Down but Not Out

FP’s editor in chief on why our April issue focuses on human rights in the time of Trump

By , a former editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
Cover_EdNote
Cover_EdNote

This moment in world history — April 2018 — may seem like an odd time for Foreign Policy to devote the better part of an issue to human rights.

After all, the United States is currently governed by an administration that seems less interested in protecting those rights than any in recent memory. Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson often went out of his way to denigrate such freedoms, and his boss, President Donald Trump, has mused about bringing back torture and promised to “bomb the shit” out of the Islamic State while praising brutal strongmen such as China’s Xi Jinping and the Philippines’s Rodrigo Duterte.

So why choose to focus on an issue that the United States, along with many other governments, has lost interest in or decisively turned against?

This moment in world history — April 2018 — may seem like an odd time for Foreign Policy to devote the better part of an issue to human rights.

After all, the United States is currently governed by an administration that seems less interested in protecting those rights than any in recent memory. Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson often went out of his way to denigrate such freedoms, and his boss, President Donald Trump, has mused about bringing back torture and promised to “bomb the shit” out of the Islamic State while praising brutal strongmen such as China’s Xi Jinping and the Philippines’s Rodrigo Duterte.

So why choose to focus on an issue that the United States, along with many other governments, has lost interest in or decisively turned against?

There are two reasons. First, despite the indifference or opposition of many current leaders, the fight for these freedoms isn’t as dead as one may assume. Like the dove on our cover (and the famous images of St. Sebastian and Muhammad Ali to which Sisal Creative’s wonderful photo recreation refers), human rights are definitely down. But like Ali in 1968, the rumors of their downfall have been exaggerated. In “The Sometime Activist,” Colum Lynch, one of FP’s senior staff writers, shows that a few lonely individuals — such as Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — continue to fight for basic freedoms within the Trump administration (at least when it suits their own agendas). And in “Putin’s War on Women,” Amie Ferris-Rotman, FP’s Moscow correspondent, tells the story of the brave Russian women’s rights activists pushing back against the increasingly misogynistic policies of their cartoonishly macho president.

The other reason to focus on human rights at this bloody moment is because that’s what journalists are supposed to do. When Myanmar is slaughtering its own people (with more mayhem to come, as Azeem Ibrahim argues in “First They Came for the Rohingya”), Syria and Yemen are burning to the ground, and more people have been displaced than at any other time in human history (as Vauhini Vara describes in “Germany’s Family Feud”), it is our job to shine a spotlight on the world’s darkest places—to remind ourselves and our readers just what consequences policies (or the lack thereof) made in Washington and other capitals have on actual human beings.

Even if, as David Rieff argues in “The End of Human Rights?” the rise of populism has “shattered the human rights movement’s narrative that progress is inevitable,” it is at moments like this one that discussions of basic freedoms become more important than ever — because they can galvanize the majority of citizens who still support decent and humane governance. Indeed, as Kenneth Roth documents in “Human Rights in the Age of Trump,” voters and activists around the globe have responded to the surge in repression, populist politics, and authoritarian rule by fighting back — in the streets, in courtrooms, and in polling booths. Despite — or even because of — all the dark tidings, a “vigorous defense of human rights can succeed,” Roth writes.

So long, that is, as enough of us are ready to fight — and not surrender to the despair on which demagogues thrive.

Jonathan Tepperman is a former editor in chief of Foreign Policy and the author of The Fix: How Countries Use Crises to Solve the World’s Worst Problems. Twitter: @j_tepperman

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