Archive for the 'Human Rights' Category

The Question Looming Over Trump Nominee Robert Destro

To the Council for Global Equality, the protection of human rights globally is hardly a luxury.  It’s integral to democratic values, to humanitarian values, and to the genuine rule of law – and it’s a critical component of America’s strategic interests in reducing the causes of instability, conflict, and emigration.

So we take seriously nominations to government positions intended to safeguard human rights.  For that reason, we are deeply concerned at the background and philosophy of President Trump’s nominee for Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL).

Robert Destro is known as a religious freedom academic, not a human rights expert.  His focus and credentials suggest, indeed, that if confirmed, his service in this position might duplicate that of the Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom position that Sam Brownback now encumbers.

Viewed in the broader human rights perspective of the DRL Assistant Secretary job, there’s a serious question of whether Destro is the right person for these duties.  The top DRL job, after all, is an advocacy position, not just for religious freedom but for all human rights.  And at the core of human rights advocacy is the belief that all individuals deserve equal respect, equal dignity, and equal protection under the law.

Robert Destro has denigrated the legitimacy and equality of LGBT persons.  Destro argues that Christians who oppose homosexuality, on the basis of religious belief, should be permitted to deny equal treatment and services to LGBT individuals. He questions whether a transgender person must be accepted as such by someone who doesn’t accept the basis of gender identity.  And he opposes the Equality Act – legislation re-introduced less than a week ago – that focuses on the need for protections against LGBT-focused discrimination in employment and housing and opportunity.  If these precepts are fundamental to a fair and equal society, how can DRL’s Assistant Secretary find himself so far from the mark?

At a bare baseline, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has an obligation to ask whether Destro would speak clearly in favor of the human rights of LGBT people in every country in which the Department’s own human rights reports have signaled problems.  The Committee needs to ask, too, whether Destro would ensure that DRL programs are used to address, in every country, structural challenges to LGBT fairness and equal treatment under the law.  And it needs to probe deeply into how Destro’s support for religious exemptions might negatively impact the use of taxpayer funds to promote the equal treatment of LGBT people abroad.

We easily can imagine that Destro will offer carefully parsed pablum in response to these points.  But one question he should be made to answer meaningfully is this:  how can Destro be credible, to any foreign official or public, in demanding that LGBT citizens be treated fairly and respectfully, given what he has written and said on these matters?

That question is critically important to Destro’s effectiveness, which should be paramount in the minds of those reviewing his qualifications for the job.  How incisively Senate Foreign Relations Committee members question Destro will tell us whether they are committed to truly inclusive human rights – and whether he, or they, should be out of a job.

State Department Releases Human Rights Reports

U.S. Department of StateThe State Department’s annual country human rights reports were released today, to little fanfare.  And the news of the day – Paul Manafort’s sentencing and his parallel indictment in New York – virtually guarantees that these important analyses will sink to the bottom of the news feed.  They already have.

In general, we are pleased that the reporting on abuses targeting LGBTI individuals remains strong, but we also are deeply disappointed that, for the second year in a row, the State Department has refused to report on women’s sexual and reproductive rights as human rights.  We’ll have more to say about the contents of the reports after we’ve parsed them.  But if best practices on human rights begin at home, we ask this question today:  will any of the worst human rights violators abroad take these human rights critiques seriously?

Respect for human rights is hardly a feature of Trump Administration foreign policies, after all:

  • The Administration has separated children from their parents at our southern border, and hasn’t complied with court orders to reunite them.
  • It has thumbed its nose at longstanding refugee policy, snuffing out the very beacon of hope that has made America a multiethnic and multicultural success.
  • President Trump continues to embrace some of the world’s most human rights-challenged dictators, from Putin to Sisi to Duterte.
  • His administration has stepped away from the challenge of holding Russia accountable for the arbitrary arrests and murders of LGBT Chechens.
  • Ten months into his tenure, Secretary Pompeo still has not fulfilled his commitment to Congress to appoint a Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons.
  • And the nominations of two individuals for the Administration’s senior-most jobs with human rights-specific attributions – Marshall Billingslea as Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, and Robert Destro as Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor – show a worrisome lack of concern about their record of engagement, respect and support for human rights and the advancement thereof.

To be clear, we fully support the dedicated efforts of U.S. embassy and consulate personnel abroad to prepare the human rights reports that were released today.  We believe it critical that respect for human rights remain a central foreign policy goal, and thus that these reports be compiled.  But if these efforts are to carry impact, the Trump Administration needs to reverse or revise policies that lay bare its own hypocrisy in criticizing others.

