The Age of Impunity
And How to Fight It
No U.S. president has spoken about human rights the way Donald Trump has. During the campaign, he praised Saddam Hussein for his approach to counterterrorism in Iraq: “He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn’t read them the rights. They didn’t talk. They were a terrorist. It was over.” He promised to loosen the restrictions on interrogating terrorism suspects: “I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” He went out of his way to compliment Russian President Vladimir Putin’s abusive rule: “In terms of leadership, he is getting an A.” And in a television interview shortly after his inauguration, when asked why he respected Putin—“a killer,” in the interviewer’s words—Trump responded, “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”
As president, he has kept at it. Last April, he chose to congratulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for winning a disputed referendum that expanded his authoritarian rule. In a call that same month, he spoke to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose bloody campaign under the guise of a “war on drugs” has taken the lives of over 12,000 Filipinos. Trump praised Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.” When they met in Manila in November, Trump laughed heartily after Duterte cut off questions from reporters and called them “spies”—this in a country where journalists and activists sometimes end up dead. Before heading to China, Trump congratulated President Xi Jinping, who had just further cemented his repressive rule at a Communist Party congress, for his “great political victory.”
All U.S. presidents have, to varying degrees, downplayed or even overlooked concerns about human rights in order to get things done with unsavory foreign partners. But none has seemed so eager as Trump to align with autocrats as a matter of course. The harm goes beyond mere words. In country after country, the Trump administration is gutting U.S. support for human rights, the rule of law, and good governance, damaging the overarching credibility of the United States. Within the United States’ borders, meanwhile, the Trump administration has unleashed an assault on nondiscrimination and equal justice.
Even before Trump was elected, human rights were under attack across the globe. With crisis, conflict, and instability gripping much of the world, repressive leaders from Ethiopia to Russia to Thailand have used these developments to justify tightening their hold on power—cracking down harder on dissent while rejecting the rule of law and flouting international norms. Now, with Trump in office, there’s little reason to believe that such initiatives will be met with much criticism or consequences from the United States. Indeed, the Trump administration’s chaotic and virtually values-free approach to foreign policy is bolstering this global deterioration while corroding the institutions and alliances needed to reverse it.
WRONG ON RIGHTS
The first year of Trump’s presidency was marked by a frenzy of activity on domestic issues. His administration instituted harsh new immigration rules that are ripping apart families and communities. Between late January and early September 2017, the total number of immigrants arrested inside the country (versus at the border) increased by 43 percent compared with the number arrested during the equivalent time period under President Barack Obama in 2016. These are people who have been uprooted from communities where they have families and deep ties. The president has also issued a series of travel bans, all of which use classic scapegoating tactics and bigotry to incite fears about Muslims and refugee-resettlement programs. Although the courts blocked the original and most draconian versions of this ban, in late 2017, they did allow a revised version to proceed.
The president has empowered bigots by making racially charged statements, including referring to white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, as “very fine people.” He has sought to end what he calls the “very dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America,” which is a direct rebuke to activists calling for racial justice in policing. He has also gravely harmed women’s rights by attacking reproductive choice, halting an equal-pay measure, and weakening protections against gender-based violence on college campuses.
On foreign policy, meanwhile, the administration has dismissed or damaged the global human rights framework. Under Trump, the United States has walked away from (or threatened to walk away from) a number of vital global commitments, institutions, and initiatives that would provide an opportunity to share the burden of combating global challenges while respecting rights. The administration has threatened to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council, largely because the Palestinian territories (and therefore Israel) are a permanent item on its agenda. It’s true that the council has flaws, but it has also successfully documented and exposed many human rights issues of concern to U.S. law and policymakers. Walking away would not only weaken the council but also limit the available avenues for Washington to promote human rights. From the UN’s negotiations on the compact for global migration to the Paris agreement on climate change, the Trump administration has repeatedly suggested multilateral institutions are of no use to the United States, even though the country was instrumental in creating the UN, as well as many of the norms and laws that guide thinking about human rights today.
When it comes to human rights, symbolism matters, and under this administration, human rights activists have been made to feel as though they aren’t important. The president and his top national security officials have met with very few frontline activists and have held very few meetings with civil society before or during overseas trips—a practice that previous presidents often used so as to hear directly from ordinary citizens about the challenges they were facing.
Words matter, too, and Trump’s fulsome praise of strongmen, many of whom he has hosted at the White House with great fanfare and little condemnation, has been taken by many as permission for brutality. Last April, he congratulated Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a military dictator who has overseen a vicious crackdown on government critics, for doing “a fantastic job.” The next month, counter to a promise made to the White House, Sisi signed a draconian law regulating civil society. Perhaps he was emboldened by Trump’s comment in Saudi Arabia a week earlier: “We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live.” On that same visit to Saudi Arabia, Trump told Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, the king of Bahrain, “There won’t be strain with this administration,” which the Bahraini regime evidently viewed as a green light to intensify repression. As Nabeel Rajab, an imprisoned Bahraini activist (and member of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East advisory committee), has written, “It was no coincidence that days later, Bahraini police used the deadliest force we have seen in decades, killing five protesters.”
