“Democracy and respect for human rights have long been central components of U.S. foreign policy.” So reads the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor’s webpage on the State Department’s site.
Current circumstances and events under the Trump administration, however, convey an entirely different message.
Human rights have long been sidelined in favor of geopolitical, economic and security interests. Even President Obama, who won international adulation for his soaring rhetoric about reaching out to adversaries and promoting peace, was criticized for ramping up drone strikes and failing to intervene in Syria’s bloody civil war.
But under President Trump’s “America first” agenda, the promotion of human rights and democracy appears to be at the bottom of the totem pole.
As a candidate, the billionaire mogul embraced the use of torture, suggested killing the families of terrorists and praised strongmen from Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
More recently, Trump’s first two months in office have been marred by controversial moves such as the travel ban on refugees from seven (now six) Muslim-majority nations — which had to be rewritten because it was struck down by the courts — dramatic round-ups and deportations of immigrants at home and incendiary proposals such as separating mothers who enter the country illegally from their children.
Then there’s Russia, whose alleged tampering with the U.S. election is still being investigated and whose questionable contacts with the Trump administration cost National Security Advisor Michael Flynn his job and forced Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from Russia-related campaign probes. The firestorm reportedly infuriated Trump so much that he lobbed a series of inflammatory tweets accusing his predecessor of bugging his phones at Trump Tower — a baseless conspiracy theory from which even Republicans have distanced themselves.
As for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s own checkered human rights record, Trump shrugged it off, reminding Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly that our country is not so “innocent” either.
That rhetoric doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that Trump will respect democracy and human rights — nor does his budget for the upcoming year, which would boost military spending by over $50 billion but slash the State Department’s budget by $10 billion, or nearly 30 percent. (For comparison’s sake, the combined State Department/USAID budget is roughly $50 billion, or 1 percent of all federal spending, while military spending in recent years has exceeded $600 billion annually.)
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has reportedly suggested spreading the pain out over three years, with an initial 20 percent cut in the upcoming budget year, according to the Associated Press. That could still potentially gut many foreign aid programs and result in large-scale staff reductions.
Over 120 retired military leaders issued a letter opposing the cuts as dangerous to American security, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called the plan “dead on arrival.” While the wrangling over the fiscal 2018 budget has only just begun, Trump’s blueprint demonstrates his lack of regard for America’s diplomatic corps and the potential impotence of Tillerson, who has been operating with a bare-bones leadership staff and maintained a low profile amid reports that he’s been sidelined in the White House in favor of influential figures such as Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner.
In fact, the release of the 2016 Human Rights Report itself was an unusually subdued event, with Tillerson declining to appear in public for the rollout, as past secretaries of state have done.
Morale is apparently so low at Foggy Bottom that diplomats have been left twiddling their thumbs and wondering about their job security. “With the State Department demonstratively shut out of meetings with foreign leaders, key State posts left unfilled, and the White House not soliciting many department staffers for their policy advice, there is little left to do,” Julia Ioffe wrote for the Atlantic on March 1.
Interviews with a dozen State employees “painted a picture of a State Department adrift and listless,” according to Ioffe.
Cold Shoulder at Turtle Bay
Over at Turtle Bay in New York, the mood is not much better. Republicans have long derided the United Nations as a toothless bureaucracy that drains American taxpayer money. Trump could finally make do on longstanding GOP threats to strip the world body of U.S. funds.
Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch reported that State Department staffers have been instructed to seek steep cuts in excess of 50 percent in U.S. funding for U.N. programs, “signaling an unprecedented retreat by President Donald Trump’s administration from international operations that keep the peace, provide vaccines for children, monitor rogue nuclear weapons programs, and promote peace talks from Syria to Yemen,” he wrote March 13.
Earlier, Lynch reported that Tillerson had rebuffed meetings with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, an outspoken human rights advocate, which some viewed as a sign that the former ExxonMobil chief sees the world body as irrelevant.
Trump’s own well-documented disdain for the U.N. and indifference toward human rights add up to a quandary for an organization that represents both: the United Nations Human Rights Council, the preeminent intergovernmental body responsible for human rights.
Washington has had what can at best be described as “testy” relations with the council since it was formed in 2006, replacing the 60-year-old United Nations Commission on Human Rights. That entity had been ridiculed for allowing countries with poor rights records, such as Sudan and Zimbabwe, to join, putting them in a position to block criticism of the very sorts of abuses that the commission was supposed to be fighting.
When the council replaced the commission, the administration of then-President George W. Bush refused to join, questioning whether the name change and a few extra mandates were merely cosmetic reforms. (Unlike the commission, the Human Rights Council makes recommendations to the U.N. General Assembly for developing international human rights law and periodically reviews whether member states are fulfilling their human rights obligations.)
