Posts Tagged ‘Foreign Policy of the USA’

Positioning China as THE threat, overlooks the bigger issues within democracies

August 7, 2021

Zack Beauchamp in VOX of 28 July 2021 makes a strong but perhaps controversial plea that “In the fight for democracy’s future, Indian and American politics is more important than anything China is doing“:

Donald Trump and Narendra Modi shaking hands while standing in front of US and Indian flags.
Donald Trump and Narendra Modi.

One of the emerging tenets of the Biden presidency is that the United States and China are locked in ideological conflict over the fate of democracy.

In March, during his first press conference as president, he declared that “this is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.” In April, during his first address to a joint session of Congress, he labeled this struggle “the central challenge of the age” — and that China’s Xi Jinping is “deadly earnest about becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world.”

More recently, in last week’s CNN town hall, he warned that Xi “truly believes that the 21st century will be determined by oligarchs, [that] democracies cannot function in the 21st century. The argument is, because things are moving so rapidly, so, so rapidly that you can’t pull together a nation that is divided to get a consensus on acting quickly.”

Inasmuch as there is a Biden doctrine, the notion that the US needs to protect democracy from China’s authoritarian model is at the center of it. “Biden’s administration [is] framing the contest as a confrontation of values, with America and its democratic allies standing against the model of authoritarian repression that China seeks to impose on the rest of the world,” Yaroslav Trofimov writes in the Wall Street Journal.

Biden’s thinking captures an important insight: that the struggle over democracy’s fate will be one of the defining conflicts of the 21st century. But his analysis is crucially flawed in one respect: China is not an especially important reason why democracy is currently under threat — and centering it is not only wrong, but potentially dangerous.

In countries where democracy is at real risk of collapse or even outright defeated — places like India, Brazil, Hungary, Israel, and, yes, the United States — the real drivers of democratic collapse are domestic. Far-right parties are taking advantage of ethno-religious divides and public distrust in the political establishment to win electorally — and then twist the rules to entrench their own hold on power. Leaders of these factions, like former US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, aid and abet each other’s anti-democratic politics.

More traditional authoritarian states, even powerful ones like China or Russia, have thus far played at best marginal roles in this struggle.

“Much of the recent global democratic backsliding has little to do with China,” Thomas Carothers and Frances Brown, two leading experts on democracy, write in a recent Foreign Affairs essay. “An overriding focus on countering China and Russia risks crowding out policies to address the many other factors fueling democracy’s global decline.”

This misdiagnosis has real policy stakes. Leaning into competition with China could lead the US to excuse anti-democratic behavior by important partners, like Modi or the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, in a manner reminiscent of US relations with anti-communist dictators during the Cold War. Moreover, too much emphasis on competition with China could distract from the place where Biden has the most power to affect democracy’s fate — the home front, an area in which voting rights advocates increasingly see him as indefensibly complacent.

There are real problems associated with China’s rise. Its increasing military belligerence, predatory economic practices, and horrific human rights abuses in places like Xinjiang are all very serious concerns. But the fact that China is the source of many real issues doesn’t mean it’s the source of democratic erosion worldwide — and positioning it as such will do little to advance the democratic cause.

Democracies are rotting from within, not without

In his public rhetoric, Biden often argues that the US needs to prove that democracy “works” — that it can “get something done,” as he said last week — in order to outcompete the Chinese model.

While he hasn’t spelled out the nature of this competition all that precisely, the concern seems to center on Chinese policy success: that its rapid economic growth and authoritarian ability to make swift policy changes will inspire political copycats unless democracies prove that they can also deliver real benefits for their citizens.

“I believe we are in the midst of an historic and fundamental debate about the future direction of our world,” the president wrote in a March letter outlining his national security strategy. “There are those who argue that, given all the challenges we face, autocracy is the best way forward. And there are those who understand that democracy is essential to meeting all the challenges of our changing world.”

But at this point, the fear of Chinese political competition is mostly hypothetical. While the Chinese government and state media frequently tout the superiority of its political model to American-style democracy, there’s little evidence that these efforts are all that influential globally — and certainly not in the countries where democracy is most at risk.

A look back at the Soviet Union, the last major challenge to the hegemony of liberal democracy, is telling. ln ideological terms, there’s no comparison: Soviet communism was a far more powerful model than Chinese authoritarian state capitalism is today.

CHINA-BEIJING-XI JINPING-JULY 1 MEDAL-AWARD CEREMONY (CN)
Xi Jinping.

Marxist ideals inspired revolutionary Communist movements and governments around the globe, successfully toppling Western-backed governments in countries ranging from Cuba to Vietnam to China itself. By contrast, there are vanishingly few foreign governments or even political parties today openly vowing to emulate modern China. While the Soviets had the Iron Curtain in Europe, modern China’s most notable client state is North Korea — perhaps the most isolated and mistrusted government on the planet.

In the countries that observers worry most about — established democratic states experiencing “backsliding” toward authoritarianism — Chinese influence is minimal at best.

In backsliding democracies, authoritarian-inclined leaders win and hold power through the electoral system for domestic reasons. Corruption scandals in India and Hungary, violent crime in the Philippines, a racist backlash against America’s first Black president: These are some of the key factors in the rise of authoritarian populists, and they weren’t created or even significantly promoted by China.

Elected authoritarians still bill themselves as defenders of democracy while in power — even after they start undermining the electoral system with tactics like extreme gerrymandering and takeovers of state election agencies. Their political appeal isn’t grounded in an overt rejection of democracy in favor of a Chinese model, but rather a claim to be taking democracy back from corrupt elites in the name of the “true” people, typically defined in ethno-nationalist terms.

The ideology driving modern democratic decline is vastly different from the sort that China promotes at home and through official state media. It represents a home-grown challenge inside the democratic world, rather than an externally stoked, Cold War-style threat.

