The U.N. Human Rights Chief Fixes for a Fight with Trump

With waterboarding, Muslim bans, and mass deportations on the Trump agenda, Turtle Bay fears a return to the worst days of the Bush era.

New High Commissioner of the United Nations (UN) for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein of Jordan, gestures after a press conference on October 16, 2014 in Geneva. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI        (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
New High Commissioner of the United Nations (UN) for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein of Jordan, gestures after a press conference on October 16, 2014 in Geneva. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

With President-elect Donald Trump assembling a hard-line national security team, U.N. officials in New York and Geneva are plotting their strategy to confront an American leader who has climbed to the White House on a platform that demonized Muslims and tarred Mexican and Syrian refugees and immigrants as potential criminals and terrorists.

The officials fear that four years of a Trump presidency, if not eight, could spur a global retreat from international human rights principles, marking the dawn of American leadership in a field that was pioneered by Eleanor Roosevelt, an early champion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, informed his staff in the weeks following the U.S. election that they will have to serve as the front line in an international effort to check any excesses on the human rights front. A chief concern, officials say, is that if the U.N. doesn’t call out its most powerful member for straying from universally accepted human rights norms, the rest of the world will be emboldened to ditch them.

“We are going to speak up,” one U.N. official told Foreign Policy. “It’ll be rough, but if [Trump] puts any of those ghastly campaign pledges into action we will condemn.”

The prospect of the United States emerging as one of the U.N.’s primary human rights challenges underscores the degree to which America’s standing as a champion of civil and political rights has eroded since George W. Bush’s administration launched its global war on terror after the 9/11 attacks.

President Barack Obama has eliminated some of the most controversial excesses of those years, barring the use of torture and scaling back secret rendition operations. But his administration’s human rights record has been mixed. On the one hand, Obama has promoted international efforts to stem atrocities, particularly in Africa, and increased political support for the International Criminal Court. But it has maintained a highly intrusive surveillance program, continued to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists, and lent its support to allies like Saudi Arabia, which leads a military coalition that has killed thousands of civilians in Yemen.

Still, Trump’s campaign pledged to restore waterboarding, deport millions of undocumented migrants, and ban Muslims from traveling to the United States. Those measures, if carried out, would mark a sharp break from Obama’s tenure and come at a particularly delicate moment. This month, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court concluded that there is a “reasonable basis to believe” that American personnel committed war crimes in Afghanistan from May 2003 to December 2014, raising the prospect of a possible investigation into the conduct of U.S. forces.

A fresh probe into American troops could set the stage for a standoff with President-elect Trump, whose campaign advisors, including John Bolton, are among the nation’s sharpest critics of The Hague-based court. Bolton characterized his role in repudiating former President Bill Clinton’s signing of the Rome Statute, which established the court, as one of the proudest acts in his public life. It is unclear what role, if any, Bolton will play in a Trump administration. But his hostility toward the court has broad support within the Republican Party and the U.S. military.

But there were conflicting signals in recent days about how serious is about implementing some of his most controversial pledges. On Tuesday, Trump retreated from his plan to bring back waterboarding, telling reporters, editors and columnists at the New York Times that he had been persuaded by his possible pick for Defense Secretary, retired Marine Corps General James Mattis, that such coercive practices are not effective. Mattis told Trump he could extract more information out of a suspected terrorist with “a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers.”

But other members of the president-elect’s national security team, including former U.S. Army general Mike Flynn, Trump’s pick for National Security Advisor, and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), have been more open to reinstituting interrogation practices that much of the world considers torture. Pompeo has defended the practice.

The U.N.’s approach to human rights is particularly tricky for the incoming U.N. secretary-general, António Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who headed the U.N. refugee agency for nearly 10 years. Guterres has been an outspoken champion of refugees, pressing European governments, as well as the United States, to resettle far larger numbers of refugees. Two weeks after Trump called for his ban on Muslims last December, Guterres admonished the Security Council, saying, “Those that reject Syrian refugees because they are Muslims are the best allies in the recruitment propaganda of extremist groups.”

But Guterres may be constrained as the leader of the United Nations, a job that requires a close relationship with the United States and other big powers. Previous U.N. leaders who clashed with the United States, including Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was denied a second term, have suffered. Kofi Annan, who infuriated Bush administration officials for questioning the legality of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, faced calls for his resignation from Republicans, including then-Sen. Norm Coleman, who chaired a Senate subcommittee probing U.N. management of Iraq’s oil industry.

