For almost three centuries, through street protests, court battles and a civil war, the United States has sporadically but steadily advanced and expanded human-rights protections and commitments in domestic and foreign policies. Now Donald Trump and the most conservative, ideologically driven officials on his team want to turn back this record in fundamental ways, as recent moves by the State Department indicate.
Trump and officials who share his narrow vision seem determined to abandon the inclusive definition of human rights in secular terms that have been upheld to one degree or another by other recent presidents and recast the terms in a policy based on “values” instead, the State Department says.
But whose values?
“There’s a real sense that this administration is aggressively determining the parameters of what a value is,” said Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, in an interview with PassBlue. “We don’t talk about rights, we talk about values. Frankly, it’s what populists in other countries are doing too, but it’s using the values of some to push back against or deprive the values of others. It’s creating a prioritization of values: my values are more important; they are more worthwhile; they’re dominant.”
What many people also find troubling in the instructions to the State Department apparently coming from the White House is that deeply held beliefs (or biases) espoused by Trump’s political supporters are being turned into executive decisions by a president who wants to save his political skin amid his own swamp of scandals. These decisions, often prompted by religious conservatives on both the Catholic and evangelical Protestant political right, are producing global fallout with implications for the United Nations.
Evidence that a concerted campaign to rewrite human-rights approaches can be found in the attention that has been given to two recent State Department reports: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017” and the “2017 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.” It appears from remarks that officials made on the latter report that its importance could override the annual human-rights survey.
The human-rights report was released on April 20, with little fanfare from the administration. The freedom of religion report followed on May 29 with a full court press, from opening remarks by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to a lengthy briefing by Sam Brownback, Trump’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and a former governor of Kansas known for his conservative social policies and his strong opposition to abortion. (See the video below.)
“I would say that this is a foundational human right that this administration is supporting,” Brownback said in his briefing on the religious freedom report. “You do religious freedom and a whole series of better human rights come out of it. . . . [T]his is a foundational piece, is what I would answer some of those who’d be critical of it. There is a reason it’s in these foundational documents, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the UN in the late ’40s, why it’s our First Amendment right — because it’s — that right of conscience is as — is that fundamental right,” he said.
“And then out of that you get a whole series of rights that get enhanced and do better when you get this foundational one right. When you get the foundational one wrong, you really can’t build on the structure. And that’s why I think this one needs to be promoted and pushed more. . . . “
At the briefing, Pompeo announced that an international “ministerial” conference on religious values would be convened on July 25-26 to which leaders or members of all faiths as well as governments and civil society organizations are to be invited. Brownback offered no further details on who would be included.
Human-rights advocates also point to other changes emerging in government documents, some of them word plays of Orwellian intent. Among these are the removal from reports of standard past phrases, such as “Palestinian Territories” and “reproductive rights.” Institutionalized by the government, such changes add a newly regressive public tone to American democracy at home and abroad, adopting Israel’s position in one case and rejecting or downplaying the rights of women in another.
The two reports, required by laws in Congress, are intended to inform legislators and many other interested groups, organizations and individuals of conditions on the ground in about 200 countries, including all UN member nations. The reports were never intended, until now, to be vehicles for US policy pronouncements but rather be reports from the field, compiled by American diplomats in embassies who know the local scene. The first human-rights report covered 1976 and was published in 1977; the first religious freedom report was published in 1998. Both are annual.
“The annual State Department Human Rights country reports have become a kind of global gold standard,” said Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights in New York and vice-chairperson of the United Nations Committee Against Torture, which meets in Geneva and whose members are appointed by governments for their expertise.
“The reports reflect and provide a huge amount of information not available elsewhere; they engage the entire overseas US foreign service, in that every post must report,” Gaer said in a memo to PassBlue. “Usually, a junior officer has to prepare the report, and the officers learn about human rights this way — wherever they are located. Every president since [Jimmy] Carter has cited human rights as a ‘pillar’ or ‘central’ element of foreign policy — whether they respected it or not.”
At Human Rights Watch, Margon said that she talked regularly with diplomats in US embassies, and she hears that the new process of more rewriting and politicized editing, sometimes “whitewashing” of reports they submit, “creates some measure of discord between embassies that are trying to do their job and Washington.”
To add to their difficulties, Trump has not nominated ambassadors to numerous crucial embassies, leaving the chargé and other diplomats to carry on without much guidance. The State Department justifies its editing and reworking of the reports in an introduction to the current religious freedom document, saying:
“U.S. embassies prepare the initial drafts of country chapters based on information from government officials, religious groups, nongovernmental organizations, journalists, human rights monitors, academics, and others. The Office of International Religious Freedom, based in Washington, collaborates in collecting and analyzing additional information, drawing on its consultations with foreign government officials, domestic and foreign religious groups, domestic and foreign nongovernmental organizations, multilateral and other international and regional organizations, journalists, academic experts, community leaders, and other relevant U.S. government institutions.”
It appears from this definition that governments or other interested parties can review the drafts and have their views reflected in the final outcomes, going over the heads of diplomats in the field.
In New York and other UN centers, relations with the US at several levels, from the secretive secretary-general and the Secretariat to the Security Council, General Assembly and numerous other components of the organization have become more tense since Trump appeared on the scene, even before and soon after the 2016 presidential election.