That’s not to say China does nothing to undermine democracy outside its borders. It has, for example, exported surveillance technology and provided training in “cybersecurity” for foreign officials that amount to teaching them tools for controlling public opinion — underscoring its role as a global pioneer in using technology to repress dissent.

Yet even in this area, China’s influence can easily be overstated. Backsliding countries typically do not ban websites outright or arrest online dissidents in the way China does. Instead, they rely on spreading misinformation and other more subtle uses of state power. When they do use more traditional authoritarian tools, they often don’t need China’s help in doing so — as shown by recent reporting on Israel’s NSO Group, a company with close links to the Israeli state that sold spy software to India and Hungary (whose governments allegedly used it to surveil journalists and opposition figures).

In his recent book The Rise of Digital Repression, Carnegie Endowment scholar Steven Feldstein attempts to systematically document the use of digital tools and tactics for undermining democracy around the world. He found that while such practices were indeed becoming more widespread, this is largely due to domestic factors in authoritarian and backsliding countries rather than Chinese influence.

“China really wasn’t pushing this technology any more so than other countries were pushing advanced technology or censorship technologies,” he told me in an interview earlier this year. “What I saw — when I spoke on the ground to intelligence officials, government officials, and others — was that there were many other factors at play that were much more determinative in terms of whether they would choose to purchase a surveillance system or use it than just the fact that China was trying to market it.”

The problem with blaming China for democracy’s crisis

Biden and his team recognize that many of the challenges to democracy have domestic roots. But in casting the rise of anti-democratic populism as part of a grander ideological struggle against an authoritarian Chinese model, they conflate two distinct phenomena — and risk making some significant policy errors.

Again, an analogy to the Cold War is helpful here. One of the most grievous errors of America’s containment policy was its repeated willingness to align itself with anti-communist dictators. The perceived need to stop the expansion of Soviet influence consistently trumped America’s commitment to democracy — with horrific consequences for the people of Iran, Argentina, Indonesia, and Bangladesh (to name just a handful of examples from a very long list).

The more China is treated like the new Soviet Union — the principal ideological threat to democracy whose influence must be curtailed — the more likely the US is to repeat that mistake.

Take India, for example. In the past six months, Biden has courted Modi’s government as a potential counterweight to China. “There are few relationships in the world that are more vital than one between the U.S. and India. We are the world’s two leading democracies,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a July 28 press conference in New Delhi.

Yet this is an Indian government that has assailed the rights of its Muslim citizens, strong-armed US social media companies into removing critical posts, and arrested a leading protest figure. Earlier this year, V-Dem — a research group behind the leading academic metric of democracy — announced that India under Modi was an “electoral autocracy,” rather than a true democracy. It’s easy to see how an emphasis on China could lead to these problems getting swept under the rug.

“There has long been a bipartisan consensus in Washington that India is a critical ally in its attempt to check Chinese influence in Asia,” the Indian intellectual Pankaj Mishra wrote in a June Bloomberg column. “In overlooking the Modi government’s excesses, Biden probably counts on support from a US foreign policy establishment invested more in realpolitik than human rights.”

If you take the notion that democracy’s crisis is emerging from within seriously, then it follows that very best thing that Biden could do for democracy’s global future has nothing to do with China or even foreign policy. It’s arresting creeping authoritarianism at home.

Black Voters Matter Protest
Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) are arrested during a protest to support voting rights outside of Hart Senate Office Building on Thursday, July 22, 2021.

Biden has acknowledged this at times, writing in his March letter that his global strategy “begins with the revitalization of our most fundamental advantage: our democracy.” And yet that urgency hasn’t translated into action — legislation necessary to safeguard American democracy from the GOP’s increasingly anti-democratic politics appears stalled out. Biden, for his part, has refused to publicly endorse more aggressive action to break the logjam — like abolishing the filibuster for voting rights bills.

The New York Times recently reported that “in private calls with voting rights groups and civil rights leaders, White House officials and close allies of the president have expressed confidence that it is possible to ‘out-organize voter suppression’” — an implausible claim that reflects an administration that, according to activists, has “largely accepted the Republican restrictions as baked in and is now dedicating more of its effort to juicing Democratic turnout.”

Shoring up American democracy after the recent attacks it has suffered should be the top priority of any US government concerned with democracy’s global fate. But for all of Biden’s lofty language about out-competing China and winning the future for democracy, there’s a striking lack of urgency when it comes to the perhaps the most important backsliding country — his own.

In this sense, China has very little influence over the future of democracy globally. The key battles are happening not in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait, but in the legislatures of New Delhi and Washington. If there really is to be a grand struggle for democracy’s survival in the 21st century, it needs to start there.

https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/22590777/biden-china-democracy-voting-india-doctrine

Dictators hire U.S. firms to clean up their images.

May 14, 2021
Image without a caption

Kathy Kiely published on 7 May 2021 in the Washington Post a very enlightening piece showing that “Representing countries with bad records on press freedom is big business.”:

….But even if Biden’s ambition to reestablish the White House as a champion of human rights is a welcome break from the Trump administration’s dictator-coddling, his efforts to pressure countries on freedom of expression are being systematically undermined in Washington, where some nations that are the worst offenders have powerful advocates. Representing those countries is a lucrative business here in the home of the First Amendment.

Sadly, there are far too many examples in the Justice Department’s foreign-agent registration database to present a complete list here. So my research assistant, Missouri journalism student Elise Mulligan, and I decided to focus on a few countries with pressing image problems when it comes to press freedoms.