The question in our mind is not how to change Trump.  He has shown no interest in becoming a better man.  But what of Congress, which commissioned these reports?  What will Congress do to challenge the Administration’s lapses and excesses, as noted above?  Will the Congress that legislated these reports exercise its oversight into why the Administration’s human rights policy has become so calcified, so pained, so denuded?

In our last blog, we called for Congress to exercise greater oversight regarding the degree to which this Administration’s foreign policies demonstrate respect for, and advancement of, human rights.  We renew that call today.

Wall Debate Holds U.S. Strategic Interests Hostage

Rarely does the Council wade into matters beyond its immediate concern for the human rights of LGBTI people around the world.  But we cannot be silent when President Trump’s fixation on a wall of questionable value is having such pernicious impacts – on government employees and their families, to be sure, but also on the performance of critical government roles and functions, including with respect to advocating for and protecting the human rights of people around the world.

Others have spoken of vital domestic government functions for the American people that have suffered during this shutdown, and indeed of the long-term economic and security impacts to our country that mount up every day.  We will not repeat those concerns, which we share.

But the State Department’s ability to stand against human rights injustices, and to promote the kind of fair and open societies that are critical to the success of American policies abroad, also are casualties of this shutdown.  So is USAID’s ability to implement sound and inclusive development policies.  So, too, are international programs of the Departments of Justice, and of Health and Human Services, and of Commerce, all vital to the mission of this Council and to the values of our country.  And surely any appeal to common sense would also reveal that these programs are equally vital to our country’s long-term effort to redress the political, social and economic instability that is driving the migration crisis in Central America today.

The President prides himself as an artful dealer.  But this shutdown – with his ham-fisted insistence on forcing a policy change that fails to enjoy either public or political support – shows him to be a clumsy blackmailer, and a blunt-edge abuser of constitutional powers.  He has given the world a compelling and troublesome image of American self-absorption.  And his statements and actions only underscore the absence of American leadership in world affairs, including with regard to the protection of human rights, at the core of American values.

We are open to a reasoned conversation about whether a wall has any place in meeting American security.  But we are unwilling to see America, and broader American values and strategic interests, held hostage.  We call on those on Capitol Hill who are enabling the President’s shutdown to end their support and put American leadership back to work.

Remembering Senator McCain’s Commitment to Human Rights

Last December, U.S. Senators John McCain and Ben Cardin sent a letter to President Trump on the anniversary of Human Rights Day, urging him to “recommit our country to upholding human rights as one of our founding principles.”  The date should have been a celebration of America’s leadership in creating and championing the world’s modern human rights institutions.  Instead, the letter underscored deep concern with the Trump Administration’s abject failure to speak out in support of fundamental human rights at home or abroad.

In writing to the President, these two moral leaders of the Senate argued forcefully that “protecting human rights at home and abroad is important not only to our national character, but also to our security interests.”  Pointing to a range of human rights challenges facing individuals and nations the world over, including the stark reality that “LGBT individuals are deprived of basic human rights in dozens of countries,” the letter challenged President Trump “to reaffirm that no government can be legitimate if it abuses the people it is meant to serve – and that the rule of law is universal, without exception.”

We regret that President Trump did not speak out in defense of human rights then, and that to date he has continued to defend – even praise – leading human rights abusers ranging from President Putin in Russia to President Dutarte in the Philippines.  And at the United Nations, instead of standing up to human rights dictators and fighting to improve the human rights mechanisms we helped create, the United States has pulled out of the Human Rights Council, thereby sidelining any voice or moral leadership we might otherwise hope to muster.

On this sad occasion of the passing of Senator McCain, President Trump has chosen to belittle the man and what he stood for, instead of joining fair-minded Americans of both parties in praising him for his heroic service to our country and steadfast defense of its founding ideals.  How small-minded and sad.  May the rest of us, as we mourn the passing of Senator McCain – and with him an animating force behind our country’s moral compass – recommit ourselves to upholding human rights as a tribute to Senator McCain and other compatriots who have fought, and still fight, to secure human rights at home and abroad.