Similarly, politicians looking to discredit the free press have latched on to the term “fake news,” one of Trump’s favorite phrases. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad rejected an Amnesty International report documenting the brutal killing of 13,000 military prisoners, saying, “You can forge anything these days. We are living in a fake-news era.” In Myanmar, where security forces have undertaken a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims, a government official went so far as to say, “There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news.” The term has become a catch phrase for government officials in China, the Philippines, Russia, and Venezuela who wish to shield themselves from scrutiny and create a climate of fear that vilifies dissenting voices. Indeed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which has been keeping a database of imprisoned journalists since the early 1990s, the number of people charged with reporting “false news” rose to a record high in 2017.
THE WAR ON WOMEN
Perhaps it should not be surprising that a man who was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault has put in place policies that set back the rights of women and girls around the world. But the swiftness of the rollback has been startling. In keeping with Republican tradition, the Trump administration has cut off U.S. funding for the UN Population Fund, which provides lifesaving maternal care for women, falsely claiming that it promotes forced abortions. And the reversal of so many domestic policies in support of gender equality no doubt undermines U.S. credibility overseas when it comes to empowering women and girls.
But perhaps the greatest threat to women will come from Trump’s expansion of the so-called Mexico City policy, also known as “the global gag rule,” a long-standing policy of Republican administrations that imposes conditions on health-care organizations receiving U.S. aid. To keep their U.S. funding, these organizations must certify that they are not using their other funds to provide abortions (except in cases of rape, incest, or to save a woman’s life) and that they are not offering information about or referrals for abortions or advocating them. Otherwise, they lose all their U.S. funding. In one of his first acts as president, Trump dramatically expanded the scope of funds affected by this restriction, raising the amount of aid at stake from $600 million to $9 billion.
The United States is by far the world’s largest health donor, so the rule will inflict untold harm on women, girls, and their families. It will likely hinder hard-fought progress on health care in poor and middle-income countries, particularly those that rely heavily on U.S. resources. Affected health programs may have to cut not only their family-planning offerings but also services linked to child health, including vaccinations and the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.
As research by Human Rights Watch in Africa has found, the new rule already means fewer health services of all types, not just the loss of safe abortion care. To take one example, Family Health Options Kenya, an organization set to lose U.S. funds, has curtailed outreach services such as family planning, cervical cancer testing, and HIV testing for impoverished communities, and it has already closed one clinic. Organizations in Kenya that have no choice but to agree to the new restrictions because they depend on these funds worry that more women will die from unsafe abortions, a leading cause of maternal mortality in the country. In Uganda, the policy presents a difficult choice for organizations with multiple public health campaigns: Should they keep the funds and focus just on fighting HIV/AIDS, or should they reject the funds and work to end injuries and deaths from back-alley abortions?
Trump’s policy is not only an assault on women’s health; it is also likely to be self-defeating. A 2011 Stanford University study found that when a more limited version of the Mexico City policy was last in place, during the George W. Bush administration, sub-Saharan Africa actually saw abortions increase. This happened particularly in parts of the continent that had few health-care options and relied heavily on U.S. funds. Although the researchers could not conclusively explain this uptick, their leading interpretation was that an overall decline in family-planning resources led to more unplanned pregnancies and more abortions. It stands to reason that an expanded version of the policy will lead to even more preventable maternal deaths, due to an increase in both unplanned pregnancies and unsafe abortions—to say nothing of its effect on efforts to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and child malnutrition.
Politicians looking to discredit the free press have latched on to the term “fake news,” one of Trump’s favorite phrases.
ON THE WARPATH
Because the United States is the world’s preeminent military power, its use of force is watched closely, especially when the White House has unequivocally pushed for a greater reliance on hard power. Indeed, the Trump administration has increased defense spending while reducing foreign aid. It has reversed a policy to phase out the use of cluster bombs, a particularly indiscriminate explosive. It has signed secret changes that undo the Obama administration’s more restrictive policies regarding the use of drone strikes and commando raids, a shift that will inevitably lead to less transparency and accountability and more civilian deaths. It has also accelerated arms sales, including to governments with poor track records on human rights, and has signaled its intention to loosen restrictions on arms exports—a shortsighted move that would prioritize economic interests over values.
In the fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS, the Trump administration has demonstrated a noted antipathy toward the laws of war. As a candidate, Trump promised to “bomb the shit out of” ISIS, and as president, he has lessened the White House’s oversight of air strikes in Iraq and Syria while giving commanders in the field more control, even as they shifted to more intense urban warfare.
