Trump and International Human Rights #1: The Man and the Government

Trump and International Human Rights #1: The Man and the Government

As I recover from the gut-punch delivered last Tuesday, I plan to get back to blogging – something I have put aside for other priorities in the past years. The times and the issues are urgent, and I am anxious to engage with our readers and colleagues around the world at what I see as an extremely fragile period for the U.S. and the globe.  Trump is not a normal president-elect, and we are not in normal times.  In that spirit I plan to resist attempts to normalize Trump. This will the first in an ongoing series on the Trump transition and US engagement with international human rights.

For over 40 years, the U.S. has maintained a bipartisan commitment to the promotion of human rights around the globe.  The depth and the breadth of that commitment has, to borrow a phrase from President Obama, zigged and zagged.  It has bent to presidential national security policies and priorities, and the scope of what is meant by “human rights” has been subject to ideological interpretation by particular administrations.  But a commitment to the broad international project of human rights has remained a constant and ingrained feature of U.S. foreign policy.  Will President-elect Trump – who campaigned on a deeply isolationist rhetoric that explicitly disclaimed an interest in the human rights practices of other states – maintain this commitment?  It will take some time to fully understand the implications of a Trump presidency on US human rights policy, but I want to start by discussing two dimensions to U.S. foreign policy engagement with international human rights:  presidential policy and the human rights bureaucracy.

Let’s be frank:  We have no idea what Trump’s “policy” on human rights – or much else for that matter – will be, since he campaigned on virtually no policies in the traditional sense.  So we start with Trump himself.  We know that he is a man who has acted and spoken as a bigot, sexist and misogynist.  He is a man who admires authoritarian and anti-democratic regimes.  He is a man who has – at least implicitly if not explicitly – emboldened racists and anti-Semites among his supporters, groups that are a very small but sadly resilient element of American politics.  And he has among his closest advisers leaders of the so-called alt-right movement that fuels vile conspiracy theories, including the racist “birtherism” movement against President Obama that Trump himself used as the platform that launched his political campaign.  He has never, as far as I am aware, in his long public life, expressed genuine empathy or concern for the suffering of others.  And the scope of his business interests, the details of which remain largely undisclosed, poise him to embody as president the kind of personal corruption and conflicts of interest that the U.S. usually makes the focus of its anti-corruption and good governance efforts. He has acted and spoken in ways that would subject him, quite properly, to criticism and condemnation by the U.S. government if he were a foreign leader.  Trump, the man, is no defender of human rights.  At best, Trump is an empty vessel, a self-absorbed “bullshit artist” (hat tip:  Fareed Zakaria). At worst, Trump’s contempt for democratic norms and institutions poses a serious danger to American democracy and his rhetoric and behavior will completely undermine the ability of the U.S. to speak with any authority – moral or otherwise —  on questions of human rights.

Given the range of possibilities here, my first question is whether Trump can be constrained, in the ways Michael Glennon argues all presidents are constrained(and in the way Deborah suggested earlier), by the institutions of the government he will lead?  Throughout the executive branch, at the Departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security, Labor, Commerce and Justice, as well as the intelligence agencies and the national security staff at the White House, hundreds of lawyers, diplomats and other government officials monitor and report on the human rights practices of governments all over the world.  Hundreds more work on creating, funding and implementing projects designed to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law .  This federal “bureaucracy of international human rights” cannot be easily or swiftly dismantled.  The central human rights institutions and networks within the Executive Branch (the Bureau of Human Rights Democracy and Labor, for example) are creatures of statute and of congressional funding priorities.  And it is not clear the Republican House or Senate are interested in eliminating or restructuring of these.  Keep in mind that funding for democracy promotion and other rule of law programs was a favorite of the George W. Bush administration.

The Republican party platform suggests that one dimension of the US commitment to human rights may receive special attention: International Religious Freedom. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom – a favorite of the evangelical right — will continue to be funded, and the platform further states:

At a time when China has renewed its destruction of churches, Christian home-schooling parents are jailed in parts of Europe, and even Canada* threatens pastors for their preaching, a Republican administration will return the advocacy of religious liberty to a central place in its diplomacy, will quickly designate the systematic killing of religious and ethnic minorities a genocide, and will work with the leaders of other nations to condemn and combat genocidal acts.

(*I am not familiar with the anti-religion policies in Canada that are referenced here, but maybe a reader can help me out.)  This is a robust statement in favor of reinforcing the UDHR and ICCPR rights that are mentioned in the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, the statute that created both USCIRF and the office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department. But it also includes some strong language regarding genocide that would trigger  U.S. obligations under the Genocide Convention.  The platform goes on to endorse continuing engagement on anti-human trafficking programs (and, presumably, continuing the annual trafficking report required by Congress).  As to the broader question of human rights diplomacy, the platform states:

The United States needs a radical rethinking of our human rights diplomacy. A Republican administration will adopt a “whole of government” approach to protect fundamental freedoms globally, one where pressing human rights and rule of law issues are integrated at every appropriate level of our bilateral relationships and strategic decisionmaking. Republican policy will reflect the fact that the health of the U.S. economy and environment, the safety of our food and drug supplies, the security of our investments and personal information in cyberspace, and the stability and security of the oceans will increasingly depend on allowing the free flow of news and information and developing an independent judiciary and civil society in countries with repressive governments such as China, Russia, and many nations in the Middle East and Africa. 

