Publicly, U.S. officials kept their cool as the mid-June discussions played out. Behind the scenes, however, the State Department was scrambling to avert a public relations disaster, dispatching its diplomats to pull strings and call in favors.
Lana Marks, the U.S. ambassador in South Africa, reached out to top officials there, telling them a probe aimed squarely at the U.S. “would be an extreme measure that should be reserved for countries that are not taking action in response to human rights issues, which is clearly not the case in the United States,” according to a diplomatic cable obtained by POLITICO. South Africa isn’t on the council, but it chairs the African Union, and South African officials assured Marks that they’d use their diplomatic heft to help the U.S. avoid embarrassment.
The pressure worked — the 47-member council didn’t order a U.S.-focused probe, instead requesting a broader report on anti-Black racism worldwide. But that it came so close to doing so illustrates how international activists, groups and institutions are increasingly focusing on the United States as a villain, not a hero, on the subject of human rights. While the U.S. has never fully escaped such scrutiny — consider the post-9/11 fury over torture, Guantanamo Bay and drone strikes — former officials and activists say that, under President Donald Trump, American domestic strife is raising an unusual level of alarm alongside U.S. actions on the global stage. Some groups also flag what they say is an erosion of democracy in a country that has long styled itself as a beacon of freedom.
The enhanced scrutiny comes as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has created a commission tasked with rethinking the U.S. approach to human rights. Pompeo argues there’s been a questionable proliferation of what counts as human rights. Critics fear the commission, whose report is due this summer, will undercut the rights of women, LGBTQ people and others.
Former U.S. officials say that, above all, what has put America’s human rights record in question is Trump’s disregard for the issue and his affinity for authoritarian leaders. When Trump has condemned human rights abuses, it’s generally been in select situations that cost him little political capital or when it can bolster his electoral base — as in the case of Iran and Venezuela.
The void has exasperated advocates from both parties.
“The Trump factor is huge, if not the determinative factor” in the battered U.S. reputation, said David Kramer, a former assistant secretary of State for human rights in the George W. Bush administration. “People advocating and fighting for democracy, human rights and freedom around the world are disillusioned by the U.S. government and don’t view the current administration as a true partner.”
‘The indispensable nation’
In early June, the International Crisis Group did something its leaders said was a historic first: It issued a statement on an internal crisis in the United States. The ICG, an independent organization headquartered in Belgium, analyzes geopolitics with the goal of preventing conflict. It is known for issuing authoritative, deeply sourced reports on war-torn countries — say, how to end the brutal conflict in Yemen.
The ICG’s statement detailed the peaceful protests, occasional violence, police crackdowns and political reactions that followed the killing of Floyd, who died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly 8 minutes. In language similar to how it might describe fragile foreign states, the ICG cast the “unrest” as a crisis that “put the nation’s political divides on full display.” And it chided the Trump administration for “incendiary, panicky rhetoric that suggests the U.S. is in armed conflict with its own people.”
“Over the long term, the nation will need to take steps to end the police’s brutality and militarization as well as structural racial inequality if it wants to avoid similar future crises,” the ICG said. “At present, however, what the country’s leadership most needs to do is insist that those culpable for Floyd’s killing are brought to justice, stand in support of those local officials and community leaders who are calling for calm and reform, abandon its martial rhetoric and stop making the situation worse.”
Rob Malley, ICG’s president and CEO, was an aide to former President Barack Obama, but he said the idea for the statement came from colleagues. The ICG decided it saw a confluence of factors in America that it sees in far more troubled countries. One appeared to be growing militarization of the police. Another was the seeming politicization of the military. Also key: Some U.S. political leaders, including Trump, seem determined to exploit racial divisions instead of pushing for unity. The ICG is now debating whether to launch a program that focuses on U.S. domestic issues in a systematic way, Malley said.
Malley stressed that past U.S. administrations, Republican and Democrat, all had credibility gaps when it came to promoting human rights while protecting U.S. interests. Obama, for instance, was criticized for authorizing drone strikes against militants that often killed civilians.