 

The Missing Human Rights Dialogue Between Trump and Putin

MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images

Under fire for his relationship with Vladimir Putin, President Trump nonetheless will meet with the Russian despot on July 16 in Helsinki, and he has said that it is likely to be the “easiest” part of a trip that already has included a contentious NATO meeting and a stop in London.  To date President Trump has paid little attention to human rights and democratic values in his foreign policy pronouncements, or in his embrace of authoritarian leaders from Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un to President Duterte.  Americans nonetheless are right to expect that President Trump show leadership by reestablishing attention to human rights to its traditional and right place as a central concern in our bilateral relationship with Russia when he sits down with Putin.

We’ll leave to others the flurry of questions about Russia’s interference in U.S. elections (past and future), the impact of that interference on Trump’s 2016 presidential win, and geopolitical questions raised by its engagement in Syria and elsewhere.  All, of course, have a critical place in this dialogue.

Rather, our immediate concern is that, since becoming President, Trump has turned his back on insisting that Moscow respect its citizens’ human rights – and on making clear that failure to do so will negatively impact our bilateral relations.  That post-war insistence is part of America’s true greatness.  It also reflects a real-world awareness that longer-term U.S. interests are most secure when partner countries respect democratic practice, the rule of law, and vibrant civil societies.

Today’s Russia has hit bottom in each of the above areas.  As documented in the State Department’s most recent human rights report, freedoms of media, expression, assembly, association, and privacy are under sharp attack in Russia.  Judicial independence does not exist, while extrajudicial violence and killings, including against LGBT citizens, does.  And so-called “foreign agent” laws have imposed sharp limits on the operation of legitimate civil society organizations.

Russia’s highly centralized government structure makes clear one thing:  Russian President Putin has the power to make needed changes to this troubling situation.

We’re eager to see whether Trump addresses these issues, in public and in private – eager, too, for him to hold Putin accountable for reversing the tragedies impacting Chechnya’s LGBT population.  Last year, the world was appropriately shocked when Chechen authorities detained and tortured scores of gay and bisexual men – or those suspected of being gay.  Some were murdered; more than 100 others were forced to leave their homes, seeking protection abroad.  The official homophobic purge continues to encourage families to “take care of” their LGBT family members, particularly impacting lesbians and bisexual women as well as gay and bisexual men. Russian authorities have done nothing to reverse this troubled situation, nor have they taken steps to assure justice for those impacted so gravely.

In all of this, the Administration has shown only passing concern over Russia’s failings.  To be sure, UN Ambassador Haley and then-Secretary of State Tillerson issued perfunctory statements of concern, and Tillerson reportedly sent a follow-up letter to his Russian counterpart, after having neglected to raise the matter in face-to-face meetings.  (We’ve not obtained a copy of the letter, nor have we been told whether Lavrov bothered to respond.)  In December the White House did impose Magnitsky Act visa and asset sanctions on two Chechen officials deemed responsible for Chechen’s actions, actions that we applauded at the time.  However, even these welcome actions fail to make clear that Moscow – not Grozny – ultimately is responsible for righting the situation.

Bipartisan Congressional resolutions (see the Senate Resolution here, and the House Resolution here) and several Congressional letters have insisted that the Trump Administration show greater resolve in pressing this issue. The most recent of these – earlier this spring, on the one-year anniversary that these atrocities began (see the Senate letter here, and the House letter here) – make clear that any genuine improvement in bilateral relations requires that Putin and Trump deal directly with Chechnya’s tragedy.

We recognize that the human rights issues noted above are but part of a broad pattern of slippage in Russia’s adherence to democratic and international norms.  We appeal to the Administration to acknowledge those facts, and we call for the Trump-Putin meeting to address them squarely and fully, hopefully with better results than seen thus far.

Reflections On Pride This Year

As Pride season ends, some reflections come to mind – less on Pride celebrations per se than on this Administration’s approach to global LGBTI fairness and equality.

Our country’s values of fairness and equality mean that we should stand against inequalities and discrimination impacting LGBTI populations abroad.  And across President Obama’s two terms of office, our country’s commitment to global LGBT human rights became clear:

  • Human rights reports were revamped to include attention to atrocities and discrimination against LGBT and intersex people.
  • A Presidential Memorandum was crafted to set the national interest context and interagency framework for how the U.S. would approach LGBTI human rights abuse and inequality abroad.
  • Within this framework, the tools of U.S. foreign affairs agencies – police training, exchange programs, and efforts to strengthen equality-minded organizations overseas – were appropriately brought on line in a range of countries where LGBT populations have suffered hate crimes and abuse.
  • A new Special Envoy position was created, better to integrate the often-unique challenges impacting LGBTI populations into our human rights policies, and to work with other countries to address LGBTI inequalities and partner on corresponding opportunities.
  • The U.S. actively led in supporting LGBTI rights at the UN, and in encouraging respect for international norms with regard to LGBT and intersex people.
  • And at key moments, the U.S. President and Secretary of State spoke out against state-sanctioned homophobia – most notably with regard to Russia and Uganda.