That makes it likely that Zeid will take the lead on human rights.

Throughout the U.S. presidential campaign, Zeid, a Muslim prince from the Jordanian royal family, has repeatedly excoriated Trump, telling reporters in December that his threat to ban Muslim travel to the United States is “grossly irresponsible.” In September, Zeid included Trump, along with France’s Marine Le Pen and Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders, on a list of “populists, demagogues, and political fantasists” who promoted their arguments grounded in “half truths and oversimplification.”

Some U.N. officials say Zeid’s criticism of the U.N.’s most powerful country could strengthen his hand in disputes with other U.N. members, particularly those from the developing world who have long accused the United Nations of applying greater pressure on small powers for breaching human rights norms, while letting the United States and other big powers off the hook.

Other U.N. officials fear that Zeid may be exposing the organization to a battle with the U.N.’s most powerful players that he can’t win.

In September, Russia’s U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin formally protested Zeid’s public denunciations of Trump and other European nationalists. “Prince Zeid is overstepping his limits from time to time, and we’re unhappy about it,” Churkin told The Associated Press.

More recently, Zeid tangled with China over his attendance at a ceremony for the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, which honored a Uighur economist, Ilham Tohti, who is serving a life sentence on charges of fomenting separatism and violence. A senior Chinese official appealed to Zeid not to attend the event, according to a U.N. official. But Zeid refused, insisting that he had an independent mandate to shed light on human rights violations wherever they occur, including China.

Even before Trump’s election, U.N. officials believed that human rights were under threat from authoritarian governments, including China, Egypt, Russia, and Turkey, which have been engaged in major crackdowns on civil liberties at home.

“They are backsliding on human rights, but from a position of weakness,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of the New York City-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch. “Both [Vladimir] Putin and Xi Jinping are engaging in the worst crackdowns in their countries in two decades, each driven by the terror as to how their countries will react to a weakening economy; they’re trying to snuff out in advance opposition they anticipate.”

Roth said there is a real danger that Trump and other populist leaders will accelerate the curtailment of human rights. “The entire human rights movement is weary about Trump,” he said. “It’s not clear what his values are. That is why his initial appointees are so important.”

Dimitris Christopoulos, president of the International Federation for Human Rights, fears Trump’s controversial positions, including torture and deportation, would embolden smaller countries. When big powers, particularly the United States, tread on human rights the world tends to follow. If smaller countries, such as Burundi and Kenya, hear Trump threatening to cast out foreign refugees they may choose to act in kind, Christopoulos said. Saudi Arabia threatened this year to cut funding to U.N. relief programs and to lead a walkout by Muslim states from the United Nations if the U.N. didn’t lift its name from a list of countries that killed or maimed children in armed conflict, according to a senior U.N. official.

In its defense, Saudi officials noted that the United States had shielded its closest Middle East ally, Israel, from being included on the same list in 2015. It was only fair, therefore, that Riyadh be spared the shame of being included on the list.

The transition to the White House comes as three African states — Burundi, Gambia, and South Africa — have decided to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. Many African governments argue that the court unfairly targets Africans, while the United States and other major powers have been largely immune from prosecution.

Rights advocates say the rising tide of nationalism and populism in Europe and the United States represents a potentially existential threat to the human rights movement, as governments that once championed the cause on the international stage head into retreat.

Britain’s new prime minister, Theresa May, has railed against “left-wing human rights lawyers” who are seeking the prosecution of British soldiers alleged to have committed war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. She has proposed that London withdraw from key provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights that potentially expose British troops to prosecution.

A generation of European nationalist leaders, including Le Pen and Wilders, who had been on the fringe of the European political spectrum, have seen their electoral prospects grow in the face of spreading anti-immigrant sentiment.

That has left German Chancellor Angela Merkel as one of the “only outspoken leaders on human rights,” Roth said. In her first statement following Trump’s election, Merkel said she would work closely with Trump, but only on the basis of “democracy, freedom, respect for the rule of law, and the dignity of men regardless of origin, skin color, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.”

Photo credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images


This story has been updated.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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