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The Man in the Mirror: Human Rights and American Hypocrisy

This past October, authorities in Western China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region legalized “re-education camps” for people accused of religious extremism. These camps, referred to by the local government as vocational skill education training centers, have been criticized by human rights organizations such as the Human Rights Watch for “mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment.” Xinjiang authorities have explicitly targeted the region’s Uyghur Muslim minority, reportedly imprisoning over 1 million Uyghurs in such camps on counts of religious extremism and terrorism. China has long been criticized for its treatment of its Muslim minorities, and the sharp rise in the prevalence of these internment camps in the past two years has drawn international attention and condemnation.

Following an August report from the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination decrying the camps as “something resembling a massive internment camp,” many have demanded that the United States take action against China. In a rare show of bipartisanship, seventeen American senators signed a letter calling for sanctions against Chinese officials involved in overseeing the camps, invoking the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act meant to punish human rights abusers anywhere in the world.

China has countered American criticisms, however, arguing that the United States has little moral authority on the issue of human rights. China has long rejected criticisms of its rights situation by highlighting the United States’ own poor record in an annual report entitled the Human Rights Record of the United States. Given the track record of the Trump administration, it is hard to disagree. The United States, which once sought to position itself as the global moral authority, has abdicated that role under the Trump administration. If the United States wishes to punish human rights violations abroad, it must also come to terms with its own flawed record.

To be clear, the United States’ claim to moral authority has never been strong. From the genocidal colonialism of indigenous peoples under the guise of Manifest Destiny to the forced internment of hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans in World War II, the history of the United States is rife with severe human rights violations.

In spite of this history, human rights have long been a major talking point for US politicians and a powerful force in American international relations. Former US President George W. Bush once pledged the United States’ commitment to “advance human dignity” around the world through the protection of human rights. This logic underpinned all of Bush’s most iconic foreign policy moments, justifying both the Iraq War (and the egregious human rights violations that followed) as well as the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR), at the time one of the most ambitious and successful global health initiatives ever.

Similarly, Barack Obama declared that universal human rights are a “top priority” that must be “supported by all of the diplomatic, economic, and strategic tools [at the US government’s] disposal.” Indeed, Obama won his presidency in part on the promise of systematic change in the US’s relationship with human rights. Despite Guantanamo Bay’s continued existence, the promotion of mass surveillance programs, the sale of more weapons than any administration in decades, and a sharp uptake in drone strikes outside active war zones, the Obama administration never wavered in its declared support of human rights, making it a cornerstone of its international policy.

Trump, on the other hand, has completely abandoned this position. The current administration has turned decades of American foreign policy on its head by withdrawing from several high-profile treaties and organizations as part of Trump’s “patriotism over globalism” policy. By refusing the terms of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement and the Iran Nuclear Deal, Trump has attacked the idea that concerted international action should be used to affect domestic policy.

This notion is particularly damning in the field of human rights. This June, the United States withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), joining Iran, Eritrea, and North Korea as the only countries refusing to participate in the council. As an original architect of the UNHRC, the United States’ withdrawal effectively undermines the council’s authority. As Antonio Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General, put it, the UN’s human rights “architecture” plays an irreplaceable role in the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide. By refusing to operate through the UNHRC and attacking the council’s legitimacy, Trump degraded the premier international framework devoted to the protection of human rights while undermining the United States’ credibility on the issue.

A look at recent headlines provides ample evidence for the Trump administration’s absence of authority on the topic of human rights. Among a discriminatory travel ban against Muslims and refugees, the celebration of violence against journalists, the gutting of critical programs like Social Security Disability Insurance, Medicaid, and food assistance, and the lauding of several high-profile human rights abusers, there are many examples of the Trump administration’s lack of respect for human rights.

For instance, take the Trump administration’s treatment of migrants along the United States’ southern border. Last April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance policy” along the Mexico border, codifying the now infamous policy of criminally prosecuting everyone who crosses the US-Mexico border illegally, separating migrant children from their parents in the process. Although these policies have since been dialed back, of the over 2,600 children taken from their parents and guardians, over 200 remain in government custody. Jacqueline Bhabha, Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, describes this policy as “unprecedented,” arguing that such large-scale detention is a violation of human rights.

