Trump's Approach To Human Rights? It's Personal, Critics Say.


He cites as an example how Hillary Clinton “downplayed” human rights concerns on her first trip to China as secretary of State, even though she had long championed universal human rights, specifically in China.

Others say Trump has hardly been different on that score, and they cite as evidence his trip to Saudi Arabia last spring – an important overture to regional leaders in his pursuit of US strategic interests – when he publicly told an audience of Muslim monarchs and strongmen, including Saudi leaders, that “we are not here to lecture you.”

But Dr. Hannum, who is on leave at Oxford University this year writing a history of human rights, says he sees little pattern so far in Trump’s citing of human rights concerns or in where the administration’s places the issue among other national security objectives.

“With Trump it’s difficult to determine on what basis he condemns some countries and leaders and not others,” Hannum says. “He does demonstrate an attraction to international leaders that most of us would consider authoritarian,” he adds, “but it has been very difficult to identify the policy interests or the ideology that determine whether he speaks loudly or quietly, if at all,” on human rights.

“More than anything,” he says, “it seems to be based on a personal admiration of dislike for the leader in question.”

Human rights advocates say Trump’s admiration for autocrats – or at least autocratic tendencies in leaders – can be seen in the list of leaders he has invited to the White House, including those from Egypt, Turkey, Vietnam, and Thailand.


Yet while most human rights experts bemoan the Trump administration’s treatment of human rights, some advocates say they are heartened by what they see as a renewed ideological underpinning to the issue under Trump.

The focus they discern after 10 months of Trump foreign policy: condemnation of the world’s totalitarian regimes.

“This administration has set a pattern of condemning loudly and repeatedly what President Trump has referred to as the world’s ‘captive nations,’” says Marion Smith, executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a Washington human rights organization.

Trump has consistently raised the issue of totalitarian regimes’ abuse of human rights, Mr. Smith says – in his speeches in Poland, at the NATO summit, and now in Seoul – but he adds that it was above all Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September that defined the issue for the world.

“At [the UN] President Trump connected the actions of the regimes in Cuba and Venezuela, Iran and North Korea, with their ideologies, and he laid out on the global stage how one leads to the other,” he says. “We have not had a sitting president probe that connection in such a forceful way since Ronald Reagan.”

Smith says Trump’s presidency is shaping up as a “time to recover lost ground” after the Obama administration’s “muddled approach” to the human rights violations of totalitarian regimes.


But other experts say that administrations define their human-rights priorities by more than presidential speeches. More important for actually making progress on issues like political rights and personal freedoms is the bench of human rights experts, State Department under-secretaries, and ambassadors who keep the pressure on the issue and constantly remind partners and adversaries alike that the issue remains a US priority.

And on that score, these experts add, the Trump administration is telling the world that human rights are not a top priority.

Under typical conditions, senior administration officials would be advocating the place of human rights in every discussion of national security interests, from bilateral relations to regional challenges. But Ms. Brown, now a fellow in Carnegie’s democracy and rule of law program, says the Trump administration “varies from ‘typical’ times” in key ways.

First, she says the State Department’s “major reorganization” under way under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has democracy and human rights officials in a kind of limbo where they have “less high-level political backing.” And second, she underscores the impact of a State Department that remains “undermanned at senior political and career levels while the administration has demonstrated its preference for bolstering military instruments of power.”

Some human rights advocates see a glimmer of hope in Secretary Tillerson’s plans to visit Myanmar (also known as Burma) this week to press for a solution to the Rohingya crisis that has pushed more than 200,000 members of the Muslim minority group out of their homes and primarily into neighboring Bangladesh.

But as Tufts’ Hannum says, “It’s the assistant secretaries and other senior officials, and then the folks under them, who keep the human rights fires burning and make sure that US policy is based on more than simply the president’s personal attractions and dislikes. But so far,” he says, “we’re not getting the sense that anyone is really making human rights a priority in this administration.”

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