The Trump Administration and Global Human Rights: Signposts for the Road Ahead

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Timothy M. Gill

Following World War II, state and social leaders across the world recognized the need to establish multilateral institutions that championed the global promotion of human rights. As a result, they created the United Nations (UN) in 1945, constructed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, established the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1948, and wrote the American Convention on Human Rights in 1969. Thereafter, international leaders have signed and ratified several international agreements, including the Convention against Torture.

The U.S., however, has maintained a conflicted relationship with human rights.

In the immediate post-WWII period, conservative senators blocked the U.S. from adopting many international treaties, fearing that the international community might use them to overturn states’ rights and end segregation. Some conservative legislators have continued to voice concern for U.S. national sovereignty and states’ rights in the face of international treaties. Indeed, this was the reason that several Republican senators recently gave for refusing to support the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, even though the treaty was modeled after domestic legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act.

On the other hand, some U.S. leaders have embraced human rights and, at times, secured the ratification of human rights agreements.

During the early 1970s, Representative Donald Fraser (D-MN) resurrected the idea of human rights within Washington by hosting a series of hearings within the House Subcommittee on International Organizations, which involved visits from victims of right-wing Latin American dictatorships (Sikkink 2007). And, by the end of the decade, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter utilized the language of human rights to unite several factions within the Democratic Party – those concerned with the domestic behavior of communist governments, particularly in Eastern Europe, and those concerned with U.S. support for right-wing dictatorships, particularly in Latin America.

If there remained any question, though, concerning the Trump Administration’s position towards human rights, its stance has become clear over the last several months.

In his first trip abroad, President Trump visited with members of the royal Saudi family that continue to brutally rule over their country. Trump failed to offer any critique of the Saudi regime, instead visiting a Toby Keith concert and attending a meeting on counter-terrorism efforts. Indeed, Trump has made a habit of promoting working relations with several authoritarian leaders throughout the world. In an interview with Fox News correspondent Bill O’Reilly over the Super Bowl weekend, for instance, Trump reiterated his call to work with Russia and, when O’Reilly called Putin “a killer,” Trump responded, saying that there “are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country is so innocent?”

Beyond Putin, Trump has invited Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for a trip to Washington. Orbán has targeted Hungarian NGOs that criticize the government, deployed anti-Muslim rhetoric, and recently threatened to shut down the Central European University. Trump has also praised the policies of similar strongmen in both Kazakhstan and the Philippines, where extrajudicial murder has now become all but uncommon throughout the archipelago.

Under Trump, the U.S. has begun to relax Obama-implemented restrictions on weapon sales. In March, for example, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson decided to lift human rights conditions on the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain. Despite selling over $115 billion worth of arms to the human rights-violating government of Saudi Arabia, the Obama administration terminated plans to sell the Lockheed Martin-produced fighter jets to Bahrain in September 2016 lest it improve its human rights record, as it particularly concerned the treatment of Shiite government protesters. In May, Tillerson also quite plainly stated that the U.S. must often place national security and economic interests over U.S. values of freedom and democracy, leading to much criticism from within and beyond the ranks of the Republican Party.

These moves will surely send a signal to authoritarian governments throughout the world. Sunjeev Bery, an advocacy director with Amnesty International, for example, has stated that arms deals with Bahrain “place the U.S. at risk of being complicit in war crimes, and discourage other countries, like Saudi Arabia, from addressing their own human rights records.”

The Trump Administration also clearly evidences disdain for multilateral institutions. Earlier in March, the U.S. failed to appear before the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for a hearing involving U.S. immigration policies. Witnesses condemned the new administration’s attempts to ban individuals from particular countries from entering the U.S., and human rights activists have lambasted the Trump administration’s decision to skip the hearing.

At the same time that the Trump Administration has protested the IACHR, it has championed attempts by the OAS to push the Venezuelan government, another country that has condemned its IACHR hearings, to pursue several political-economic reforms, including a recall election on President Nicolás Maduro. Interestingly, Venezuela remains one of very few countries that the Trump Administration has targeted. The Treasury Department, for instance, has placed sanctions on the Venezuelan Vice-President Tareck El Aissami for his alleged involvement in drug trafficking, and U.S. state leaders have continuously condemned the Maduro government.

The real difference, of course, between countries like, on the one hand, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and, on the other hand, Venezuela and Cuba, that the Trump Administration seemingly cares about is support for national security interests. While the Venezuelan government has recurrently criticized the War on Terror since its inception in 2001, Bahrain has aligned with Middle Eastern forces such as Saudi Arabia, another U.S. ally and gross human rights violator, to target al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other anti-U.S. forces in the Middle Eastern region.

Despite some earlier question marks concerning the new administration and its policies, it’s now clear that the Trump team possesses little regard for the global promotion of human rights.

To be sure, the U.S. has long maintained a historically ambivalent relationship with human rights, multilateral institutions, and authoritarian leaders. Since the late 20th century, however, most U.S. presidents have accepted the importance of human rights as a significant factor that should, at least, partially shape U.S. foreign policy. In places like Saudi Arabia, though, we have seen how national security interests have repeatedly taken priority.

Under the new administration, human rights have been gravely downgraded as a foreign policy concern. Indeed, since Trump came to power, the U.S. has hardly spoke out against any country beyond Venezuela and Cuba. In doing so, Trump has shown that only left-leaning governments that reject U.S. national security interests are deserving of criticism. Such a policy harkens back to the darkest days of the Cold War – where the U.S. accepted, and even promoted, right-wing dictators, so long as they lavished praise upon the U.S. and targeted left-leaning activists (Grandin 2007; Mann 2012; Sikkink 2007).

As the last few months have shown, the next few years will surely involve a struggle to keep human rights concerns on the agenda. But, as the outcome of recent proposals by the Trump administration also shows, it’s a fight that can be won.


Grandin, Greg. 2006. Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the
New Imperialism. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Mann, Michael 2013. The Sources of Social Power, Volume 4, Globalizations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sikkink, Kathryn. 2007. Mixed Signals: US Human Rights Policy and Latin America. Washington: Century Foundation.