In recent years, the Department of Defense has sought to make the details of its campaign against ISIS somewhat more transparent. The Pentagon regularly publishes information on its website about war costs, and even posts videos of air strikes. It also publishes a monthly report examining civilian casualties. But over the last year, human rights groups, the UN, and journalists have found growing evidence that a dramatically higher number of civilians are being killed by U.S. forces or U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq and Syria (as well as Afghanistan) than what is officially reported. In some cases, these investigations have found serious violations of the laws of armed conflict. An exhaustive inquiry by The New York Times Magazine concluded that the campaign against ISIS may be the least transparent war in recent U.S. history. The magazine reported that one civilian is killed for every five coalition air strikes—more than 31 times the rate the coalition has acknowledged.
Parts of this strategic shift began during the Obama administration. In December 2016, the Pentagon removed the requirement for a “strike cell” in Baghdad, which had served as a collection point for information about planned targets for air strikes in Iraq—an extra check to avoid civilian casualties. But the Trump administration exacerbated the problem by speeding up the tempo of operations without doing enough to mitigate civilian harm. The Pentagon also failed to consistently ensure that there had been adequate checks on intelligence collection before approving an air strike, and it has used munitions and firepower generally not considered appropriate for urban warfare. Investigations to assess allegations of civilian harm in the aftermath of a lethal strike have become deeply inadequate, hampered in part by the lack of a clear process for gathering information from those closest to the ground, such as local activists, emergency responders, and nongovernmental organizations.
SAVING THE SYSTEM
Human rights concerns have always competed with national security considerations. For too long, Washington has adopted policies in the name of protecting national security that come at the expense of human rights, forgetting the long-term costs of doing so. The Obama administration’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia, despite the Saudi-led coalition’s unlawful air strikes against civilians in Yemen, is a prime example of the harm this approach can do, with thousands of civilians killed and anti-American sentiment on the rise in the country. Another is the CIA’s secret post-9/11 torture and rendition program, which the Bush administration launched in violation of international obligations and U.S. law and which has undermined Washington’s credibility on human rights. But even as the United States struggled with how and when to promote human rights, there was always a common understanding that doing so was a key part of what defined the United States—and what Americans believed was the right thing for their government to do.
Not so under Trump. Although some lower-level U.S. officials appear committed to keeping human rights a priority, others have concluded that this may be impossible. In November, for example, Elizabeth Shackelford, a U.S. Foreign Service officer who most recently served in Kenya, resigned from the State Department in protest, writing, “Our government has failed to demonstrate a commitment to promoting and defending human rights and democracy.” No one who is actually running U.S. foreign policy seems to believe that the advancement of fundamental rights should be one of its central pillars.
Given the United States’ historically spotty record on promoting human rights, there are those who think that other governments can pick up the slack. But in reality, the loss of the United States as a champion, however inconsistent its support can be, is likely to further encourage governments to treat their citizens poorly, confident that no meaningful rebuke will follow. It is also likely to create a leadership vacuum, and the countries that aim to fill it—such as China, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela—will no doubt seek to spread their no-strings-attached approach to global affairs.
So what is to be done? Realistically, the next few years are likely to be hard on human rights. But despite the absence of U.S. leadership, there have been some bright spots, with rights-minded countries stepping up. At the UN Human Rights Council, for example, the Netherlands managed to overcome opposition from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States to launch an independent investigation into the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. Similarly, Iceland took the lead in drafting and collecting support from 38 other countries for a joint statement at the council condemning Duterte’s bloody “war on drugs.” As long as Trump is in power, such ad hoc coalitions of like-minded countries will need to become the norm.
There is also much that other parts of the U.S. government can do to protect human rights. Just as some cities and states have decided to comply with the Paris climate agreement despite the federal government’s withdrawal, they can also find ways to protect immigrants caught up in the Trump administration’s dragnet and keep families and communities intact.
Congress, for its part, has already resisted a number of presidential initiatives in the interest of human rights. In May, a bipartisan group of 15 senators sent Trump a letter urging him to “ensure that America remains a leader in advocating for democracy and human rights.” Congressional committees are using aid allocations and authorization bills to push back against the executive branch. Individual members of Congress are drafting legislation, holding hearings, and meeting with foreign officials to stand up for human rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Russia, and elsewhere. In December, the Treasury Department, under pressure from Congress, imposed sanctions on 13 individuals—from Belgium, China, the Dominican Republic, Gambia, Guatemala, Israel, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, Serbia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan—for corruption and human rights abuses.
But these efforts can only go so far. Petition gathering by like-minded countries is less effective without the most powerful country on earth. State and local governments can only do so much to work around the federal government. And although Congress controls the power of the purse, it has far less influence on foreign policy than the executive branch. And all the while, the White House’s attacks on immigrants, health care, minority communities, and the justice system will continue to diminish American credibility on human rights overseas. Simply put, unless it changes course dramatically, the Trump administration—and the president himself—will remain one of the greatest threats to human rights in decades.