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Trump’s Muddled Message on Human Rights and Security

 

It seems that President Donald Trump and his Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, have their wires crossed yet again. The president, despite strong objections from human rights activists and many foreign policy professionals, hosted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi this week at the White House, even referring to him as a “fantastic guy.” The visit coincided with the first working day of the United States’ rotating presidency of the UN Security Council.  Haley has said she would use the body, which currently includes Egypt as a member, to highlight the connection between human rights violations and insecurity – a connection which remains strong.

The data on what drives support for terrorism and violent extremism is clear: State violence against its own population is among the single largest factors in support for “terrorist” or violent extremist organizations. Excessive and routine police brutality are among the key sources of grievance within communities that violent extremist propaganda exploits.

According to the U.S. Department of State’s human rights report, the continuing crackdown on dissent by authoritarian governments, including in Egypt, contributed to a rising tide of human rights abuses that has allowed terrorist groups to flourish.  This year has seen governments arresting civil society actors for peaceful protest, criminalizing speech and media oversight, and passing anti-migrant and anti-refugee policies in the face of unprecedented levels of global human suffering. Overly broad definitions of terrorism or violent extremism, particularly across the Middle East, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa, are too often used to criminalize the legitimate actions of opposition groups, civil society organizations, and human rights defenders.

Yet, rather than consistently reminding his counterparts and the public of the need to fight terrorism through policies that protect the basic rights and freedoms of their citizens – because this is actually the most effective security strategy – President Trump reportedly prefers to handle the human rights concerns swirling around Sisi and others in private, although there is no evidence that they are in fact raised even there.

With her boss once-again kowtowing to “strongmen,” Haley seems committed to take a more productive approach. Last month she told the Council on Foreign Relations that she “intend[s] to challenge member states to start walking the walk and not just talking the talk of human rights.”  This walk should begin with counterterrorism and shinning a spotlight on human rights abuses that are committed in the name of combating terrorism.  Elevating human rights issues within the Security Council – and thus doing away with the outdated practice of leaving all such issues for treatment by the often ineffective and too easily ignored UN human rights machinery in Geneva –  offers a unique opportunity to do something that President Trump seems unwilling to do: publicly highlight where governments are falling to meet their human rights obligations and how such failures undermine security efforts.

This starting point makes sense for a number of reasons. The UN Security Council has imposed a robust counterterrorism framework through a series of resolutions dating back nearly two decades. It not only regularly reminds governments that all counterterrorism legislative and operational measures must respect human rights, but that a failure to do so can undermine security objectives, including by generating grievances that terrorist recruiters can exploit. Further, the Council, through its counterterrorism bodies, which includes human rights experts, has accumulated perhaps the most comprehensive data on each countries’ CT measures and practice. Finally, the Council – thanks to its Chapter VII mandate under the UN Charter – is not only uniquely placed to assess the extent to which each country is in compliance with the UN framework, but to call out those countries that are not walking the walk.

Ambassador Haley’s ambition to name and shame human rights abusers on the international stage is likely to be met by strong opposition from Council members such as China, Ethiopia, Russia, and of course, Egypt which somewhat paradoxically chairs the Council’s main counterterrorism body.  However, this should not dissuade her from trying to “challenge the rules of the club” and push the Council to move to unchartered waters.  Yet perhaps more than the intransigence of alleged human rights abusers on the Council,  the behavior and policies of her own boss, with his overtures to Egypt, his resumption of arms sales to Bahrain despite its horrific human rights record, his stance on torture and Guantanamo Bay, and recent moves to loosen restrictions that were put in place to prevent civilian deaths from drone attacks, are more  likely to undermine her noble effort.

Image: Drew Angerer/Getty

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About the Authors

is a nonresident senior fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings and director of “The Prevention Project: Organizing Against Violent Extremism” in Washington, D.C.

is Founder and Executive Director of the Global Center on Cooperative Security.