 Saudi Arabia: The oil-rich kingdom deserves top rank here for the enormity of both the fees and the crime involved. A few big-name influencers dropped the Saudis as clients immediately after the brazen October 2018 murder of journalist and Washington Post contributing op-ed writer Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. But others made a different choice. Since Khashoggi’s death, some two dozen U.S. firms have picked up more than $73 million in fees for representing Saudi interests, according to reports they have filed with the Justice Department. Chief among them was the kingdom’s longtime main lobbying firm, Qorvis, which said in a statement at the time of Khashoggi’s disappearance that “we take the situation seriously” and would “wait for all the facts to become known.”

Here are some facts that have since become known: Saudi officials have acknowledged that Khashoggi was killed by a team of government agents sent to force the journalist to return to the kingdom and that his body was afterward dismembered. Five of the 15 hit men were convicted but have since had their death sentences commuted. And U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation that led to Khashoggi’s murder.

Meanwhile, the crown prince continues to have his reputation as a visionary world leader burnished with news releases like the one prepared in January by Edelman hailing Neom, the futuristic city the prince has ordered up on the Red Sea. (Edelman took in $6.7 million from the Saudis since Khashoggi’s murder before completing its latest contracts in January, according to Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, filings.) Or in a Hogan Lovells-produced release crediting the crown prince for “new efforts to combat extremist ideology and shut down hate speech.” This about a country that routinely makes female journalists the targets of misogynistic trolling campaigns.

Qorvis has collected more than $28 million from the Saudis since Khashoggi’s murder, filings with the Justice Department show. Firm President Michael Petruzzello has said the $18.8 million Qorvis reported receiving from the Saudis six months after the journalist’s death was for work “billed over several years and recently paid all at once.” But since then, the firm has picked up another $9 million working for the Saudis. It also has a contract to do work for the kingdom’s oxymoronically named Human Rights Commission. A bit of context: While the Saudis recently released from prison several female activists (who had asked for, among other things, the right to drive), the women are not permitted to leave the country.  [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/02/09/will-loujain-al-hathloul-be-released-on-thursday-11-february/]

Even more jaw-droppingly, some U.S. lobbying firms are producing materials flacking the Saudis’ humanitarian work in Yemen, such as a note from a Hogan Lovells partner to Capitol Hill staffers about “how the Kingdom of Saudi is leading regional efforts related to the current cease-fire and COVID mitigation in Yemen,” and a Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck flier for a Saudi-sponsored Capitol Hill conference on “protecting innocent lives” in Yemen by eradicating land mines. That all seems a bit like offering a Band-Aid to someone whose leg you just cut off, given the Saudi role in escalating Yemen’s civil war. According to the United Nations, the conflict has killed at least 233,000 people and left children starving.

The Philippines: Over the past few years, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been busy shuttering his nation’s largest broadcaster and conducting an infamous campaign of online and legal harassment against much-lauded journalist and entrepreneur Maria Ressa (who just added the UNESCO press freedom prize to honors from the Committee to Protect Journalists, the National Press Club and many more). [See: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/04/28/maria-ressa-of-the-philippines-winner-of-unescos-guillermo-cano-world-press-freedom-prize-2021/]

At the same time, the blue-chip communications and public relations firm BCW Global has collected fees of more than $1 million for providing assistance to the nation’s central bank, headed by a Duterte ally. The work includes a glossy 70-page pamphlet (including plenty of photos of Duterte) touting the Philippine economy to investors, as well as news releases that highlight the accomplishments of “President Rodrigo Duterte’s economic team”  and his “reform agenda.” All of that is intended to encourage investment in a country whose leader has drawn widespread condemnation for encouraging thousands of extrajudicial killings.

China: Global rainmakers Squire Patton Boggs continue to represent Beijing’s interests in Washington for a retainer of $55,000 a month, according to the firm’s most recent contract, dated last July. The firm’s January filing with the Justice Department reported payments of $330,000 from the Chinese Embassy for the previous six months of work, which included advice on “U.S. policy concerning Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet,” among other places where Beijing has been trying to muzzle dissidents, and “matters pertaining to human rights,” according to the firm’s latest filing with the Justice Department’s foreign-agent registration database.

Chinese officials have been sanctioned by the U.S. government for human rights abuses against the country’s Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang and against Buddhists in Tibet, among other concerns. They’re also no friend to journalists, unsurprisingly: The prison sentence handed to Hong Kong news publisher Jimmy Lai became the latest headline in China’s crackdown on press freedom. The most recent report from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China documents the expulsions of at least 18 foreign correspondents and numerous attempts to intimidate reporters working in Hong Kong and mainland China. Most concerning are the detentions of Chinese nationals, some of whom have been held for months with no word about the charges against them or their condition.

Of course, it is hopelessly silly to be writing any of this with an expectation that it’ll change this behavior. Anyone can lip-sync the patronizing lecture on realpolitik that Washington’s foreign policy establishment deploys to edify the ignoramus idealist who thinks Americans should stand up for our own values.

Former senator Norm Coleman — who, as a senior adviser for Hogan Lovells (post-Khashoggi murder take from Saudi Arabia: $6.8 million, according to records the firm has filed with the Justice Department), has been working his Hill contacts on the Saudis’ behalf — delivered a version of this lecture in interviews immediately after Khashoggi’s disappearance. The murder was “not a good deal at all” and “there needs to be accountability,” he said, but the “strategic relationship” between the Americans and the Saudis must be maintained: Iran must be contained. Israel must survive.

There are variations on this theme for almost every bad actor on the world stage: The Philippines is a strategic base for U.S. operations in South Asia. China? Think of all those customers for our soybeans and our movies! And, at various times, Washington has tried to enlist all three countries as allies in the war on terrorism.

