American leadership impacts human rights globally through the hard power of institutional leadership and the soft power of example — a fact underscored by the contrast on human rights between Joe Biden’s presidency and that of his predecessor. As executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, Kyle Matthews brings his expertise to the question of ‘What if?’
August 24, 2023
In an ever-interconnected world, the political choices made by the United States reverberate far beyond its borders. As discussions about a potential re-election bid by former President Donald Trump emerge as he is battling criminal charges for trying to overturn the 2020 election, it’s crucial to assess the possible implications for human rights on a global scale. Trump’s past actions and decisions, including personal friendships with dictators, withdrawal from international organizations tasked with upholding human rights, attacks on journalists and the media, and threats to established alliances, raise concerns about the future of human rights and stability worldwide. Particularly worrisome is the context of rising authoritarian alliances, where the US’s role as a powerful democracy is essential in countering the threat posed by countries such as China and Russia.
Past actions and alliances: a historical context
Donald Trump’s tenure as president was marked by an unprecedented approach to international diplomacy. His willingness to praise and cozy up to dictators, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un raised eyebrows worldwide and sent a troubling signal that human rights might take a back seat to Trump’s whimsical decision-making. The implications of these actions were far-reaching, as they undermined efforts to promote democracy and uphold international law.
Investigations revealed that the Trump administration made crucial omissions to the US State Department’s annual human rights report, often downplaying serious violations, including torture. David Kramer, former assistant secretary of state for human rights during the George W. Bush administration noted in 2020 that “People advocating and fighting for democracy, human rights and freedom around the world are disillusioned by the US government and don’t view the current administration as a true partner.”
At the global level, the world witnessed firsthand how Trump approached most issues through a transactional lens, willing to cancel agreements and leave allies and partners in danger. No better example is Trump’s 2019 betrayal of the Kurds in northern Syria, who were an indispensable partner in the fight against the extremist group known as Islamic State, which had mounted countless attacks against civilians globally and carried out a genocide against the Yazidi minority in Iraq.
Many civil society organizations in the US have rung the alarm bell, warning of the dangers of Trump’s policies that negatively impacted human rights in both domestic and international contexts. Columbia University’s Law school helped create a “Trump Human Rights Tracker” that serves as a tool “designed to help journalists, civil society organizations, and the general public understand how the Trump Administration is impacting human rights.”
Withdrawal from and attacks against international organizations
The Trump administration’s decisions to pull the US out of the UN Human Rights Council and UNESCO (both since re-joined by the Biden administration) were not only symbolic but also deeply consequential. These moves represented a retreat from global cooperation and a disregard for the importance of international institutions in safeguarding human rights.
The withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, in particular, sent a message that America under Trump was no longer willing to be a vocal advocate for human rights on the global stage. At the same time, China made inroads in the same UN entity resulting in it being elected to the Human Rights Council in 2020. It has subsequently used its position to block debate and discussions with regard to Beijing’s persecution of the Uyghur Muslim community in which over one million people have been incarcerated in prison camps.
Last but not least, Trump also took aim at the International Criminal Court, which had the temerity to authorize an investigation in possible war crimes committed by US forces in Afghanistan. The Trump administration sanctioned the ICC and the lawyers and investigators directly involved in that investigation.
Media attacks and the erosion of press freedom
A cornerstone of any democracy is a free and independent press. Trump’s relentless attacks on journalists and media outlets created a hostile environment that undermined the vital role of the media as a check on power. These attacks normalized the suppression of dissenting voices and fostered an environment where media freedom was compromised. This erosion of press freedom had implications that stretch beyond American borders, emboldening authoritarian regimes to muzzle their own media and suppress freedom of expression.
The situation was so dire that numerous experts, including the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, issued an alarming statement, noting Trump had ramped up caustic and dangerous political narratives that labeled media as being an “enemy of the American people”, “very dishonest” or “fake news,” and accused the press of “distorting democracy” or spreading “conspiracy theories and blind hatred”.
Threats to established alliances
The foundation of global stability rests upon strong international alliances, and NATO has been a key pillar in this regard. Trump’s threats to withdraw from NATO and to insult America’s longstanding allies shook the foundation of these alliances and posed a significant risk to regional stability. A weakened NATO not only leaves a security vacuum but also emboldens authoritarian regimes that seek to undermine democratic values.
What is truly frightening is to consider what this means today against the backdrop of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Could the re-election of Trump bring about the dissolution of NATO and end all Western military and political support to Ukraine, thereby abandoning the country and its people to Vladimir Putin’s genocidal war? Reports indicate that is what Putin is hoping for. If this were to happen, it would sap all of Ukraine’s capacities to stop Russia from overtaking new towns and cities where civilians would face massacres and torture, children would be forcibly moved against their will to Russia, and the erasure of Ukrainian identity would continue.
Authoritarian alliances and the counter-balancing act
In a rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape, the emergence of alliances between authoritarian countries such as China and Russia are a cause for concern. During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent trip to Moscow, he told Putin “Now there are changes that haven’t happened in 100 years. When we are together, we drive these changes.”
These alliances aim to counterbalance the influence of democratic nations and undermine the principles of freedom and human rights. America, as the world’s most powerful democracy, has historically played a critical role in shaping global norms and values. Its stability and leadership are needed now more than ever to counter the threat posed by authoritarian alliances.
The imperative of US leadership
The potential impact of a Trump re-election bid on human rights across the globe cannot be underestimated. The United States, as a global leader, has the responsibility to champion democratic values, promote human rights, and lead by example. A stable and steadfast United States is essential to maintaining a balance of power that prevents authoritarian regimes from gaining unchecked influence, which would set back human rights in many parts of the world.
In an interview with Project Syndicate, author Ian Buruma argues that “The US can help to defend its liberal-democratic allies, first, by getting its own house in order. The US cannot defend democratic values anywhere else if it embraces the ‘America First’ ethos spearheaded by Donald Trump”.
Navigating a crucial juncture
We find ourselves at a pivotal juncture in history where the choices made by the United States can shape the trajectory of global human rights and stability. The prospect of a second Trump presidency raises concerns about the erosion of democratic values, the undermining of international institutions, and the weakening of alliances. As authoritarian countries band together to counter the influence of democratic nations, the role of the United States as a beacon of democracy and supporter of human rights becomes more critical than ever before.
The world is watching, and the choices made today will determine whether that legacy of promoting human rights and freedom endures or falters.
(c) 2023, Policy Magazine