The conduct of the current administration is a little unorthodox to say the least. While plenty have welcomed the new way of doing things and the changes that have accompanied Trump’s vision of making America “great again”, the rapid break away from the norm has left some aspects of the United States’ policy a little disjointed. This is especially pronounced in the current conduct of foreign affairs. As President Trump seeks to reel back the role of the US in the world and disengage with multilateral initiatives that don’t fit his strong “America first” ideology, a coherent approach to foreign policy appears to be lacking. What this means for global human rights, and the role the US will play in their promotion, is very unclear.
When Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the United Nations (UN), came before an audience at the Graduate Institute of Geneva last month, she reminded the world of America’s “unique beginning”, and spoke of the America that “will never give up the cause of universal human rights”. This moral high ground established, she went on to critique the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Haley described the UNHRC as an institution tasked with being the “world’s advocate for the most vulnerable among us”, yet “judged by this basic standard”, Haley continued, “the Human Rights Council has failed”.
Haley brought two main claims against the UNHRC. First, she rightly challenged the system by which countries are elected to the Council. (Ironically, several seats are currently occupied by countries known to be human rights abusers themselves.) It was for this very reason that the UNHRC’s predecessor—the UN Commission for Human Rights—was disbanded. Next, Haley challenged the Council’s “chronic anti-Israel bias”. Again, rightly so. The UNHRC brought five resolutions against Israel in March alone, yet has ignored evident human rights abusers in Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba, to name a few.
However, very similar arguments could be, and have been, used against the US. I can certainly sympathize with those who detect a little hypocrisy.
Not to discredit Nikki Haley, but sadly the current administration isn’t doing much to establish itself as the champion of universal human rights of which she speaks. In a speech to Arab leaders, President Trump made no mention of political oppression or the treatment of women, but instead declared, “We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live”. When he met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month, he said nothing of the crackdown on Indian civil society, a move which has undercut Christian missionaries and religious freedom. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made it very clear that, under the new America First ideology, “values” will only be of interest if they advance national security and economic interests. The list goes on.
There are many issues associated with this inconsistent approach. Firstly, the same argument of legitimacy that Haley is bringing against the UNHRC can be applied to the US. On what grounds does the US call on some to uphold human rights and not others? Without a consistent approach to human rights, America loses its moral legitimacy. Once it becomes obvious that American human rights rhetoric is merely political, countries will soon stop listening. Likewise, when the President flirts with torture, and openly speaks of not “lecturing” others, authoritarian figures around the world feel legitimized. A consistent, coherent approach to human rights is necessary; an inconsistent approach is as bad as no approach.
Secondly, let us not conflate “human rights” with “American values”. If one sees human rights as a disguised political tool to be used only to promote American interests, then President Trump’s remarks about not wanting to “lecture” oppressive regimes and impose American values are perhaps valid. If, however, one believes that all people are created with certain inalienable rights—or, to strike Haley’s more familiar tone, that “all men are created equal with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—due to natural law, an understanding of Imago Dei, or merely a belief in human dignity, Trump’s comments no longer make sense. Human rights are not American values, but a universally agreed upon standard to be upheld.
Finally, Tillerson’s talk of separating “interests” and “values” demonstrates a further misunderstanding. One does uphold human rights because of a belief in inalienable rights, which can be said to be a value. We desire to see others flourish, to grant them the freedoms necessary to live a life conformed with God’s will and moral order, and to reduce their suffering. We also desire to have a means to hold the offenders accountable and help to bring justice. But the wonderful thing about upholding these rights is that it is not merely a charitable act. To promote human rights is not to put America second. Over four decades of bipartisan consensus has agreed that the promotion of human rights and democracy is not only essential for world peace and stability, but also beneficial for US national security and economic prosperity.
It’s possible that the administration is coming to this realization itself. A couple recent events have seen the US take a surprisingly strong stance in favor of human rights. On June 27, the US State Department downgraded China to the lowest tier on the annual Trafficking in Persons report. The report groups countries around the world into one of three tiers based on the scale of human trafficking that exists there and the evidence of efforts being taken to reduce its prevalence. Being placed on the lowest tier invokes economic sanctions, and publicly criticizes underperforming countries to invoke greater efforts to tackle human trafficking. This example of open criticism is not often taken well by China, so this move is surprising considering Trump’s apparent desire to continue his growing friendship with Xi Jinping, as well as the potential economic hit associated with the sanctions.
Moreover, on June 16, Trump announced that he will be reversing the Obama administration’s attempts to normalize relations with Cuba. He stated that harsh economic sanctions (including a travel ban and a prohibition on commerce with Cuban military-owned businesses) will continue until basic human rights are respected and free and fair elections are in place, because “we know it is best for America to have freedom in our hemisphere, whether in Cuba or Venezuela, and to have a future where the people of each country can live out their own dreams.”
This is quite a change in rhetoric. And while it perhaps gives us reason to hope for an America more like the one Nikki Haley describes, both China and Cuba have responded by pointing out the hypocrisy involved in Trump’s remarks.
The US needs a comprehensive strategy in its approach to promoting universal human rights—one that matches actions with rhetoric, and one that is consistent in standard, if not approach, regardless of the country condoning or committing the violations of rights.
Wisdom is necessary. It isn’t a good idea to widely shame and place harsh sanctions upon every nation that fails to uphold rights. There are different means and methods that can be implemented, and condemnation should be seen as a spectrum, varying in severity on a case-by-case basis, but all nations should be aware that the US does not condone or overlook any form of human rights abuse. Severity can vary, but the stance should always be in condemnation of the violation. Political goals should be considered, but they should not cause silence. Even collaboration may be permissible, if not imperative, when working against a greater evil, but rhetoric, and long term goals, should always be in promotion of rights, freedom, and democracy. A position needs to be established in the administration to bring this strategy together in a way that benefits both America and the oppressed around the globe.
If Trump desires to make America great again, his goal should be to make America a champion of human rights, a supporter of the oppressed, and a nation that won’t look at the suffering of others and turn a blind eye. Sadly, I know this isn’t the meaning behind his use of the term, but I’m hopeful for all Americans, Venezuelans, Saudis, and those oppressed across the globe that he and others in the administration can begin to step up to the standard Haley set for them, and make America the legitimate champion of human rights that it has the potential to be.
Matthew Allen is an intern for Providence. Originally from Plymouth, UK, he is currently a student in Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, where he is working towards a B.A. in Public Policy and International Affairs. He is particularly interested in the promotion of human rights and advocacy for the poor, oppressed, and voiceless around the globe.
Photo Credit: The Future of the U.S. in the Human Rights Council, by United States Mission Geneva, via Flickr