Supporting rule of law projects that promote the “free flow of news and information” and develop “an independent judiciary and civil society” is precisely what the human rights bureaucracy within the Executive has been doing for at least three decades under presidents of both parties.  But if the Republicans want to pitch this as a “radical rethinking,” that’s fine by me.  (They may even want to share their view on a free press with the President elect.)

Taken together, I think it unlikely that the Trump administration will dismantle the bureaucracy of human rights – at least not soon, and certainly not in areas that are important to the Republican Congress.  But unlike the national security functions whose purpose lies at the heart of immediate security and safety of the American people, the human rights bureaucracy can be deeply damaged by the tone and priorities set by the President and his key foreign policy appointees – State, Nat’l Security Adviser, DHS, and the UN Ambassador, among others.  And of course, more than ever, the actual human rights practices of the U.S. at home – issues of domestic rule of law, criminal justice, gender equality, LGBT rights – will either strengthen or weaken the ability of the U.S. to practice human rights diplomacy abroad.  Appointments at the Dept. of Justice and nominees for the bench will send the clearest signal on that front.




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The Canadian press is somewhat confused by the Canada reference, but it is almost certainly about our hate speech laws and human rights codes (and other anti-discrimination legislation). Basically, every so often, some pastor widely distributes homophobic statements, gets sued, and ends up bringing us yet another edge case for religious freedom. Freedom of religion is one of the various rights that must be weighed, and sometimes our courts/tribunals side with equality and minority rights over an absolute freedom of religion.

a colleague
a colleague

Sorry Peggy, but your comments on Trump are absurd.

Mariano de Alba

But isn’t the case that the human rights bureaucracy is already deeply damaged by the US’s violations of human rights? (GITMO, etc). In Latin America, for instance, many (leftist) governments have made the case over the last 15 years that the US cannot preach on the respect of human rights because they are themselves recurrent human rights violators.

Richard Galber
Richard Galber

There is continuous reference to some very unpleasant fringe groups getting hope and encouragement from Trump. Which is all very true.
Let us though not forget similarly inclined groups with other perspectives, such as Lois Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam (and his erstwhile pastor Jeremiah Wright), who likewise felt the same on the Obama victory. How did they fare under his administration
The Obama victory was met by an outpouring of international praise for a man with a largely unknown and untested political ability. He won the Nobel prize for no achievements and he was given slack like no White president would receive
The same questions arise/arose when Obama won
Surely, until we have some better idea where Trump will lead us, we should keep the negative counsel directed at him within the bounds of reality
The hysteria and whinging that has engulfed the western world is a bit obscene.
And to everyone, if Trump fails we all suffer; so be aware of what you wish for


With all due respect, Richard, Obama did not place members of the Nation of Islam or similar groups in top advisory roles. Trump just appointed a white nationalist as his chief strategist. The unpleasant fringe groups (and not-so-fringe groups too, considering Orban/Kazcynski/Le Pen/etc.) are already faring well with Trump.

Obama did not run on the policy of banning all members of a particular major religion from entering the US, and as much as I can complain about his handling of the laws of war, Obama did not make numerous war crimes a major part of his campaign strategy. Trump did all of that and more (and more and more and more).

The negative counsel is far more often than not within the bounds of reality. We do not have a precise idea of how he will lead yet, but he ran a terrifying campaign and has tied himself tightly to some of the worst parts of global society. If he governs as he ran, or as his chief strategist wants, we would suffer far more if he succeeds than if he fails.

Richard Galber
Richard Galber

Trump did not call for a ban on all Muslims entering the US. He called for a ban until such time as proper system of vetting could be introduced to prevent/reduce terrorists entering the US.
What laws of war has he talked about? waterboarding. Not something I like, but a pretty light form of torture compared to what goes on in the vast majority of countries in our Human Rights dominated world. Most countries ignore HR except to bash the west. A moral double standard
And his chief strategist nominee might have pretty strong views, but they are better than that of many lefties that used to push communism and apologised for the gentle ways of Stalin and Mao and their murderous regimes. The Labour Party today is full of those types as are many politicians in Europe


Beyond waterboarding and torture methods “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” (his words), Trump has advocated deliberately killing noncombatants for being related to terrorists.

“Pretty strong views” is a massive understatement when referring to Bannon. When you’re stuck depending on the argument that Stalinists are worse (not exactly a high bar, and one it’s somehow not even clear Bannon meets), odds are that you’re probably defending the indefensible.

Plus, Corbyn isn’t in power, and his own party’s MPs hate him, so he won’t be in power. Trump is.