But if we can’t stand up for free speech, life and liberty, what, exactly, are we fighting for? May 3 was World Press Freedom Day, which the United Nations has set aside to celebrate the work of journalists in promoting democracy, accountability and the rule of law. It seems a fitting moment to consider how socially and politically acceptable it has become in this country is to undermine all those things.Advertisement. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/05/03/world-press-freedom-day-2020-a-small-selection-of-cases/

The firms that lobby for Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and China did not respond to repeated requests for comment. It would be interesting to ask them how they square their work for those clients with the work they like to highlight: accounts such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Alzheimer’s Association (Qorvis); campaigns for worthy causes, such as the video Edelman made for Ikea to support equal rights for women (sadly lacking in Saudi Arabia). But it’s worth pointing out this work because these clients, along with other reputable brands that these lobbying firms represent — for instance, Major League Baseball’s commissioner’s office and the California State Teachers Association (Hogan Lovells) and Coca-Cola (BCW) — might want to think twice about being in the same stable as thugs like Rodrigo Duterte and Mohammed bin Salman.

It takes more than a president to support democracy. We all need to examine our wallets as well as our consciences and consider how each of us are standing up for it. Or — wittingly or unwittingly — are not.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/dictators-crush-dissent-then-they-hire-these-us-firms-to-clean-up-their-images/2021/05/07/679bcb54-adec-11eb-ab4c-986555a1c511_story.html

Next logical step: US Rescinds ICC Sanctions

April 4, 2021
ICC permanent premises
Permanent premises of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Netherlands. © 2018 Marina Riera/Human Rights Watch

US President Joe Biden’s cancellation of punitive sanctions targeting the International Criminal Court (ICC) removes a serious obstacle to the court’s providing justice to the victims of the world’s worst crimes, Human Rights Watch said on 2 April 2, 2021. Biden revoked a June 2020 order by then-President Donald Trump authorizing asset freezes and entry bans to thwart the ICC’s work. This was expected after an appeal by many NGOs, see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/02/19/large-group-of-ngos-call-on-biden-administration-to-repeal-icc-sanctions/

In announcing the repeal of the executive order, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that “[t]hese decisions reflect our assessment that the measures adopted were inappropriate and ineffective.” The State Department also lifted existing visa restrictions.

“The Trump administration’s perversely punitive sanctions against the ICC showed stark contempt for the victims of grave international crimes and the prosecutors who seek to hold those responsible to account,” said Richard Dicker, international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “In removing this unprecedented threat to the global rule of law, President Biden has begun the long process of restoring US credibility on international justice through the ICC.”

https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/04/02/us-rescinds-icc-sanctions

Trump’s human rights diplomacy: Estrangement over Engagement.

October 15, 2020

Ryan Kaminski and Grace Anderson wrote in Just Security of 14 October 2020 a scathing assessment of US human rights policy under Trump, Here some large extracts, but it is worth reading in full:

At the launch of the first virtual session of the United Nations General Assembly last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought center stage to question one of the most historic documents put forward by the U.N. shortly after its inception: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Pompeo presented the findings of the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights via videotape during a U.N. event that took place the same week [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/07/11/trump-marches-on-with-commission-on-unalienable-rights/]

Although jarring, the Commission’s conclusions should have come as no surprise: They are simply the culmination of the Trump administration’s downward trajectory on protecting human rights and engaging on these issues specifically at the U.N.

Just this month, for example, the U.S. microphone at the U.N. Human Rights Council was silent on the situation in Belarus, where massive protests have taken place against the country’s authoritarian leader. Nor did the United States take the floor when the Human Rights Council discussed combating global racism during an urgent debate requested by hundreds of U.S. non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights advocates, as well as the family of George Floyd. Moreover, the Trump administration’s recent self “report card” on human rights in the United States, posted online by the U.N. in September, is the shortest ever submitted from the United States, and it is unnecessarily combative, and conspicuously cherry-picked.

The practice of the Trump administration turning its back on rights at the U.N. goes well beyond the Human Rights Council.

Last December, the administration torpedoed a U.N. Security Council session on human rights in North Korea for a second year in a row. Its actions broke with years of precedent in which U.S. ambassadors of varying political stripes lobbied Security Council members to debate Pyongyang’s atrocious rights record. In 2019, the United States effectively kneecapped its own effort, despite having support from key allies and partners on the Security Council to move forward.

Recent budgetary moves by the Trump administration are another example of this worrying trend. In September, the State Department again served notice that it would be flouting the will of Congress by “reprogramming” $28 million for the U.N. Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Over the past three years, the Trump administration has unilaterally withheld nearly $60 million in assessed contributions to OHCHR, an especially disdainful action given the bipartisan congressional support for the office.

Another area of concern is the Trump administration’s absentee track record of filling openings on U.N. human rights treaty bodies. These treaty bodies are official assemblies of international rights experts tasked with holding governments accountable for implementing the human rights accords they have ratified. They are effectively incubators and accelerators for the maintenance of international law and norms central to fundamental freedoms and human dignity. Yet, in a break with precedent from the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, Trump has not even nominated a candidate to sit on the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The absence of American presence on the Committee, as well as other unsung, yet influential, bodies, represents a sorely missed opportunity.

The Committee, for example, works to ensure compliance among its 182 State parties and has taken decisive action on issues at the heart of bipartisan U.S. foreign policy priorities, such as grilling China on atrocities committed against ethnic Uyghurs in its territory….

Worse than stonewalling special procedures and limiting visits, Trump administration officials have in certain cases even gone on the offensive against these U.N. watchdogs. After an official U.S. visit by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, originally authorized by the Obama administration, then-U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Nikki Haley claimed the expert’s findings were inaccurate, offensive and wasteful. This was a missed opportunity for the United States to constructively address scrutiny of its rights record like any other advanced democracy; instead the administration reflexively attacked an independent rights watchdog.