But under Trump, those credibility gaps have turned into a “canyon,” Malley said. “I think there’s a qualitative difference with this administration, for whom human rights seems to be treated purely as a transactional currency,” he said.
The ICG’s statement came after head-turning moves by similar institutions.
In 2019, Freedom House released a special essay titled “The Struggle Comes Home: Attacks on Democracy in the United States.” The Washington-based NGO, which receives the bulk of its funding from the U.S. government, was established in 1941 to fight fascism. Its report, which ranks how free countries are using various indicators, described a decline in U.S. democracy that predated Trump and was fueled in part by political polarization. Freedom House warned, however, that Trump was accelerating it.
“No president in living memory has shown less respect for [U.S. democracy’s] tenets, norms, and principles,” the report said. “Trump has assailed essential institutions and traditions including the separation of powers, a free press, an independent judiciary, the impartial delivery of justice, safeguards against corruption, and most disturbingly, the legitimacy of elections.”
Other groups have slammed the Trump administration’s dismantling of much of the U.S. refugee resettlement program, its aversion to accepting asylum-seekers, its travel bans on people from several Muslim-majority countries, and its treatment of migrants in general. Groups like Amnesty International’s U.S. section have substantially increased their work on such migration issues under Trump, including hiring more staff and conducting more research missions along the U.S.-Mexico border, said Joanne Lin, Amnesty International USA’s national advocacy director. Amnesty is one of the few international human rights organizations that has a programmatic focus on the United States.
The international furor against the Trump administration was especially intense in mid-2018, as the U.S. was separating migrant children from their parents at the southern border, then putting the children in detention camps.
The U.N. high commissioner for human rights called the U.S. actions “unconscionable.”
Floyd’s death recently spurred more than 30 human rights and related groups, many of which tend to focus their work outside the United States, to take out a full-page advertisement in the Minneapolis Star Tribune to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The public is not an armed opposition group. Everyone has the right to speak up and to demonstrate peacefully,” the ad says. The signatories include groups such as Save the Children, Mercy Corps and Refugees International.
Human rights leaders acknowledge that America’s troubles are nowhere near as worrisome as what they see in many other countries. They argue, however, that the U.S. deserves outsize attention.
“There is intense racism and law enforcement abuse of human rights in China, in Russia, in Brazil and a lot of other countries that the United Nations has a hard time mustering the will to condemn,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), a former senior human rights official under Obama. “But none of those countries is the indispensable nation. What human rights organizations and institutions are saying by focusing on the United States is something that they cannot explicitly admit, and that is that they believe in American exceptionalism. They understand that America falling short of its ideals has a far greater impact on the world than a Russia or a China doing what we all expect those authoritarian states to do.”
‘What do they want?’
Trump was clear from the outset that he would not prioritize human rights. He used his 2016 campaign to call for bringing back torture and killing the family members of terrorists. He also showed little regard for international institutions meant to serve as a check on the behavior of governments. If he says anything meaningful in support of human rights, it’s often in a scripted format such as in a speech.
But abroad, those statements often are not taken as seriously as Trump’s impromptu comments on Twitter and beyond.
Trump’s about-face on North Korea is instructive. Early on, he repeatedly slammed country’s human rights record, calling its totalitarian leader, Kim Jong Un, a “madman who doesn’t mind starving or killing his people.” But once Kim agreed to meet with Trump for historic nuclear talks, the U.S. president stopped raising human rights. After their first meeting in June 2018, Trump declared that Kim “loves his people.”
Activists hoped that if Trump didn’t care about human rights, his subordinates might. On that front, they’ve found a mixed picture.
Trump’s first secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, said the United States should not let values — including views on how other governments treat their people — create “obstacles” to pursuing its national interests. Tillerson was nuanced in his statement, but his comments upset many U.S. diplomats.
A top State Department official, Brian Hook, later wrote a memo to Tillerson arguing that the U.S. should use human rights as a weapon against adversaries, like Iran and China. But repressive allies, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, should get a pass, it said. “Allies should be treated differently — and better — than adversaries. Otherwise, we end up with more adversaries, and fewer allies,” Hook wrote.