“Human rights are at a nadir in Egypt,” wrote Human Rights Watch on the eve of President Donald Trump’s Monday meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the White House. But Sisi’s strongman rule, which began with a coup in 2013, is a cause for admiration not concern for the new American president, and their visit together is meant to “reboot” the US-Egypt relationship.
Trump’s welcoming of Sisi with open arms follows last week’s news that the State Department planned to support the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain without requiring the country to improve its human rights record as the Obama administration had done.
These decisions are just the latest in a series of moves that has everyone from human rights advocates to Republican senators worried. Last week, the US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley called the UN Human Rights Council “so corrupt” without offering any evidence. The Trump administration didn’t attend recent hearings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, saying the topics being discussed were related to matters currently in litigation, a claim that advocates said wasn’t credible. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson chose not to personally unveil the State Department’s annual report on human rights across the globe, as his predecessors have typically done. 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. During his Senate confirmation hearing Tillerson’s responses, especially on Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, also raised red flags. Then there’s Trump’s personal admiration for strongmen in addition to Sisi, like Putin and Duterte.
Are all of the signals alarming? Not quite. In its statement on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the State Department included a continued commitment to human rights standards, 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.” Haley slammed Russia and China when they opposed a Security Council resolution to impose sanctions for Syria’s use of chemical weapons. At his confirmation hearing, Tillerson did make statements like: “Our moral light must not go out if we are to remain an agent of freedom for mankind. Supporting human rights in our foreign policy is a key component of clarifying to a watching world what America stands for.” And the US hasn’t left the UN Human Rights Council, at least not yet.
Trump officials have clearly given verbal support to international human rights but is that commitment anything more than lip service? If words spoke louder than actions, Trump’s record might be viewed more favorably. For those keeping score, the list of things the Trump administration has done in its first few months in office to threaten human rights at home and abroad is a long one. Check out Columbia Law School’s Trump Human Rights tracker for more.
Taking all of this into account, what are we to make of the Trump administration’s attitude toward international human rights? Is all of this concern exaggerated or is it time to panic? To find out, I asked some of the top human rights lawyers, experts and advocates in the field today. Here’s what they had to say:
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch
So far we’ve seen no principled commitment to promoting human rights. We’ve heard broad pledges of support, but they have been applied only for traditional adversaries or when ignoring a problem would be too damaging even for the Trump administration’s credibility. Most of the time, when any competing interest has been at stake, human rights have been jettisoned.
David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression
I don’t know if the sky is falling, but in specific areas, I believe there is the potential for real regression in the U.S. commitment to rights and to the institutions that support the victims of abuse worldwide. Of course, the administration is seeking to intimidate the press (so far unsuccessfully, by and large) and is taking specific steps to undermine access to information, as we see with the limited press availabilities at State and the imminent arrival of a Fox journalist as spokesperson. Nikki Haley’s swipe at the Human Rights Council shows a total lack of awareness of the range of things that happen in that forum, even if it could genuinely use some reform. And then at the state level, we see draconian proposals to undermine the right to protest. Does this mean the sky is falling? I don’t know, but it certainly reflects and implements a posture of disdain for the rules that govern democratic societies.
Pablo De Greiff, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence
In some ways, it’s too early to tell what the final position of the Trump administration will be regarding human rights. But the fact that the executive branch of a country, which thinks of itself as a stalwart supporter of human rights, is so ambiguous about rights is in itself a cause for concern. It is worth remembering too that U.S. self perception has not always matched reality as the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, the detentions without charges at Guantanamo, and the torture of detainees in the rendition program revealed. Still human rights and the international architecture that sustains them does deserve much better, even at the rhetorical level. As with so much else lately, human rights are spoken of in transactional terms. Rights and justice, however, are not akin to goods to be traded. As expressions of values, they are supposed to provide the framework within which fair transactions between countries, peoples, individuals, can take place.
Juan E. Mendez, former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture (2010-2016)
Of course, every day we will have something else to add to this list. The accusations by the Ambassador to the UN against the Human Rights Council, instead of attempting to correct obvious deficiencies, are meant to weaken or destroy the UN’s human rights machinery of treaty bodies and special procedures, and leave them at the mercy of member states with appalling human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia, which the U.S. government refuses to criticize.
These developments are about human rights concerns as integral to U.S. foreign policy. But for such a policy to be effective — or even to any good in the world — it cannot be disassociated from the U.S. government’s own practices that violate human rights, because promotion and defense of human rights abroad demands, first and foremost, consistency and credibility. In that regard, the [draft] Executive Orders allowing for more detainees to be brought to Guantanamo and to allow the CIA to operate black sites abroad are worrisome.
More specifically regarding torture, I see as positive features that Trump’s own cabinet members have said that waterboarding and other techniques do not work and are counterproductive. Hopefully, Trump’s own words to the contrary will be yet another example of irresponsible bluster. Also, Congress has now outlawed any form of torture or ill treatment. And finally, even if torture were to be brought back covertly or clandestinely, I am confident that the public will know it instantly and will react with formidable challenges to it. Reaction by the courts and by civil society to the immigration bans show that such backward steps towards illegal and immoral actions will not stand.
Sarah Knuckey, director of the Human Rights Clinic, and the faculty co-director of the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School
The Trump administration’s actions demonstrate disdain for human rights across the civil, political, social, and economic rights spectrum. In just two months, Trump’s administration has already taken numerous actions that violate, undermine, or seriously risk harming human rights around the world. His administration undermined women’s rights by reinstating the “global gag” rule, which blocks funding for international NGOs providing abortion services overseas. His administration undermined indigenous rights and risked the right to water by advancing the construction of the Dakota Access and Keystone pipelines. Privacy rights were harmed when he took action to exclude non-US citizens from agency privacy policies. The Muslim Bans violated the right to non-discrimination. A wide range of other actions–related to transgender students, voter ID laws, migrants without documentation, transparency requirements for mining companies, as well as arms sales to Bahrain, undoing efforts to fight climate change, inviting an anti-LGBT hate group to the UN, failing to show up at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights — all harm the protection and advancement of human rights.
Tyler Giannini, co-director of Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program and its International Human Rights Clinic
Human rights and advocating for their protection is all the more important right now when the U.S. government will not be a leader on this front. Human rights groups know very well what it is like to work without a government that is friendly to human rights. That is too often the norm and usually at the heart of their work. It should not be a time to panic, but instead a time when human rights work is going to be even more relevant and needed.
James Silk, director of Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School
It would be dangerously negligent not to see this as an uncertain time for human rights and not to be especially vigilant. The Administration has not only shown no commitment to international law, international human rights or international cooperation, but its acts and rhetoric have shown a determination to neglect and even to affirmatively damage the most vulnerable, whether racial minorities, people of diverse religious beliefs, children, the disabled, or refugees. Human rights remains a powerful tool, especially as a language for principled resistance to tyranny and barbarism and for building solidarity around seemingly disparate issues, as we saw so vividly in the Women’s March and have continued to see in many forms since. I believe that we in human rights will stay the course, not turning our backs on the atrocities and poverty that already plagued the world and that will persist, but turning some of our attention toward using human rights to hold this government accountable, to build support for efforts to block its most egregious acts, to create pressure on it to live up to our legal and moral obligations.
Image: Drew Angerer/Getty