America still does.
- By Suzanne NosselSuzanne Nossel is executive director of the Pen American Center and was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.
Amid the endless post-mortem of Donald Trump’s first overseas trip, human rights advocates have focused more fire on what the president didn’t say than what he did: His failure to call out rights abuses in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else left activists aghast. Yet, nearly five months into Trump’s administration, his attitude toward human rights can come as no surprise. The president doesn’t go much for strictures of any kind, much less international legal standards and softer norms developed by humanitarians, activists, and lawyers. He has little regard for precepts and edicts enshrined in treaties and overseen by U.N. institutions. He isn’t moved by the invocation of universal values, principles, or truths. He isn’t even moved by the courage of the powerless citizen who challenges the strongman; between authoritarian rulers and the dissidents who challenge them, he chooses the former almost every time.
In light of this, it is time for human rights advocates to pivot from voicing outrage at the president’s failure to press for rights in his global pronouncements and appearances and instead double down on making sure the rest of the world understands he does not speak for all Americans. The idea that the current White House will press Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to release his country’s jailed journalists and academics, urge China’s Xi Jinping to loosen restrictions on anti-government speech, or persuade Arab leaders to usher in democratic reforms is fantasy. Moreover, coming from this president, speeches and statements on human rights would ring hollow, compounding the global propensity to read hypocrisy and cynicism into American articulations of values. Rights advocates would be better off working to temper the worst in Trump’s domestic policies and finding other vehicles and voices to uphold, and ultimately restore, the credibility of the United States as a global human rights standard-bearer. Advocates may find there is a silver lining of sorts in Trump’s silence on rights: It creates an opportunity for more credible actors — from members of Congress to intellectuals and activists — to remind the world that despite Trump’s election, liberal values and support for dissidents remain strong across the United States.
Consider Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia, which aimed to rally Sunni Muslim nations to redouble the fight against terrorism. Trump promised Arab allies, “We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.” Trump’s sojourn in Saudi Arabia made no mention of the country’s imprisoned and brutalized political dissidents, no comment on its repressive policies toward women, gays and lesbians, or minority groups. Foregoing critique of any kind, he pronounced the kingdom “magnificent.” And just weeks before, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave a tour d’horizon speech to diplomats that stressed national security and economic interests and slighted human rights and democratic values.
Make no mistake: Trump and Tillerson’s silence on human rights issues is a betrayal to rights advocates and those they defend. There is every reason to voice alarm that the U.S. president is surrendering American credibility as a force for human rights, betraying rights defenders and dissidents who have long looked to Washington as an ally, and even undercutting years of rights-oriented policy by demonstrating that America’s commitment to its professed values is politically contingent and expendable. The damage caused by Trump’s reversals will be real and lasting. However fraught and uneven, the U.S. commitment to human rights has long imbued its foreign policy with a sense of moral conviction and uplift, tempered some of Washington’s most bellicose and self-serving instincts, and made international affairs into something more purposeful than a grinding, cyclical power game.
But the real blow to U.S. global human rights leadership is, of course, a function of beliefs, policies, and actions — not simply the rhetoric that reflects them. Trump was quick to remake the Obama administration’s standoffish relationship with Egyptian military ruler Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, ending the cold shoulder with the warm embrace of a high-profile visit to Washington and praise for the autocrat’s “fantastic job” as president. Neither Trump nor anyone in the administration has spoken about Egypt’s killing of protesters and arrests of tens of thousands of political dissidents. Trump’s affection has given Sisi license to issue a draconian new law regulating nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), never mind that such laws have previously been used to target and even jail American NGO workers. In late March, Tillerson greenlighted large-scale arms shipments including F-16 airplanes to Bahrain, lifting human rights conditions that the Obama administration imposed after a harsh crackdown on protesters. The most heavily touted “deliverable” of Trump’s Middle East junket was a $110 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. No amount of homage to jailed activists or pleas for women’s rights could ever have made up for that.
Earlier, Tillerson had skipped the public release of the State Department’s annual global human rights report, an event traditionally attended by his predecessors regardless of party. In his initial weeks in office, Trump made clear that he favored reintroducing torture as an interrogation technique and only demurred because Defense Secretary James Mattis talked him out of it. Top human rights posts in the administration either sit empty or have been filled with officials who lack any human rights background or expertise — meaning that when key decisions are made, no one will be at the table to advocate that rights be considered. Trump’s one grand “humanitarian” gesture since taking office, ordering cruise missile strikes on a Syrian air base that was used to launch a chemical weapons attack, was, by his own account, an act of intuition and impulse, driven by outrage and possibly by compassion but not by fealty to an international norm under assault.
