Trump’s election makes US human rights pariah

The election of Donald Trump as US President poses a grave threat to human rights—in the US and worldwide. To meet this threat, the global human rights movement, and in particular its US components, must reprioritize and refocus their work. US policy at home and abroad needs to come under much greater scrutiny. Under Trump’s leadership, the US must be treated as a human rights pariah, dangerously unfit to champion the universal values Mr. Trump so obviously scorns.

It can’t be business as usual. Yet, in its press release after Trump’s election, Human Rights Watch (HRW), while documenting and urging him to renounce his anti-human rights positions, also suggested that doing so would enhance US credibility to promote human rights and the rule of law abroad.  HRW urged a duly enlightened Trump to focus on the “… global crackdown on civil society and free expression, including in Russia, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh ... and press for an end to growing repression in countries whose governments are increasingly consolidating power, like Turkey.”

Asking Donald Trump to champion human rights in Turkey is like asking Nigel Farage to speak out for migrants’ rights in Poland.

No! Asking Donald Trump to champion human rights in Bangladesh, Egypt or Turkey is like asking Nigel Farage to speak out for migrants’ rights in Poland.

Trump is irredeemably tainted. If he were to champion respect for human rights and the rule of law in other countries, it would only discredit the idea that governments should defend universal rights in their foreign policies. Although there are many dedicated US diplomats who do defend these rights abroad, those who choose to remain and serve the new president should largely forego doing so (at least in public). There have long been contradictions in US funding for human rights abroad; under a Trump presidency, many will find these indefensible.

Flickr/Ric Lander (Some rights reserved)

Protesters confront Donald Trump in Scotland. For the irredeemably tainted Trump, championing international human rights would be more than unlikely—it might undermine the legitimacy of international action on human rights.

Some will say I’m exaggerating the threat. Trump is not on a par with Bashir Al-Assad, indiscriminately bombing his own people and supervising a police state that tortures thousands. Nor is he Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, still presiding over a murderous campaign against the villagers of Darfur. Further, Trump was democratically elected and must rule alongside independent legislative and judicial branches that are not easily co-opted, unlike his Chinese and Russian counterparts.

All true. But Trump has advocated indiscriminate bombing, torture, and collective punishments—all crimes under international law. Further, he promises mass deportations, openly derides the judiciary and undermines its independence, preaches hatred and bigotry, and boasts of sexual assault. Only in relation to the charges of misogyny has he made any effort to defend himself.  

Moreover, Trump’s power and US predominance mean his global policies will impact far beyond the US. His promises to walk away from the Paris climate accord will, if implemented, mean a lost decade in the battle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a decade millions of people in climate stressed environments can’t afford—displacement and food and livelihood insecurity will increase. His threat to use nuclear weapons, and to accept their acquisition by new states, likewise poses a grave risk to millions.

Trump is almost uniquely dangerous precisely because US power, prestige and his democratic credentials give legitimacy and plausibility to bigotry and nativism that—until now—only despots could turn into policy. Trump’s anti-migrant and specifically anti-Muslim rhetoric will embolden racists everywhere. If he carries through on his pledge to deport millions of undocumented or ‘illegal’ migrants, and continues to demonize Syrian and Iraqi refugees, then migrants’ right globally will suffer; the international refugee regime, already weakened, may begin to fall apart.  

What can be done? Stephen Hopgood and Sam Moyn may be right in doubting the relevance and usefulness of international human rights norms in the age of Trump. As Hopgood argues, domestic politics is the priority, and as Moyn points out, human rights standards don’t provide all the answers to the inequities of 21st century capitalism (which contributed to Trump’s victory). Yet both arguments were true before Trump was elected. The value of international human rights norms has always been in their ability to influence—not substitute for—domestic policy. They can still do so; or, at the very least, it’s worth the fight to find out.

There are two immediate tasks. First, global human rights organizations, and especially those based in the United States, should dramatically increase the resources they devote to monitoring and influencing US law and policy. Not all members of Congress are impervious to the US’ international obligations. Nor are US courts. And who cares if the arguments that succeed are grounded in a human rights treaty, the US Bill of Rights, or both? For US-based NGOs who already prioritize domestic advocacy, the issue is to find ways to better support them.

Second, the US under a Trump presidency must be treated like a human rights pariah. Foreign leaders and diplomats meeting the new president and his team should expect the China test—did they make clear their human rights concerns regarding US policy? At a global level, Trump must be challenged repeatedly to explain how his policies will meet the US’ international human rights obligations.

The US has regrettably just been re-elected to serve for three years on the UN Human Rights Council, and it isn't realistic to see them voted off. But a global coalition of NGOs might call on states on the UN Human Rights Council to hold a crisis session when Trump assumes office. Only one-third of the Council’s 47 members need to agree for such a session to be held.

There are other strategies. Trump has openly advocated the use of interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, that amount to torture under US and international law. He has also spoken of using tactics against terrorists that would amount to war crimes. Although he is not yet in a position to order such acts, his open advocacy of them might have legal consequences, if not in the US then perhaps abroad using universal jurisdiction rules. Any such case would face innumerable legal and political challenges. But it doesn’t have to succeed to have an impact. Dick Cheney has not been charged for advocating torture, yet he rarely leaves the US.

Finally, perhaps Trump will heed HRW’s call to “… move from the headline-grabbing rhetoric of hatred and govern with respect for all who live in the United States.” It’s much more prudent, however, to assume he won’t and plan accordingly. There’s too much at stake.