Wallet as Weapon: the Coming US Assault on the International Human Rights System

These days, the Trump administration is not just threatening human rights with executive orders, tomahawk missiles and tweets. It is also wielding the government’s wallet as a weapon against the international human rights system, proposing to cut or withhold billions of dollars in funding for a variety of international institutions that play crucial roles in the defense and promotion of human rights. While all eyes are trained on the Oval Office, Congress should keep the fisc in focus and ensure that whatever public stance this administration takes toward human rights, its actions don’t extend to undermining the financial viability of the international system as we know it. Such a move would do far more damage to human rights, here at home and abroad, than any token gesture of US withdrawal or non-cooperation.

Since well before he took office, President Donald Trump voiced his skepticism of the United Nations and other international bodies. He has repeatedly questioned US engagement in multilateral fora, from the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the UN Human Rights Council to NATO and NAFTA. Much has been written about his assault on internationalism. What has garnered less attention though is the more subtle financial assault on international institutions that is just now starting to be waged. Even short of withdrawing from the Human Rights Council or abandoning the Inter-American system, the Trump administration can do immense damage through its withdrawal of funds.

In January, a draft executive order threatened to cut funding to international institutions and to pull the United States out of various multilateral treaties. While that order has never been finalized or signed, the president’s proposed 2018 Budget aims to make good on that threat, by reducing or eliminating billions in funding for United Nations’ peacekeeping operations and climate change initiatives, among other international programs.

Human rights bodies are particularly vulnerable. The United States is the single largest donor to the United Nations, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which houses many of the UN’s principal human rights institutions, including the Human Rights Council. The OHCHR gets less than half of its budget from general UN funds; it raises the rest through voluntary contributions, principally from member States. From 2016 to 2017, the United States made the highest contribution among donor countries to the human rights body’s operations. All US funds, however, are earmarked for specific programs, limiting the unrestricted resources available for OHCHR to respond to urgent issues. The Trump administration has not only sought to undercut the Human Rights Council with sharp words, like those voiced by US envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley; it has also threatened to undermine the Council’s capacity through under-funding, effectively holding US financial power over the human rights body’s head. 

At the regional level, too, the United States wields influence as a contributor to various human rights mechanisms, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). Given the increasing hostile environment for human rights defenders in many countries around the world, these regional bodies represent a crucial last resort—they are often the only places where individuals and communities facing abuses can be heard and can obtain access to protection and remedy. In recent years, a growing number of advocates have called upon the Inter-American Commission to address human rights issues in the United States, from discriminatory police brutality to the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program. But just last month, for the first time, the United States refused to appear at hearings before the IACHR, which planned to examine the human rights impacts of Trump’s immigration ban and his approval of the Dakota access pipeline. To explain its nonappearance, the State Department cited conflicts with ongoing litigation. But its absence was not just a snub to the Commissioners, it was a signal to abusive governments around the world that it is acceptable to dodge international accountability. Already, the IACHR is facing an unprecedented and crippling funding crisis. Any backsliding in US support for the Commission would jeopardize its critical role monitoring and investigating rights violations throughout the Americas.

This threat extends beyond institutions with “human rights” in their titles. International bodies dedicated to protecting refugees and migrants also face an uncertain future. The Trump administration has blocked refugees from entering the US, first in its Jan. 27 Executive Order, and later in its revised version, published March 6. President Trump has also proposed to eliminate the Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance (ERMA) fund, an account administered by the State Department. These actions have led many to fear that US support for the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)—the world’s top refugee rights agency—will soon be on the chopping block. In 2016, the United States provided $1.5 billion of the UNHCR’s approximately $4 billion budget. But UNHCR faces a significant funding gap, as record numbers of people have been forced to flee conflicts around the world. Any budget cuts could put millions of refugees in danger and at further risk of rights violations. They would also place even greater strains on those countries—often among the poorest—that shoulder the heaviest burdens of accommodating refugee populations today.

