By David L. Phillips
The United States must lead by example when it comes to protecting and promoting human rights around the world. America’s global leadership is derived from the values of its people and its system of democratic government. Lately, however, we’ve seen a dramatic erosion in America’s moral authority stemming from abuses against peaceful protesters who are demanding equality.
Authoritarian regimes are using racism and police brutality in the U.S. to justify limitations on freedom in their own countries. For example, Chinese officials scorn U.S. criticism of its crackdown in Hong Kong. They claim a double standard, citing recent events in Lafayette Park where riot police used tear gas and beat protesters to clear space for a photo opportunity of President Trump in front of St. John’s Church.
Tayyip Erdogan dismisses U.S. criticism of Turkey’s abuse of ethnic and religious minorities. Decrying strong-arm police tactics against members of the Black Lives Matter movement, Turkey expanded its arrest of Kurdish politicians and the seizure of property owned by Armenians and other Christians. Criticized for jailing more journalists than any other country, Turkish officials cited the arrest of a CNN camera crew in Atlanta as evidence of U.S. hypocrisy on press freedom.
Vladimir Putin smirks when criticized for annexing Crimea and invading other parts of Ukraine. He has expanded the Internet Research Agency’s online influence operations. Russian trolls systematically tweet about Black Lives Matter and police shootings in a bid to deepen divisions in American society and foment violence.
Not only does Trump embrace these tyrannical leaders, he lacks moral authority to criticize them.
Though the U.S. has a history of international cooperation on human rights, the Trump administration disparages alliances and abuses multilateralism. As a result, it has become isolated and discredited on the world stage -- diminished as a force for good globally.
People in countries traditionally allied with the U.S. are rallying against Trump’s policies. Thousands recently marched to the U.S. embassy in London; British legislators proposed to ban exports of tear gas, riot gear, and rubber bullets to the United States. Tens of thousands gathered in Berlin and Munich chanting “black lives matter”. Parisians gathered at the Place de la Concorde and on the left bank of the Seine, with anti-racism demonstrations spreading to Lille, Lyon and Marseille in France, and in Lisbon, Dublin, Tokyo and Sao Paulo. Australians in Melbourne and Sydney rallied against Aboriginal deaths in police custody. Unrest shows no sign of abating with popular protests spreading to 140 cities in the U.S.
The U.S. is at a fork in the road. Down one path lies four more years of Donald Trump's poisonous rhetoric and divisive politics. Down the other, lies national reconciliation, healing, and international cooperation.
Simply put, the Trump administration cannot be reformed. Repudiating Trump in the upcoming presidential election is the only way to restore America’s credibility.
Arguing that these last years were an aberration is not persuasive. The next president must proactively redress popular grievances. Educational opportunity can be advanced through investments in education, reducing college tuition costs, and expanding community colleges. Economic inequality can be served through job creation and raising the minimum wage. The COVID-19 crisis has affected twice as many black people, underscoring the need for greater access to affordable health care. Reducing mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects black people, would enhance civil liberties in the U.S.
The Congress is considering police reform is the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Legislation is needed to facilitate the investigation and prosecution of abusive police to establish accountability of law enforcement officers. Police who violate civil liberties should be removed and subject to civil suits.
The country needs more transparency, evidenced by the role of social media that galvanized public awareness about police brutality. Labeling journalists as the “enemy of the people” impugns freedom of speech and limits accountability.
Many Americans and members of the international community object to other domestic policies that require reform including family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border and the discriminatory Muslim ban. Persecuting Muslims in the U.S. increases the prospect that Christians, Jews, and religious minorities will be targeted in other countries. John McCain persuasively argued for the United States to abide by the UN Torture Convention to deter the torture of U.S. service personnel taken prisoner overseas.
Other measures can promote human rights by tying international trade benefits to human rights, labor rights, and environmental standards. U.S. businesses do better when its trade partners abide by international norms, respecting democracy and rule of law.
On day one, the next president can initiate the repair of frayed relations with U.S. allies by rejoining the Paris Climate Accords and the World Health Organization. Such steps would go a long way to restoring America’s standing in the world.
With its credibility on the mend, the U.S. should take aim at high-level violators: Syria’s Assad for using chemical weapons and barrel bombs; Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman for bombing civilians in Yemen; Aung San Suu Kyi for ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Burma; and Xi Jinping for China’s detention and forced re-education of Muslim Uighur. The U.S. should recognize the Armenian genocide without favor to Turkey’s NATO membership.
Restoring America’s moral authority starts with addressing racism and inequality at home. Only then can the U.S. resume its role as an effective defender of human rights worldwide.
(David Phillips is Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights).