of progress that should be expected for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to advance rights to women and others in the country.”
Tillerson went on to say, “In terms of when you designate someone or label someone, the question is: Is that the most effective way to have progress continue to be made in Saudi Arabia or any other country?”
On Tuesday, the State Department statement included a continued commitment to human rights standards of the Inter-American system in stating: “The promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms, as embodied in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and the Inter-American Democratic Charter, is a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.”