I spent last week at an international human rights conference, a sobering experience, but also—for those of us who live in democratic countries—a somewhat reassuring one. For all the inequality in America’s economy and injustice in our political system, as well as valid recent concerns about the erosion of democratic norms and the rule of law in the U.S., hearing the stories of activists and dissidents from countries like China, Belarus, Vietnam, or Togo is an important reminder that this is still a country where the media is free to criticize the president without fear of imprisonment and where citizens will have the opportunity to vote out their representatives in November. These are rights most of the world’s population does not enjoy.
On the other hand, a trio of striking statements from international human rights observers in the past few days makes for grim reading, discussing ongoing U.S. policies at home and abroad using terms and language often reserved for tin-pot dictatorships.
A report from Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, following an observation mission to the United States, argues that “the persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power,”, pointing in particular at the 2017 tax cuts and Trump administration policies that constitute what he calls a “radical programme of financial, environmental, health and safety deregulation that eliminates protections mainly benefiting the middle classes and the poor.”
As a result of deliberate U.S. policies put in place long before these, he notes, “citizens live shorter and sicker lives compared to those living in all other rich democracies, eradicable tropical diseases are increasingly prevalent, and it has the world’s highest incarceration rate, one of the lowest levels of voter registrations … among OECD countries and the highest obesity levels in the developed world.” He also argues that U.S. policies have effectively criminalized extreme poverty and that “[i]n many cities and counties, the criminal justice system is effectively a system for keeping the poor in poverty.”
Income inequality is not normally framed in the United States as a human rights issue, which Alston argues is exactly the problem, writing, “In practice, the United States is alone among developed countries in insisting that, while human rights are of fundamental importance, they do not include rights that guard against dying of hunger, dying from a lack of access to affordable health care or growing up in a context of total deprivation.”
Turning from domestic to foreign policy, a new Amnesty International report on civilian casualties in last year’s U.S.-led military operation to oust ISIS from the city of Raqqa, Syria, is similarly bleak. For all the talk of the global coalition fighting the Islamic State, the report notes that “US forces fired 100% of the artillery into Raqqa and carried out over 90% of the air strikes,” and the field research and interviews with residents suggest that those ordering these strikes “failed to take all feasible precautions to minimise harm to civilians, and, in some instances, appear to have launched strikes which were likely to cause excessive civilian harm or which failed to distinguish between military targets and civilians.” This failure would likely constitute a war crime under international law. As in previous reports on the battle, Amnesty faults ISIS for deliberately trapping civilians in areas where it was operating and making it difficult for the coalition to distinguish between them and the fighters holding them captive, but also argues that U.S. tactics were still disproportionate and unjustifiable.
The report reads:
In all the cases detailed in this report, Coalition forces launched air strikes on buildings full of civilians using wide-area effect munitions, which could be expected to destroy the buildings. In all four cases, the civilians killed and injured in the attacks, including many women and children, had been staying in the buildings for long periods prior to the strikes. Had Coalition forces conducted rigorous surveillance prior to the strikes, they would have been aware of their presence. Amnesty International found no information indicating that IS fighters were present in the buildings when they were hit and survivors and witnesses to these strikes were not aware of IS fighters in the vicinity of the houses at the time of the strikes. Even had IS fighters been present, it would not have justified the targeting of these civilian dwellings with munitions expected to cause such extensive destruction.
U.S. officials have argued that the high civilian casualty numbers from the coalition’s anti-ISIS airstrikes are the regrettable but inevitable consequence of what Secretary of Defense James Mattis has called the “war of annihilation” against ISIS. The decimation of ISIS-held territory has been held up by the administration as one of Trump’s signature accomplishments so far. In the case of Raqqa, this argument is undercut by reports that the coalition allowed a deal allowing ISIS fighters and their families to escape parts of the city before civilians did.
Finally, responding to more recent events, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights released a statement today expressing concern about the practice of separating children from people caught entering the country illegally. The statement calls the practice a “serious violation of the rights of the child,” noting that “the use of immigration detention and family separation as a deterrent runs counter to human rights standards and principles. The child’s best interest should always come first, including over migration management objectives or other administrative concerns.” The Economist noted this week that separating children from their parents is something “done by few if any other rich countries.” Even Australia, which has been rightly faulted for detaining asylum-seekers in miserable conditions on remote islands, keeps families together.
The U.N. statement also notes that the U.S. is now the only U.N. member state that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child—a stance driven by concerns that it would undermine national and family sovereignty.
Critics of U.S. foreign policy, as well as defenders of autocratic regimes, often trot out facts like these in the name of facile whataboutism, suggesting that the U.S.
has no right to criticize human rights practices in places like Iran, Russia, or Venezuela until it gets its own house in order. Conversely, defenders of U.S. policies often dismiss this kind of criticism by arguing that many governments are far worse and that the U.N.’s membership includes brutal automatic regimes, sometimes in regrettable roles (the recent ascension of Syria to lead the U.N. Conference on Disarmament was a particularly laughable example).
This kind of hypocrisy policing misses the point. The U.S. should absolutely be part of global efforts to hold autocratic regimes accountable and promote human right more broadly, including in its own practices at home and abroad. Unfortunately, the trend has been moving in the opposite direction.