Under the Trump Administration, we are witnessing an unprecedented U.S. retreat from the promotion of human rights. The U.S. has, of course, never fully championed human rights above all over policy preferences, namely economic and security interests. The new administration, however, has severely downgraded the importance of human rights, and in doing so has openly embraced a multiplicity of authoritarian governments, all the while rejecting U.S. commitments to multilateral human rights institutions.
Following World War II, global leaders recognized the need to establish multilateral institutions that championed human rights. As a result, they created the United Nations in 1945, constructed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, established the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1948, and wrote the American Convention on Human Rights in 1969. Thereafter, leaders have signed and ratified several international, human rights agreements. In the U.S., the record looks significantly different.
In the immediate post-WWII period, conservative senators blocked the U.S. from adopting many treaties, fearing that the international community might use them to overturn states’ rights and end segregation. Some conservative legislators have continued to voice concern for U.S. national sovereignty and states’ rights in the face of international treaties. Indeed, this was the reason that several Republican senators gave for refusing to support the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, even though the treaty was modeled after domestic legislation.
On the other hand, some U.S. leaders have embraced human rights and, at times, secured the ratification of human rights agreements.
During the early 1970s, Representative Donald Fraser (D-MN) resurrected the idea of human rights within Washington by hosting a series of hearings within the House Subcommittee on International Organizations, which involved visits from victims of right-wing Latin American dictatorships. By the end of the decade, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter utilized the language of human rights to unite several factions within the Democratic Party – those concerned with the domestic behavior of communist governments, particularly in Eastern Europe, and those concerned with U.S. support for right-wing dictatorships, particularly in Latin America.
If there remained any question, though, concerning the Trump Administration’s position towards human rights, its stance has become clear over the last several months. The Trump Administration seems to believe that U.S. national security and economic interests take far more precedence over concerns about democracy and human rights. So long as authoritarian countries support U.S. national security and economic interests, Trump has largely ignored democracy and human rights violations. In authoritarian countries, however, that challenge U.S. interests, criticism has indeed ensued.
In his first trip abroad, Trump visited Saudi Arabia, during which he failed to offer any critique of the regime. This is a pattern that continued during recent trips to China and the Philippines. What is more, Trump has made a habit of promoting working relations with several authoritarian leaders. Most notably, Trump has evidenced an uncharacteristically warm disposition towards Russian President Vladimir Putin. Beyond him, Trump has invited Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to Washington and praised the policies of similar strongmen in Kazakhstan and Turkey.
The U.S. has also begun to relax Obama-implemented restrictions on weapons sales. In March, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lifted human rights conditions on the sale of fighter jets to Bahrain. Despite selling over $115 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, Obama terminated plans to sell the fighter jets to Bahrain lest it improve its human rights record. In May, Tillerson also quite plainly stated that the U.S. must place national security and economic interests over freedom and democracy. These moves will not be lost on authoritarian governments across the globe.
What about Trump’s approach towards multilateral institutions?
His administration has clearly evidenced disdain for them.
The U.S. has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord as well as UNESCO. And Trump has reserved much criticism for NATO and the UN more broadly. In addition, the U.S. has failed to appear before the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for hearings involving immigration policies.
At the same time, the U.S. has championed attempts by the OAS to push the Venezuelan government, another country that has condemned its IACHR hearings, to pursue several political-economic reforms. Venezuela, interestingly, remains one of few countries Trump has targeted. The real difference between countries like, on the one hand, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and, on the other hand, Venezuela, which Trump seemingly cares about, is support for economic and national security interests. While Venezuela has criticized the War on Terror, Bahrain has aligned with Saudi Arabia to target terrorist forces in the Middle East.
Despite some earlier questions concerning the new administration, it’s now clear that the Trump team possesses little regard for the global promotion of human rights.
The president seems to believe that only left-leaning governments that reject U.S. interests deserve criticism. Such a policy harks back to the darkest days of the Cold War – where the U.S. accepted, and even promoted, right-wing dictators, so long as they lavished praise upon the U.S. and targeted leftist activists.
The next few years will surely involve a struggle to keep human rights concerns on the agenda, but it’s a worthy fight that shouldn’t be abandoned amid the cacophony of domestic and foreign policy issues before us.