Constructive U.S. engagement with U.N. special procedures helps set a positive example and bolsters U.S. credibility, especially when the United States calls on regimes violating rights to not hide from these exact same investigations. This year, for instance, Pompeo called out Cuba, via Twitter, for not responding to communications from the U.N. special rapporteurs on combating trafficking and modern slavery.

The picture is not entirely gloomy, however.

One potential bright spot for the Trump administration’s human rights engagement at the U.N. is the State Department’s prioritization of U.N. Human Rights Council reform…butt reform is a function of engagement, not withdrawal. Thus, the administration’s 2018 decision to give up its seat on the Human Rights Council has proven ineffective, unsurprisingly, in accomplishing meaningful reform. In fact, research from the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights found active U.S. membership on the Human Rights Council was a “game-changer,” resulting in a significant drop in anti-Israel resolutions and “scrutiny of many of the world’s worst human rights violators.”

Conversely, the U.S. absence from the Council, together with attempts to strong-arm U.N. institutions through funding cuts, has abetted China’s growing assertiveness in the U.N. system. Even the Heritage Foundation has acknowledged the “concerning” trend of China’s upward trajectory in the U.N. system.

The Trump administration also acknowledged this new reality when the State Department established an unusual new envoy posting charged with countering Chinese influence at the U.N. and other international organizations. But this move falls well short of the United States adopting an overarching strategic policy on China’s growing U.N. influence. This month, the Trump administration awkwardly tweeted support for action by the U.N. Human Rights Council on China, all the while warming the bench in its ongoing boycott.

Overall, sustained pushback against human rights work at the U.N. by the United States has become yet another cornerstone of the Trump administration’s “America First” doctrine. As Pompeo stated unequivocally at the launch of the Commission on Unalienable Rights: “Many [human rights] are worth defending in light of our founding; others aren’t.”

Critics of the Commission are right to be concerned. Whether leaving critical human rights positions unfilled, undercutting U.N. human rights bodies by withholding funds, or attacking U.N. independent rights advocates, Eleanor Roosevelt’s warning more than 60 years ago is more salient than ever: “Without concerted citizen action to uphold [universal human rights] close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

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See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/09/29/kenneth-roth-speaks-plainly-on-international-human-rights-china-a-violator-and-us-unprincipled/

Trump issues new sanctions on the ICC and human rights defenders

June 12, 2020

On 11 June 2020 Visiting Fellow William Burke-White posted on the website of Brookings an informative piece “Order from Chaos” in which he reviews the danger of Trump’s new sanctions on the International Criminal Court and human rights defenders. It is worth reading and studying in full….:

In March, the Appeal’s Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) authorized an investigation of potential war crimes alleged to have occurred more than a decade ago in Afghanistan, including those by the United States. While the U.S. military under President Obama did conduct investigations of its activities in Afghanistan, there remain concerns that those investigations did not go far enough up the chain of command and did not adequately include conduct by the U.S. intelligence community. In a post on this blog just after the decision, I argued that the Trump administration’s threats to prevent such a case may have actually pushed the court toward such an investigation.

William Burke-White

Today, the Trump administration issued unprecedented sanctions against the ICC, as well as the international lawyers and human rights investigators involved in the case. This sanctions regime is fundamentally misguided. It will do little to stop the ICC’s investigation, erodes the U.S. longstanding commitment to human rights and the rule of law, and may undermine one of the most powerful tools in the U.S. foreign policy arsenal — economic sanctions.

What emergency? In a moment of real national emergencies — ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic, to police misconduct, to the highest unemployment rate in a generation — the fact that President Trump, in an executive order on June 11, “declare[d] a national emergency to deal with” the threat posed by the ICC investigation in Afghanistan seems almost farcical. An underfunded court with relatively little to show for two decades of work trying to end impunity would likely be surprised to learn that, in Trump’s view, it has the power to “impede the critical national security and foreign policy work of United States Government and allied officials, and thereby threaten the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” Admitting that a duly authorized investigation of U.S. conduct in Afghanistan constitutes such a threat is both a recognition of the power of international law and a suggestion that the U.S. has something to hide.

Of course, declaring a national emergency is a necessary precondition for the sanctions imposed on the ICC and its officials. While the U.S. has had a complicated history with the ICC — from President Bill Clinton’s signing of its founding treaty to President George Bush’s early efforts to undermine the court — the new sanctions go further than any past U.S. actions in their direct attack on the ICC and its staff. Bush’s “unsigning” of the Rome Statute was largely symbolic. So, too, was the American Service members Protection Act that threatened to invade the Netherlands to rescue any U.S. citizens that might be prosecuted in The Hague.

In contrast, today’s sanctions directly target individual international lawyers and investigators working for a legitimate international organization undertaking lawful actions under its statute. More specifically, today’s sanctions seize the property of to-be-designated ICC officials who undertake investigation or prosecution of U.S. personnel and any other foreign nationals who are deemed to have assisted such efforts. So too, the new sanctions prohibit the entry into the United States of such individuals and their immediate family members.

The sanctions language is sufficiently broad that it could, in theory, apply to a victim or witness who provided information incidental to the court’s investigation or an academic whose scholarship the court relied upon in framing a legal argument. This new sanctions regime draws strong parallels to those imposed by the U.S. in the past against terrorist groups, dictators, and human rights abusers. Those same sanctions are now turned on international lawyers and human rights defenders.

The sanctions imposed today on ICC officials are unlikely to achieve Trump’s objective of blocking the investigation of U.S. conduct in Afghanistan. If anything, the sanctions will redouble those efforts. Unlike most corrupt dictators or terrorist organizations, individuals who choose to work for the ICC or in international human rights more generally are motivated by conscience, not wealth. They rarely have significant assets in U.S. bank accounts or meaningful real property for the U.S. to seize. Similarly, the foreign victims of crimes in Afghanistan who might testify before the ICC are not likely to have assets subject to seizure.