The protection of the family unit has important precedents in international human rights law. The foremost legal document on the issue, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (signed but not ratified by the United States, the only country to fail to do so), establishes the “best interests of the child” as the standard that countries must use to shape their policy regarding children. The convention further clarifies the “right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including […] family relations […] without unlawful interference”. These, as well as other similar human rights conventions, codify the principle of family unity and aim to prevent family separation.

The Trump administration’s policy of breaking up families, often without giving them the means to contact each other, clearly violates these laws. Although international law respects the sovereign right of countries to exclude and deport aliens, the forcible separation of children from their parents disregards the family unit and clearly does not serve the best interests of the child. Given the dangers and exploitation facing migrants as they flee violence and poverty at home, deportation ultimately compounds the traumas inflicted on families.

International organizations have weighed in on the issue. Top United Nations officials have decried the policy as “unconscionable” and “an arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life” and “a serious violation of the rights of the child.” The UNHCR recently released a report stating that the United States’ use of children as a deterrent “is punitive, severely hampers their development, and in some cases may amount to torture.” Nikki Haley has responded to accusations by declaring that “neither the United Nations nor anyone else will dictate how the United States upholds its borders.” Interestingly, when confronted with criticism of its treatment of Uyghurs, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng replied, “We will not accept the politically driven accusations […] No country shall dictate the definition of democracy and human rights.”

The Trump administration’s lack of respect for such international human rights authorities has already begun to affect the United States’ credibility on the international playing field. A September survey by the Pew Research Center found that people around the world trust Trump less than any other major world leader, behind Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin. 70 percent of respondents said they did not trust Trump to “do the right thing regarding world affairs.” (For context, the 2016 iteration of this poll found that 79 percent trusted Obama)

The same poll also found that trust in the United States as a whole has also fallen under the Trump presidency, albeit to a lesser extent. For example, in Indonesia the percentage of people with a favorable view of the United States fell from 62% in 2015 to 42% in 2018. In Mexico, this number tanked from 66% to 32%. Clearly, the image of the United States worldwide as a trustworthy global authority has suffered drastically in the past two years. This statistic is arguably more important in countries like Indonesia outside the traditional Euro-American alliance; without the backing of large multilateral organizations such as the UNHRC, soft power initiatives from the United States rely heavily on this clout.

Invoking the Global Magnitsky Act to punish the Chinese officials responsible for the Uyghur internment camps would fall under this umbrella. The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, passed in 2016, authorizes the United States government to sanction human rights offenders, freeze their assets, and ban them from entering the country. The Act has been described as “most comprehensive human rights and anti-corruption sanctions tool in U.S. history.” From a moral standpoint, the United States should, by all means, invoke the act to punish the perpetrators of the human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

However, by forgoing multilateral cooperation in favor of such unilateral action on human rights, the Trump administration has opened the United States up to greater criticism for its own track record on the issue and undermined the ability of the UNHRC to combat human rights abuses. Given the country’s poor history with human rights and the acceleration of such abuses under the Trump administration, the United States has invalidated its own authority in the realm of human rights.

China has already capitalized on this, lambasting the current administration for worsening racial and economic inequality and political corruption in the 2017 edition of its Human Rights Record of the United States. The 2018 report will likely be even harsher, given the ammunition Trump has given the Chinese government in the past year alone. If the United States continues to project itself as the moral police abroad while ignoring its own transgressions, it will find it increasingly difficult to hold China accountable for acting against international law. Additionally, undermining both the United States’ and the UNHRC’s authority runs the risk of enabling other human rights abusers in the future. As one of the most influential players in global politics, the United States’ domestic policies are a matter of international importance, and should reflect the universal values the country has paid lip service to for so long

Photo: Donald Trump

About the Author

Andrew Bierle '20 is a Staff Writer for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Andrew can be reached at