How ironic that the White House chose to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council on Tuesday just as President Trump was manipulating the suffering of migrant children for his own political ends.
The Trump team quit the council on account of that body’s fixation with Israel and inclusion of member states with wretched human rights records. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., called the council a “hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights.”
But the U.S. decision to withdraw —rather than use the council as a forum to expose rights violators — reflects a White House that rejects America’s historic role as a global defender of human rights. That, combined with Trump’s policy of ripping migrant children away from their parents, makes the U.S. stance on the U.N. council look hypocritical. To borrow Haley’s phrasing, the president’s policies abroad and at home make a mockery of human rights.
Since World War II, U.S. presidents have balanced national security concerns and promotion of human rights abroad, with the former often displacing the latter. Yet even when necessity required close ties with tyrants, presidents since Ronald Reagan have made support for human rights part of their calculus, assuming that more open regimes would be less threatening.
“The American people cannot close their eyes to abuses of human rights and injustice, whether they occur among friend or adversary or even on our own shores,” Reagan stated in 1988.
Trump has consigned Reagan’s principles to the trash.
“Under President Trump, we’ve seen a pretty dramatic shift in how the United States approaches human rights at home and abroad,” says Sarah Margon, Washington representative of Human Rights Watch. For one thing, no U.S. president has spoken about human rights in the denigrating way Trump has. He has praised the way Saddam Hussein killed terrorists (“didn’t read them their rights”), advocated waterboarding, and hailed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “unbelievable job on the drug problem” i.e. the murder of thousands by vigilantes.
Last week, Trump extolled Kim Jong Un as “smart,” “honorable,” and a man who “loves his people,” even though the dictator imprisons tens of thousands of opponents in labor camps. When asked about the murder of Russian journalists on Vladimir Putin’s watch, Trump snapped back, “Well, I think our country does plenty of killing.”
Such talk does more than undermine U.S. pretensions at the U.N. It reveals a president who has openly rejected the universal values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.
“What we are looking at,” says Margon, “is a larger space in which the United States is backing away from any role as a human rights defender. Other states don’t bring the same kind of weight to counter the nefarious tactics of China or Russia.” The U.S. withdrawal enables Putin and Xi Jinping to promote their brand of authoritarianism as an alternative to democracy, whose principles are being abandoned by the leader of the free world.
Trump’s abandonment of those principles has been on view since his inauguration. One need only cite the Muslim travel ban, the empowering of bigots in Charlottesville, and the constant efforts to whip up fears of a refugee “invasion” that will submerge his white base in an ocean of blacks and browns.
In a disturbing speech in Warsaw a year ago, the president trumpeted his defense of “Western” values, defined as having the courage “to protect our borders” from those who would “destroy our civilization.”
Which brings me back to the hypocrisy of the administration’s exit from the Human Rights Council. Yes, there is something very wrong with a human rights body that since 2006 has passed 70 resolutions critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and only 10 critical of Iran. However, there was a sharp decrease in critiques of Israel after the U.S. joined the council, and it has done admirable reports on human rights violations in North Korea and Myanmar.
But the bigger point is the contradiction in Haley’s condemnation of the council for including rights violators such as China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, who are all close allies of America that are given a pass by Trump.
And there was something even more egregious about denouncing the council while Trump was still refusing to reverse course on separating migrant families. By Wednesday, huge GOP and global pressure forced him to back down. But how can America pretend to stand for anything, when the U.S. president uses babies as leverage to get a border wall?
“For many years the U.S. has been a hope for human rights activists around the world, and that is disappearing,” says Margon. Those activists see what Trump is doing domestically, and it shatters their dwindling belief that America remains a human rights beacon. The images of crying toddlers on the border will linger for a long time.
Reach Trudy Rubin at firstname.lastname@example.org.