Republicans are not alone in doubting the effectiveness of the council, which has been criticized for harboring a bias toward Israel and including authoritarian regimes such as China and Saudi Arabia.
But eventually, in 2009, under President Barack Obama, the U.S. threw its hat into the ring for a seat on the 47-member council under the premise that change would be easier to implement from the inside. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement at the time that, “Human rights are an essential element of American global foreign policy. With others, we will engage in the work of improving the U.N. human rights system.”
The U.S. was elected to the council that year and re-elected to a second three-year term in 2012, but because council rules bar a country from immediately standing for election after two consecutive terms, the United States sat out the 2015 vote. Its latest term began in 2016 and runs until 2019 — unless the Trump administration withdraws altogether.
That is not completely off the table. According to a letter sent to a group of nonprofits and obtained by Foreign Policy’s Lynch and John Hudson, Tillerson threatened to withdraw from the council if it does not undertake “considerable reform,” saying that the U.S. was in the process of evaluating the council’s effectiveness. The secretary of state’s warning echoed a speech given at the start of the council’s annual session on March 1 by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Erin Barclay, who condemned the U.N. body’s “obsession with Israel” and said the “unfair and unbalanced focus on Israel” threatened the council’s credibility.
Human rights activist and scholar Anne Bayefsky wrote in the conservative National Review just days before Barclay’s speech that the “question hanging over the head of President Trump is whether his administration will take its place” on the council “and legitimize the most anti-Israel, twisted bastion of moral relativism in the U.N. system.” She added that Obama had “deliberately designed a quicksand trap” by putting the U.S. forward for re-election to the council in October last year. “The only way out of the quagmire for the Trump administration is to resign.”
An imminent withdrawal doesn’t appear likely, however. Barclay, for instance, closed her speech with the promise of cooperation: “Together, by turning our attention consistently to the most critical human rights situations, we can make progress and help this body fulfill its mandate to make the world a better, safer place.”
Human rights groups say the best way for the U.S. to counter the council’s alleged Israel bias is to protect it from the inside, by serving as a member with a seat at the negotiating table. They say that since joining the council in 2009, U.S. participation has helped shift the focus away from Israel and toward offenders such as North Korea, Syria, the Islamic State and Boko Haram.
But there are sources who say that quitting the council was not even America’s idea to begin with. Journalist Tamar Pileggi wrote in the Times of Israel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was taking credit for the threatened U.S. exit. In a recording leaked to Army Radio of a meeting with Israel’s conservative Likud Party, Netanyahu is heard saying that during his visit to Washington in February, “I raised the question whether the U.S. should remain in the Human Rights Council,” Pileggi wrote.
When a member of the Knesset asked Netanyahu if it would be in Israel’s interest for the United States to leave the U.N. rights body — who would there be to vote with Israel if there were no American delegation? — Netanyahu replied, according to Pileggi: “No. It’s better to leave. These types of organizations must be delegitimized.”
Indeed, Israel’s relations with the council have been testy, too, to put it mildly. For some Israelis and Israel advocates, things were made worse in 2014 when Jordanian Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein became the first Arab and the first Muslim to head the human rights body. Opponents of Zeid noted comments he had made at the International Court of Justice in The Hague 10 years earlier, when the topic of discussion was the “Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” Then Jordan’s ambassador to the U.N., Zeid denounced suicide bombings against Israeli civilians as “nothing less than horrific” but underscored that they “do not stand by themselves.”
“Israel’s argument, centered as it is on the sporadic suicide bombings of the last three years in particular, must be weighed against almost four decades of Israel dominating and, by virtue of its occupation, degrading an entire civilian population,” he said.
At a U.N. General Assembly meeting in 2006, Zeid said Israel’s construction of a wall in occupied Palestinian territory violated international law and was sweeping away the livelihoods of Palestinians, “as well as the future of a Palestinian state.”
His detractors have focused on such statements to describe Zeid as hostile to Israel.
“So how likely is it that a high commissioner for human rights who comes from a country that is a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation — which has hijacked the U.N. Human Rights Council to serve as its personal Israel-bashing tool — will confront his nation’s allies and refuse to become part of the problem?” Bayefsky said in an interview with the conservative Washington Free Beacon newspaper.
“The answer is, as the British would say, not bloody likely,” Bayefsky concluded.
But Bayefsky overlooks the rest of what Zeid told the U.N. At the end of his speech, he made a plea for peace in the Middle East and called on member states to look critically at the wrongs done to both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He also condemned those in the Arab world who deny the Holocaust, which he called an event of immense pain.