The most strident critic of the populist vision that Trump personifies has been the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, a Jordanian international law expert educated at Johns Hopkins and Cambridge universities.
Most recently, on June 5, Zeid, who has declined to seek a second term in office, castigated the US for separating children from their parents after families crossed the border from Mexico.
“The practice of separating families amounts to arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life, and is a serious violation of the rights of the child,” the high commissioner said in a statement from his base in Geneva. “While the rights of children are generally held in high regard in the US, it is the only country in the world not to have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. . . . The use of immigration detention and family separation as a deterrent runs counter to human rights standards and principles.”
Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the UN, who has been a very vocal critic of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN’s human-rights machinery in general, struck back in anger.
“Once again, the United Nations shows its hypocrisy by calling out the United States while it ignores the reprehensible human rights records of several members of its own Human Rights Council,” Haley said in a statement.
“While the High Commissioner’s office ignorantly attacks the United States with words, the United States leads the world with its actions, like providing more humanitarian assistance to global conflicts than any other nation. We will remain a generous country, but we are also a sovereign country, with laws that decide how best to control our borders and protect our people. Neither the United Nations nor anyone else will dictate how the United States upholds its borders.”
In another action with human-rights implications for the UN, the Trump administration has produced a plan for the operations of the office of the high commissioner for refugees that essentially uses the power of US contributions — the highest of any country — to demand how the money is spent.
The high commissioner for refugees has, however, been a strong advocate for the rights of women in refugee and conflict situations, and that includes supporting emergency contraception (the morning-after pill) and abortion for victims of rape. The policy, introduced by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, may now create complications for the UN, which works with nongovernmental organizations in providing assistance to the tens of millions of people whose lives have been disrupted in the refugee crisis. Since taking office, the Trump administration has introduced the most stringent ban on the use of US funds to foreign NGOs working abroad that even counsels girls and women on the procedure.
The anti-migration, anti-refugee resettlement policies of Washington are also out of line with the UN Refugee Agency and have brought on widespread criticism in the UN and independent relief agencies.
Conservatives, apart from being opposed to abortion, are urging the promotion of abstinence globally and want this reflected in the 2019 US budget. In the US human-rights report, the section on reproductive rights has been replaced by one titled “Coercion in Population Control” and requests information on incidences of “coerced abortions, involuntary sterilization or other coercive population control measures.”
Cut from earlier US reports on women’s human rights are statistics on persistent high maternal mortality rates in some countries, including in India, another friend of America, where abortion is legal and the government is required by law to provide broad contraceptive services. The issue in India, where 86 percent of contraception is sterilization, is the need for more modern methods and greater availability of a wide range of family planning commodities.
Global nongovernmental organizations like the International Planned Parenthood Federation and Maries Stopes International said last year and this year that they would not take money from the US under the conditions attached. Family planning and maternal health programs are already uncertain of their future in Uganda and Nigeria, according to surveys by PAI, a Washington research and advocacy organization.
Compounding the situation, Trump has also cut off all US funds to the UN Population Fund, repeating the false premise that it is complicit in forced abortions in China. That action falls outside the normal federal budget in the US but is related to a stand-alone Congressional measure passed at the behest of anti-abortion legislators, who go directly to the White House with their demands.
Ironically, both Iran (Trump’s nemesis) and Israel (Washington’s current most influential friend) have very liberal policies on reproductive rights.
Iranian women can buy a range of contraceptives over the counter, a service that was until recently heavily subsidized before the country had to make budget cuts. In Israel, abortion requests for a range of reasons are almost always approved, according to the State Department’s own reporting.
At the intersection of culture and religion, in October 2017 the US withdrew from Unesco, the UN’s educational and cultural organization, saying it was biased against Israel. Soon after, the religious values of Muslim Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — and the sensitivities of Muslims worldwide — were ignored as the US prepared to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In May, it relocated the American embassy there.
No other country had made such moves regarding Jerusalem. The city is holy to three religions — Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Under longstanding international agreements and UN binding resolutions, the final status of the city is not to be decided until there is agreement in Mideast negotiations on its ultimate future. Depending which Muslims get invited to the State Department’s “values” conference in July, this issue could arise there.
Finally, with John Bolton, an old foe of the UN, exerting renewed influence on UN policy as the US national security adviser, there is an enhanced possibility of the US withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Council, or at least not seeking re-election to it in 2019, when the Americans’ current three-year term ends. Bolton, as ambassador to the UN, kept the US out of the Council at its founding in 2006.
Sarah Margon of Human Rights Watch in Washington is dubious about current speculation that Pompeo, who, media reports say, has quarreled with Bolton, will be any more supportive of traditional US human-rights commitments than the president. Margon had been a senior foreign policy adviser to Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and director of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa. She based her knowledge of Pompeo during his six years in Congress.
“Pompeo built a record of embracing mass surveillance practices, promoting bigotry, championing extreme restrictions on women’s rights, and supporting the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture,” Margon wrote in USA Today on April 22. “Nominating Pompeo was a clear sign that Trump wants a secretary of state who will wield his disdain for individual human rights; a regressive approach to gender, health and reproductive rights, and an anti-Muslim world view.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.