Health programs are likewise under the gun, putting sexual and reproductive health rights, in particular, at risk. Shortly after taking office, President Trump signed an order that bans US funding for any foreign non-governmental organizations that counsel clients regarding abortion or engage in abortion-related advocacy, reinstating and expanding the so-called “global gag rule.” According to the State Department’s report to Congress on funding for international organizations, the United States committed $67.9 million in fiscal year 2016 to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), an organization whose mission is to “deliver a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.” Then, on April 3, the State Department announced that it is ending UNFPA funding. The justification offered by the State Department for this about-face is that UNFPA “supports, or participates in the management of, a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization” in China. The UNFPA released an official statement refuting that claim. Meanwhile, health experts fear the consequences of Trump’s policies for the reproductive rights and wellbeing of millions of women worldwide.

Trump’s budget proposal also recommends capping US contributions to UN peacekeeping operations at 25 percent. The United States was the top provider of assessed contributions to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in 2016, providing 28.6 percent of the agency’s funds. Adding up peacekeeping-related contributions listed in the State Department report for fiscal year 2016, US funding for DPKO activities amounted to nearly $2.6 billion. The level of US support varies across peacekeeping missions, reflecting the politics that underlie decisions to deploy the “blue helmets,” and proposed cuts are likely to be similarly uneven. As reported by Foreign Policy, Trump has instructed the State Department to trim at least $1 billion from funds to the DPKO, but it is not yet clear where cuts will be made. So far, those operations considered important to US counter-terrorism interests, such as the peacekeeping mission in Mali, seem likely to be spared, but it is uncertain whether similar priority will be given to UN missions where grave human rights violations persist.

Sounding the alarm over threatened budget cuts to the DPKO and other international organizations is by no means to say that these institutions do no harm, or that US funding is necessarily an unqualified force for good. Such a view would be naïve at best, and blind to the fact that there have been many instances in which the activities of international actors around the world have had adverse impacts, even when undertaken in the name of human rights and humanitarian aid. The numerous reports of persistent sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers, for example, have prompted public outcry and heightened scrutiny by human rights groups. Earlier this year, a report of the UN Secretary General—analyzed in a Just Security post here—announced a “new approach” aimed to prevent, punish, and remedy sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers. Ethnic Roma who suffered from lead poisoning in a camp in Kosovo run by UN forces are still waiting for an apology and compensation. In December, the UN finally admitted the role its peacekeepers played in bringing cholera to Haiti, but it’s had trouble raising the money it promised to help fight the epidemic. That these violations have continued with impunity underscores the need for robust, effective accountability mechanisms to ensure that international actors respect human rights and that survivors receive justice. Ensuring that international organizations carry out their human rights and humanitarian missions without endangering the very populations they are meant to protect, requires enhanced transparency, better oversight, and greater investment in human rights institutions that can provide such checks—not abandonment of these global bodies.

For better or worse, the United States has long been considered the bulwark of the international system. Indeed—at least until this administration—the US has frequently justified its hegemonic role by portraying itself as the global champion of human rights. All of that is changing. If the current administration’s outward stance toward human rights has been lukewarm, its actions have demonstrated an unquestionably chilly—and chilling—attitude toward rights.

To be sure, the United States shoulders a large share of the costs of international institutions, designed to safeguard rights and ensure peace. It is not only appropriate that it do so, given the size of the country’s economy and its ability to pay; it is also decidedly in the interest of the United States. It is far less expensive—and, in the long run, far more effective—to spend resources on human rights institutions than on weapons.

Funding is certainly not the only—or even the most important—means by which the United States participates in and influences the international human rights system. But budget allocations are a concrete indicator of US investment in multilateralism and commitment to human rights, global governance, and the rule of law. Beyond their signaling effect, US spending decisions have concrete consequences for the ability of the international system to respond to the most pressing human rights problems we face today—from violent conflicts and the global refugee crisis, to closing civic space and climate change. How the United States wields the power of its purse in the international sphere demands as much attention from policymakers and advocates as how the country uses its military might. We cannot wait for the axe to fall, but should proactively seek to protect US investment in international human rights institutions.

Image: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty

 

About the Author(s)

Nikki Reisch

Legal Director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) at NYU School of Law Follow her on Twitter (@NikkiReisch).