Hence, the threat of such a seizure under this new sanctions regime will do little to deter investigation or cooperation. Even blocking ICC employees from entering the U.S. will have minimal impact. Effective investigation of crimes in Afghanistan more than a decade ago does not require on-the-ground presence in the U.S. today. In fact, given the moral compass of most human rights advocates and international criminal prosecutors, treating them like terrorists under this new sanctions regime will more likely be a call to action under the law than an effective threat.

This new sanctions regime is a direct affront to international human rights and, particularly, individuals who have dedicated their lives to enforcing international law and ending impunity. President Trump has a long history of attacking international institutions that he doesn’t like. His recent criticisms of the World Health Organization are case in point. This new attack on the ICC is, however, different because it targets not just another international institution, but also the individuals who work for that institution. As such, it is an effort to directly sanction human rights defenders and officials of international justice for doing their jobs. The new sanctions regime seeks to punish those individuals, working for an international organization created by a treaty the United States signed in 2000, and undertaking a legal investigation authorized by a panel of international judges. It flies in the face of every U.S. and international effort to protect human rights defenders and offers a powerful example for despots around the world to follow suit.

Other, better tools

Finally, the use of U.S. sanctions against ICC personnel is a dangerous step toward undermining one of the most powerful and important tools of U.S. foreign policy — international sanctions. In a world where the use of force is difficult and often ineffective, carefully crafted and strategically applied sanctions are a key tool of U.S. power. For sanctions to work, however, they must be used judicially and viewed as broadly legitimate. Overuse of sanctions creates incentives for actors to find work-arounds to avoid the pain. Sanctions that are seen as illegitimate fail to garner international cooperation for enforcement and compliance. Applying tough sanctions against the personnel of an international organization undermines their efficacy and legitimacy for times when they could actually advance U.S. national security.

So, what should Trump have done instead? Simply investigate and prosecute any crimes that the U.S. may or may not have committed in Afghanistan years ago. The Rome Statute of the ICC makes clear that the court is a backstop to national prosecutions and that it will not investigate or prosecute when national governments have held themselves and their soldiers accountable. If the U.S. did nothing wrong in Afghanistan, it could simply submit to the ICC evidence of a genuine investigation with respect to both military and intelligence agency activities that reached that conclusion. And if there are violations of the laws of war in Afghanistan that have yet to be adequately investigated and prosecuted, then the U.S. has a legal and moral duty to ensure that those perpetrators are held accountable. To do so would uphold the rule of law and provide a concrete step toward renewing America’s human rights leadership.

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/03/16/us-ngos-react-furiously-to-visa-restrictions-imposed-on-icc-investigators-by-trump-administration/

https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/

https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/671723-icc-must-up-its-game-to-survive-after-us-onslaught

https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/671723-icc-must-up-its-game-to-survive-after-us-onslaughthttps://www.aa.com.tr/en/americas/un-regrets-us-presidents-sanctions-on-icc/1874839

https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/06/12/icc-denounces-unprecedented-attacks-trump-administration

Commission on Unalienable Rights: a more nuanced critique by Moyn

July 14, 2019

On July 12, 2019 Samuel Moyn published in Prospect an rather different, less alarmist approach to the efforts of the US State Department to redefine human rights [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/07/11/trump-marches-on-with-commission-on-unalienable-rights/]. The author [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/04/25/has-the-human-rights-movement-failed-a-serious-critique/] makes the point that, first, it looks like the commission will exercise no real power and second that ‘rights proliferation’ is an entirely mainstream and reasonable concern. He also makes interesting points on the composition of the Commission. Whatever one’s views on this are, the piece is worth reading in its totality:

Michael Brochstein/(Sipa via AP Images – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the State Department in Washington.

The announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that he has formed a new Commission on Unalienable Rights is being cited as one more reason to decry Donald Trump for busting norms and persecuting the worst-off. It is, The New Yorker wrote, an act of “unbelievable hypocrisy” for Trump to wrap himself in the mantle of human rights when he has violated them left and right, laid siege to a liberal international order founded on them, and embraced autocracy the world over.

It’s a natural response, but a closer look at the panel suggests that the criticism ought to fall on the symbolic politics of the commission, and our response needs to involve more than just championing the human rights Trump has been trashing, as if the status quo ante 2016 was working well.

It was remarkable, when Pompeo announced the commission at the State Department, how fulsomely he embraced the whole idea of human rights. It is a testament to the fact that—even under Trump—it is an idea that remains non-negotiable, something leaders must redefine in theory even when others suspect them of betraying it in practice.

Pompeo’s apparent worry, to judge from The Wall Street Journal op-ed he penned the day of the announcement, is what is known as rights “proliferation.” Specifically, he charged that, after the Cold War, rights advocates “turned their energy” to “new categories of rights.”

The commission’s very use of the word “unalienable,” which figured in America’s Declaration of Independence before falling out of general usage, trafficked in a founder fetishism that implied that it is the good old rights that matter, not newfangled ones or new claimants. And Pompeo doubled down on this nostalgia in his repeated shout-outs to 1776, and his admonition not “to discover new principles but to ground our discussion of human rights in America’s founding principles.”

Critics have understandably guessed that the goal is to emphasize religious freedom and free-market principles, treating abortion and LGBT rights as illicit, and possibly economic and social rights too. “In effect,” Masha Gessen wrote, also in The New Yorker, “the new commission will contemplate who is and isn’t human, and who, therefore, possesses inalienable rights.” Fetuses will be accorded rights, and the LGBT community stripped of them.

It’s a reasonable fear and something to watch. But the really significant thing about the commission may lie elsewhere.

For one thing, it looks like the commission will exercise no real power. Critics fear that its true purpose is to make an end run around other parts of the State Department, such as the legal adviser’s office and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, but those departments are also run by Trump appointees.