Zeid warned that if both sides stubbornly refuse to budge from their positions, their intransigence could cause all the crises in the Middle East “and just beyond” to “fold into one another, creating the greatest political emergency of our time or pitching our region on a cusp of a war unlike any we have witnessed since 1945.” Today, his words sound sadly prophetic.
Zeid’s warning won praise from Israel’s ambassador to the U.N. at the time, Dan Gillerman, who called Zeid a voice of reason and “a ray of light on matters in the region, one that hopefully would shine more frequently in the future.”
Vocal Human Rights Chief
Zeid, who served as Jordan’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2007 to 2010, has won widespread praise for a long career promoting human rights.
The veteran diplomat has worked extensively in the areas of international criminal justice, U.N. peacekeeping, post-conflict peace-building, international development and counter-nuclear terrorism. He played a central role in the establishment of the International Criminal Court, and as advisor to the U.N. secretary-general, he developed a comprehensive strategy for the elimination of sexual exploitation and abuse in U.N. peacekeeping operations.
Today, Zeid is still the high commissioner for human rights and has continued to speak out forcefully against human rights violations. In particular, he hasn’t minced words when it comes to populism and “demagogues” on both sides of the Atlantic.
In September last year, he condemned the rising tide of populism and its accompanying xenophobic undertones. “I am a Muslim, who is, confusingly to racists, also white-skinned; whose mother is European and father, Arab. And I am angry, too,” he said in a speech that garnered headlines. “You see, 20 years ago, I served in the U.N. peacekeeping force during the Balkan wars — wars so cruel, so devastating, which flowed from this same factory of deceit, bigotry and ethnic nationalism.”
Zeid likened the tactics of several Western populists — including Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, France’s Marine Le Pen, pro-Brexiter Nigel Farage and then-candidate Donald Trump — to those of Islamic State terrorists. Both groups want to restore a halcyon time when “sunlit fields are settled by peoples united by ethnicity or religion,” Zeid said. Not only is the idea of that perfect past pure fiction, but those who cling to it are frauds, he argued. “Populists use half-truths and oversimplification — the two scalpels of the arch propagandist, and here the internet and social media are a perfect rail for them, reducing thought into the smallest packages: sound-bites, tweets,” said Zeid.
In October — a month before the U.S. election — Zeid said Trump would be a “dangerous” president based on “what he has said already.”
In 2017, with the new administration in place, Zeid has not toned down his verbal volleys. He decried Trump’s refugee travel ban as mean-spirited; a waste of resources that could be put to “proper counter-terrorism” use; and a breach of human rights law, which, Zeid noted, forbids discrimination based on nationality alone. At the opening session of the Human Rights Council in February, Zeid likened human rights to breathing: Neither is something most people consciously think about until they are deprived of them.
And when he received the 2017 Raymond “Jit” Trainor Award in February, conferred by Georgetown University to recognize excellence in diplomacy, he warned that the “pathogen of divisive populism” was threatening to dangerously destabilize the global system that, flawed as it may be, has for 70 years “had the undeniable advantage of staving off the prospect of World War III.”
He again lambasted populist leaders around the world whom he accused of scapegoating entire communities and using the vilified group as license “to do whatever is necessary, lawfully or otherwise,” to fix the problems allegedly created by the group. Zeid warned that the world has been down this road before, losing “its bearings on the back of half-truths and lies, and the results have been disastrous.”
He also praised the millions of women and men who turned out at marches around the world the day after Trump’s inauguration to call for the rights of all to be respected. In his speech at the latest session of the Human Rights Council, Zeid said he was proud that members of his own staff had taken part in the protests.
Fox News called the high commissioner’s recent comments a “veiled swipe” at Trump, noting that they were made amid talk of the U.S. pulling out of the U.N. body that Zeid heads. But walking away from the Human Rights Council isn’t that easy: Countries wishing to rescind membership have to go through the U.N. General Assembly, council spokesman Rolando Gómez told reporters. He added that the U.S. has been “a very active and constructive partner in the council for many years, spearheading a number of important initiatives,” including on North Korea, Iran, Syria and LGBT rights.
In a question-and-answer session at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where Zeid was given the Trainor Award, the veteran diplomat said that the hypothetical U.S. withdrawal from the Human Rights Council would leave “a gaping hole” in global efforts to uphold and restore human rights. He expressed hope that the United States “will take a careful look at this and realize that human rights are not just garnish on the plate,” but an essential ingredient in maintaining peace and security.
About the Author
Karin Zeitvogel (@Zeitvogel) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.