The Trump administration has also pursued domestic policies that call into question America’s claim to international leadership in areas including press freedom, tolerance for political dissent, women’s rights, and the protection of religious minorities, refugees, and immigrants. Trump’s attacks on the press and false cries of fake news make it impossible for him to act as a champion for the rights of journalists or independent media globally. His indignation at criticism and propensity to lash out against opponents make him an uneasy ally for dissidents worldwide. His slashing of funding for women’s health care and reproductive rights would hollow out any pronouncements he might offer on women’s rights. His restrictive approach to refugees, plans for a wall to block migrants from Mexico, and indifference toward immigrant workers render him unfit to extoll the virtues of a humane approach to global migration. Beyond that, Trump’s refusal to respect the integrity and independence of federal law enforcement institutions, his cronyism, nepotism, lack of transparency, and proclivity toward self-dealing make him an impossible exponent for the values of good governance, accountability, transparency, and rule of law that underpin the defense of human rights.
Given all this, human rights advocates need to do more than decry each and every missed opportunity for the president to articulate a set of values that he manifestly does not share. Even those U.S. presidents most passionate about the spread of rights and freedoms — Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama — walked a tightrope in trying to maintain America’s credibility on human rights while seeking to advance a breadth of foreign-policy interests, many of which directly contradicted rights-respecting policies. For as long as the United States has had an articulated human rights policy Washington has been dogged by charges of selectivity, hypocrisy, and empty rhetoric. Against this backdrop, Trumpian pronouncements on human rights seem liable to hurt more than they help, making it easier to impugn other American leaders and future presidents as equally insincere.
This is not to suggest that advocates should give up on the role of the United States as a defender of human rights. Now, with authoritarianism on the rise in China, Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, and Hungary and intact in much of the Middle East and Africa — and backsliding likely to accelerate amid an absence of leadership from the White House — brave rights defenders and dissidents in those countries need more international support, not less. Left to their own interests, governments like Russia and China that wish to weaken international human rights institutions and instruments will seize opportunities to expand their influence. Progress made in advancing norms of international accountability, LGBT rights, and the protection of journalists and human rights defenders will almost certainly atrophy.
But crocodile tears from President Trump, should they even be offered, will address none of that. Much more important are efforts to show the world that the current administration is neither the only face of America’s role in the world nor the sole vessel for U.S. values. Most foreign governments and informed citizens know that most of Washington regards his leadership with skepticism and that his public approval ratings are at historic lows. Members of Congress, civil society organizations, and other institutions work to defend human rights globally and can speak out and step up where the current administration won’t. The role of these actors in showing solidarity with dissidents, calling out repressive policies, supporting rights defenders, and advocating for the role of institutions and norms should redouble as the White House retreats. That Trump won’t — and can’t credibly — speak out doesn’t mean that American society or even the American government must go quiet. Members of Congress can hold hearings, send letters, take meetings with visiting advocates, take part in delegations, and otherwise demonstrate that the U.S. government as a whole takes seriously its role as a human rights standard-bearer, even if the current administration amounts to an egregious lapse.
Funders should step up to help alleviate the strain that civil society organizations face in trying to address the challenges posed by the president’s domestic policies while simultaneously trying to fill the vacuum created by the administration’s retreat from America’s traditional role as a rights defender globally. These groups should not be forced to choose now that the agenda at home has grown so imperative as well.
In recent years, private funders of human rights campaigns have been shifting their support away from U.S.- and European-based groups in favor of direct help to advocates working in hotspots around the world. The logic is simple: The solution to human rights abuses in Turkey, Russia, or China won’t be found in Washington. The Obama administration reinforced these efforts through its own campaign to buttress local civil society organizations around the world, offer them financial support, and elevate their participation in international diplomacy. Importantly, this assistance in funding and organizational development came backed with the moral leadership of the U.S. government voiced at the highest levels and through its diplomatic missions.
But with President Trump’s budget dramatically scaling back such support, foundations should reinvest additional resources in organizations and partners who can keep faith with international counterparts, raise the global media profile of rights violations and crises, and apply pressure through international mechanisms and forums. Such efforts will help blunt the impact of the Trump administration’s indifference, catalyze the engagement of Capitol Hill on human rights issues, and sustain and strengthen connections internationally. Trump’s retreat from leadership on human rights can be mitigated if nongovernmental groups lean in. Just as civil society organizations and the media are tempering some of the president’s most constitutionally and morally dubious domestic policies, so they should also help to bridge shortfalls in funding, speak out for those who counted on the United States for support, and fortify civil society groups that the Trump administration is abandoning.
The best way to preserve America’s global human rights leadership is not to put words in Trump’s mouth but to demonstrate that the U.S. system of government, strong independent civil society, and claim to global leadership are strong enough to withstand his term of office.
Photo credit: MARIA BELEN PEREZ GABILONDO/AFP/Getty Images