For another, rights proliferation is an entirely mainstream and reasonable concern, backed by such august rights thinkers as Baroness Onora O’Neill, a British liberal philosopher and House of Lords member. If everything is a right, nothing is. If there are new rights, it is not obvious the old ones have the same currency. Finally, it is never totally clear what it means to call something a right to begin with—especially since most rights are not intended to function as trumps but rather signal that policymaking somehow ought to take account of the priorities that rights name. These questions will not go away. Indeed, the idea that they are already settled, through appeal to the authority, consensus, and orthodoxy of the human rights movement, resembles the Foundermania in which Pompeo indulged.

None of this means that Trumpian human rights ought not to be treated with alarm. But for now, the international consensus around human rights among transnational experts is simply too strong to allow this commission to magically shift it. Indeed, the response to Pompeo’s announcement, which reportedly surprised Foggy Bottom, proves how weak the commission is likely to be.

For that reason, it is more interesting to focus on what this move says about the conservative movement under Trump and its changing understandings of internationalism. And to understand that, it is critical to shift from Pompeo to the members of the commission he appointed.

“Human rights” have for decades, and for conservatives and liberals alike, described the values America should stand for in global affairs, especially in a world of despots. The founders announced a revolution to that world, but mainly to secure human rights for (some) Americans in their new state. Yet like liberals and conservatives for decades, the commission, originating in the State Department, presumes that human rights are already safe for the domestic politics of the United States, or someone else’s problem. Pompeo is not changing internationalist premise, and has no power as secretary of state to do so.

Before Trump, conservative internationalism has differed from liberal internationalism on details. Conservatives in the Cold War dithered about whether to support autocrats abroad but in the end, after the ascendancy of neoconservatism, embraced “democracy promotion.” As for American liberals, this has led them to idealize America’s global military ascendancy and to support many wars. And like those liberals, after a near miss under Jimmy Carter’s presidency when human rights were born, conservatives have embraced a vision of human rights abroad that ignores economic and social rights like the entitlement to a job or basic necessities—even though they were part of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights that Pompeo also invoked.

It is perfectly legitimate to resist militarism and neoliberalism, central fixtures of U.S. foreign policy for decades on both sides of the aisle. In fact, one might have thought that Trump, who ran as a kind of anti-war candidate playing on the economic stagnation of the rest at the expense of the rich like himself, would have raised doubts about what conservatives and liberals alike have taken human rights to be about. But no. A more debatable path for conservative internationalism is suggested by the commission’s membership.

Led by Mary Ann Glendon, the controversial Harvard Law professor and staunch right-wing Roman Catholic, the most interesting thing about the commission is not its inclusion of some house publicists of the interdenominational religious right, most of whom have (like Glendon) treated the “theocon” magazine First Things as one of their main outlets. Rather, it is the inclusion of others with links to the secular far right, or at least curious about it. Former New Left intellectual Russell Berman, along with his fellow German literature specialist David Tse-Chien Pan, both have spent lots of time working for Telos, the onetime New Left journal that since the 1980s has promoted the thinking of the European far right. As political scientist Joseph Lowndes has writtenTelos has a fascinating if small role in the American circles that led to contemporary far-right nationalism.

It is no more than a hint, in short, but the most fascinating thing about the commission’s membership is therefore that it appears to be a laboratory for new collaborations between the religious right and the secular far right. And in particular, it is a setting for experimenting with what the future of conservative internationalism should look like.

If it means, as commission member Peter Berkowitz wrote recently, that “a certain restraint is again crucial to conserving a free and open international order” after decades of promoting human rights abroad the wrong way, that is one thing. But there are other possibilities. If it means a conservative internationalism that, as Quinn Slobodian has argued, actually extends free trade while striving for racially and religiously homogeneous societies, conservative internationalism will look very different.

Ironically, neither the founders nor “natural law”—the favorite concept of several of the religious conservatives on the panel—will help it decide this dilemma on the right, which is the real story of Trump’s presidency when it comes to foreign policy. And much more is at stake than saving human rights from its new defenders in resisting the future conservative internationalism may have in store.

https://prospect.org/article/can-pompeo-redefine-human-rights-trump-era

Trump marches on with “Commission on Unalienable Rights”

July 11, 2019

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the creation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, saying the country must be “vigilant that human rights discourse not be corrupted or hijacked or used for dubious or malignant purposes.” As human rights claims have “proliferated,” he said, nations have grown confused about what constitutes a human right and which rights should be respected and treated as valid.

“I hope that the commission will revisit the most basic of questions: What does it mean to say, or claim, that something is in fact a human right?” Pompeo said. “How do we know, or how do we determine that this — or that — is a human right. Is it true, and therefore ought it to be honored?”

The commission will be chaired by Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

Amnesty International USA said there was no reason for such a review given the decades-old protections in place. “This administration has actively worked to deny and take away long-standing human rights protections since Trump’s inauguration,” Joanne Lin, the group’s national director of advocacy and government affairs, said in a statement.

“If this administration truly wanted to support people’s rights, it would use the global framework that’s already in place. Instead, it wants to undermine rights for individuals, as well as

A group of Democratic senators said in a letter last month: “We believe the extent to which this administration has undermined American leadership and credibility on promoting fundamental human rights is of historic proportions,” the senators wrote. “The department’s proposed Commission on Unalienable Rights must not serve as a platform to further erode U.S. leadership and undercut U.S. interests.”

Glendon, who joined Pompeo at the State Department for the announcement, said she was honored to do the job at a time when “basic human rights are being misunderstood by many, manipulated by many and ignored by the world’s worst human rights violators.”

https://bayareane.ws/2LFUzpz

NGOs in June 2020 filed an amicus curiae brief: https://democracyforward.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/URC_51_Amicus-Brief-human-rights-orgs-06.09.20.pdf

Trump’s “new” thinking on human rights in foreign policy?