Some of the tools referenced above remain in place.  Police sensitization on LGBTI population issues continues.  So do exchange programs, and other efforts to address the short shrift given to LGBT people in so many countries of the world.  A number of talented civil servants continue to give these issues their attention and ideas.

But the Trump Administration has cold-shouldered human rights as a guiding principle, and has no vision of a cohesive approach to LGBTI inequalities abroad.  It has dismembered the interagency coordination on global LGBT issues that began under Obama, providing political appointees with scant guidance as to how these issues should be folded into their programs.  The Administration has rescinded U.S. participation in the UN Human Rights Council, and no longer provides the same leadership in the UN’s core group on LGBTI issues – both vital fora for addressing LGBTI abuses and advancing fairness objectives.  It has left unfilled the Special Envoy position and gutted global women’s health programs that impact LGBT communities.  Increasingly it uses the principle of religious freedom to justify discrimination against our community, at home and abroad.  It has turned its back on refugees, including LGBT and intersex men and women fleeing the most vile and heart-wrenching repression of their very being.  And rather than embracing human rights, President Trump has chosen to embrace dictators that violate those rights – from Russia and Egypt, to Turkey and the Philippines.

If Trump had used his contacts with these dictators to insist on respect for human rights principles, we might have a different view of this strange and unprecedented embrace.  But there’s no reason to believe he has done so, and no evidence of any change either.  There’s also no reason to accept assertions that the U.S. voice and impact on human rights will be stronger, now that we’re outside the UN Human Rights Council, than it was when the U.S. debated in that body.

The only glimmer we’ve seen has been the President’s application of the Magnitsky Act sanctions to those most responsible for the carnage that Chechen authorities have inflicted against gay and lesbian citizens of that region.  But the buck on that carnage stops with Putin – and so far as we know, Trump has done nothing to press Russia’s president to stop these abuses.  Nor has he spoken critically – in public or, as far as anyone can tell us, in private – to atrocities carried out by the many other human rights abusers with whom he sadly has allied our country.

The human rights community has called “nonsense ” to any notion that this Administration is a defender of human rights.  So have a growing number of Congressional voices, in both houses, who have taken a stand that this country will not abandon its human rights mantle and heritage, nor its embrace of the principle that all men and women – including those in the LGBTI community – are created equal, and deserve equal protection under law, whether at home or abroad.

This is the heart and message of Pride.  It is what our country has stood for, and will stand for again.  We ask all who believe in America’s support for equality to join in insisting that those who represent us – and those who seek or claim the mantle of leadership – recommit to these values.  And we ask this Administration to do the same.

Who’s Hypocritical Now?

In announcing the Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. participation from the UN Human Rights Council, Secretary of State Pompeo decried the Council as being “…an exercise in shameless hypocrisy.”

How hypocritical, indeed – and what a short-sighted view of how to protect and advance our country’s human rights interests.

The decision, announced June 19, smacks of petulance, coming only a day after the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights criticized the Administration’s policy of wrenching away children from their parents on America’s southern border.

And while the Administration doesn’t want to sit at the human rights table with Russia, Mr. Trump has just proposed Russia’s re-entry into the G-7, from which it was suspended due to its 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.

We do not defend the Human Rights Council’s composition, with many egregious human rights violators being counted within its membership.  But the reason they’ve sought a seat on the Council is clear: to blunt any multilateral criticisms of their own human rights failings, and to deflect that discussion toward other targets, such as Israel.

That, of course, is part of why the U.S. needs to be on the Council – to keep the discussion focused on human rights tragedies.  And we wonder whether the Administration’s decision to withdraw reflects an underlying reluctance to lead that dialogue.

Perhaps Mr. Trump doesn’t want the U.S. to call attention to Russia’s refusal to rein in Chechnya’s brutal and unconscionable murders of LGBT people.  Perhaps he doesn’t dare to discomfort Saudi Arabia, a country that provided him a lavish welcome last year, even as it continues to repress the rights of women and LGBT citizens.