June 3, 2019

President Trump and Mr. Pompeo have raised human rights abuses only sporadically, to pressure adversaries such as Iran and Venezuela, while ignoring gross violations elsewhere, a gaping inconsistency that undercuts the moral leadership of the United States. Of course, human rights are never the only concern in foreign policy and must be balanced against other factors and interests. But it does not require any more “solid definitions” to understand the horrors of Xinjiang province, where China has herded more than 1 million Turkic Uighur Muslims into brainwashing camps to eradicate their culture and language. This ethnic cleansing has come to light during the Trump administration, but its reaction has been tepid.

Do the president and the secretary need any more “solid definitions” in order to object to the methods of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose hit squad was dispatched to Istanbul to kill journalist and Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi? Is the United States having trouble finding a voice to speak out against the abuse of human rights in Turkey, Egypt and Russia because of a lack of definitions — or because of a misplaced desire to butter up the authoritarians who rule them?

“Fresh thinking” is always valuable. But when it comes to human rights, time-tested institutions, principles and tools exist. They just need to be utilized.

AI welcomes resistance to Trump’s human rights policies

January 19, 2018

Having just posted about HRW’s annual report [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/01/19/human-rights-watch-and-kenneth-roth-take-a-stand-against-trumps-dictator-friendly-policies/], I wanted to share also the assessment by AI USA on 19 January 2018: “USA: ‘resistance’ to Trump hailed after year of human rights violations”.

President Trump’s regressive policies have led to an upsurge in human rights activism © Amnesty International

Ahead of the one-year anniversary (20 January) of the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said:

“While the policies of the Trump administration presented daunting challenges over the past year, we also saw the rise of a fierce and determined movement of people across the country and around the world standing up to defend human rights.

“Starting with the throngs of people braving the January cold to fill the streets on the very first day of his presidency and continuing throughout the year, we have taken heart in the galvanising spirit of resistance that has swept the world. 

“We have marched alongside both seasoned activists standing up for women’s rights and we have welcomed those who have never actively protested before in denouncing Trump’s discriminatory Muslim ban. 

“We have placed welcome mats for refugees at the foot of Trump Tower, and filled London’s Grosvenor Square with 100 sombre Statues of Liberty standing in silent protest at the US Embassy.  

“From Sydney to Madrid, human rights defenders have made it known that the politics of hate and fear have no place in the world we wish to build for ourselves and our children.

A year of human rights violationsAmong other things in the past year, Amnesty has strongly criticised the Trump administration’s plan (reported earlier this week) to consider using nuclear weapons in response to a cyber-attack in the USA; the ending of “Temporary Protected Status” for over 250,000 people from El Salvador in the USA; the decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, its insistence on pushing ahead with a revised multi-country travel ban; an executive order affecting the Mexico-USA border which allows for the forcible return of people to life-threatening situations;  the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change; the reinstatement of the “global gag rule”affecting funding for international women’s health programmes; its continued sale of military equipment to countries with poor human rights records; and the decision to continue the construction of the Dakota pipeline despite environmental and cultural concerns. 

Human Rights Watch and Kenneth Roth take a stand against Trump’s dictator friendly policies

January 19, 2018

In its annual report on the state of human rights around the world for 2017, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said growing intolerance in states like the US represented “an enormous threat” to minority groups in those countries. Donald Trump‘s public admiration for strongman leaders and breaking of “taboos against racism and xenophobia” have encouraged oppression around the world.

Its executive director, Kenneth Roth, struck out at the US President who he said “displays a disturbing fondness for rights-trampling strongmen”. He cited Russian President Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte, of the Philippines, as examples, saying: “This makes it much more difficult to stigmatise these authoritarian leaders when Trump says these are great guys.”

Mr Roth added in a post accompanying HRW’s 2018 world report that in the past year, ”Secretary of State Rex Tillerson largely rejected the promotion of human rights as an element of US foreign policy while more broadly reducing the role of the US abroad by presiding over an unprecedented dismantling of the State Department.” “He refused to fill many senior posts, dismissed several veteran diplomats, slashed the budget, and let the department drift. Many career diplomats and mid-level officials resigned in despair,” .

The report urges democratic governments to address the problems that allowed populism to prosper in 2017, such as income inequality, fears of terrorism and growing migration. HRW hailed Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France’s elections as a “turning point”, saying he had “openly embraced democratic principles” on his way to defeating the far-right Marine Le Pen.  HRW also criticised the “hesitancy” of the EU to intervene in specific cases of rights abuse: “President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decimated Turkey’s democratic system as the EU focused largely instead on enlisting his help to stem the flight of refugees to Europe and security cooperation. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi crushed public dissent in Egypt with little interference from the US or the EU, which accepted his claim that he was providing stability.

In the USA, HRW’s report said, “civic groups, journalists, lawyers, judges, many members of the public, and sometimes even elected members of Trump’s own party” had reacted against what it called the President’s “regressive” outlook.

(The Trump administration did make interventions in support of human rights in a limited number of countries such as Iran and Cambodia.)

Helas, the HRW report confirms what many feared earlier in 2017, see e.g.: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/02/24/2017-10-need-to-reset-for-human-rights-movement/.

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http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/donald-trump-human-rights-watch-world-report-hrw-oppression-encourage-news-media-a8165381.html

http://fp-reg.onecount.net/onecount/redirects/index.php?action=get-tokens&js=1&sid=b8ofn3rfd1a65vca5imc12g270&return=http%3A%2F%2Fforeignpolicy.com%2F2018%2F01%2F18%2Fhow-to-stand-up-for-human-rights-in-the-age-of-trump%2F