Or maybe the Administration can’t bring itself to confront Egypt – whose dictatorial leader Trump has embraced – with the straightforward question of why the government continues to administer forced anal exams to “prove” homosexual conduct. Or why, indeed, that government targets its LGBT citizens for arrest and imprisonment at all.

With all of its imperfections, the UN Human Rights Council remains the only multilateral body with an agenda focused exclusively on debating human rights.  Muting our voice in that forum is hardly a proven way to win that debate on any of these issues.  Nor is reverting to “Fortress America” mode – rather than carrying through tough and sometimes uncomfortable diplomatic engagement – the way to advance critical, long-term American values and interests.

In announcing U.S. withdrawal from the Council, UN Ambassador Haley said she wanted to “…make it crystal clear that this step is not a retreat from our human rights commitments.”

We challenge her to prove it.

Read our joint letter to Secretary Pompeo below.

***************************************************************************

June 19, 2018

Honorable Mike Pompeo
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW Washington, DC 20520

Dear Mr. Secretary:

We the undersigned are deeply disappointed with the Administration’s decision to withdraw the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Council, the premier intergovernmental human rights body at the global level. This decision is counterproductive to American national security and foreign policy interests and will make it more difficult to advance human rights priorities and aid victims of abuse around the world.

The Administration’s calls for reforms of the Council are grounded in legitimate concerns about shortcomings in the Council’s structure and operations. While some important progress toward reform has been achieved, other issues remain unaddressed, with American diplomacy thus far not achieving requisite levels of support for proposed changes. But none of these gaps warrants withdrawal from the Council, and the U.S.’s absence will only compound the Council’s weaknesses.

In our view, sustained U.S. diplomatic efforts at a high level in capitals as well as Geneva — such as the kind that dedicated American Ambassadors to the UN in Geneva and the Council could provide if the Administration would appoint them — would have significantly improved the Administration’s ability to advance key U.S. reform proposals, ensured the rejection of pernicious proposals advanced by others with an anti-rights agenda, and facilitated further improvement in Council membership. In the absence of U.S. membership on and in the Council, progress already gained will likely be lost.

The results of U.S. disengagement from the Council played out in 2006, to the dismay of human rights defenders as well as Washington’s key friends and allies. With the U.S. opting not to pursue membership then, a small grouping of illiberal regimes dominated the Council, disproportionately focusing the new body’s agenda against Israel.

This dynamic shifted after 2009, following a decision by the U.S. to pursue membership in the Human Rights Council. In short, politicized regional blocs began to crack and the Council made tangible progress in addressing pressing country-specific and thematic human rights challenges. Governments around the world took notice, voting overwhelmingly in the UN General Assembly to re-elect the U.S. to the Council in 2012 and again in 2016 – an outcome championed by our respective organizations. A 2017 study by the Council on Foreign Relations found that U.S. membership on the UN Human Rights Council improved its performance in several ways:

First, U.S. involvement strengthened the Council’s commitment to action within specific countries known to grossly violate human rights, such as Burundi, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, and Syria. U.S. membership also strengthened attention to norms like freedom of association, assembly and religion; as well as protecting the rights of vulnerable populations—including women and girls and the LGBTI community.

Second, as the CFR Report also noted, there was a significant decline in the proportion of anti-Israel resolutions and special sessions during U.S. membership. Overall it concluded, “U.S. participation in the UNHRC can advance U.S. interests and lessen anti-Israel bias while supporting measures to avert and de-escalate human rights crises, thus reducing the likelihood of costly military interventions.”

Forfeiting the U.S. seat on the UN Human Rights Council only serves to empower actors on the Council, like Russia and China, that do not share American values on the preeminence of universal human rights – an assertion backed up by evidence from the 2006 U.S. Council withdrawal. Further, no other likeminded country seeking to occupy the United States’ former seat can realistically match Washington’s global diplomatic and political footprint. In short, without strategic U.S. engagement at the Council as a member, the U.S. loses a platform to influence the course of human rights globally for the better and the victims of human rights abuse globally will fall prey to the machinations of governments that will take advantage of this strategic vacuum.

We respectfully urge the Department of State to review this decision, to seek reelection to the UN Human Rights Council in 2019, and to continue to advance reforms in the Human Rights Council.

Sincerely,

▪ Better World Campaign ▪ CARE ▪ Council for Global Equality ▪ Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) ▪ Freedom House ▪ Human Rights Campaign ▪ Human Rights First ▪ Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights ▪ PEN America ▪ Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights ▪ Save the Children ▪ United Nations Association – USA


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