The United States Supreme Court has upheld the travel ban requested by the President of the United States. If you want the views of the retreating sane minority on that court, here’s a dissenting opinion.
If you are a citizen seeking to travel to the United States from Venezuela, Libya, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Somalia, and North Korea, it is now next to impossible to get to the United States.
This decision – and the Trump Presidency generally – is a big signal that human rights are in rapid decline at the highest levels. Russia and China in particular have read the signals that the United States is sending, and going hard against international human rights institutions as we have not seen in my lifetime.
Because it is a Supreme Court decision that will well outlast Trump’s rule, it is the most far-reaching political victory of President Trump to date.
Even before this decision and the Mexican border outrages, this is the view of Human Rights Watch about human rights in the United States over the past year. It’s not easy reading.
To the critical funding and leadership role of the United States in the U.N., it’s only two years ago that it was making substantial pledges of support for those human rights institutions.
President Trump has stopped the United States being the primary funder of the Palestinian government. President Trump has withdrawn from the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. The United States is seeking more than $129 million in cuts in U.N. peacekeeping programs. And so it goes, further and further.
But as the final days of budget negotiations for the United Nations, China and Russia have read the signals.
Russia wants a 50 percent funding cut for human rights-related activities in U.N. peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cyprus, Haiti, Sudan, South Sudan, and Abyei, an enclave disputed by the latter two. It has also called for halving the budget for programs designed to prevent the sexual exploitation of girls and women in Abyei, the Central African Republic, and Haiti.
Moscow has also targeted a number of jobs that promote human rights, including a post for a victims’ rights advocate in the DRC.
If successful this will set back U.N. peacekeeping by decades.
China’s proposed cuts are far more targeted. They call for eliminating more than 35 posts for human rights officers, investigators, and experts on gender.
In the past, China has sought to block newly established human rights jobs from being funded. The fact that it is now seeking to eliminate dozens of existing posts suggested a hardening of its position.
The scale of what Russia and China are trying to do is beyond what they have tried to do in previous years. Their approach is to essentially remove the human rights pillar from the United Nations, post by post.
China in particular is playing a long game, using its increased influence at the U.N. to get reductions in funding for human rights activities.
Over the past year, China has blocked dissidents from participating in U.N. conferences, and championed job cuts in U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’s principal office for human rights advocacy.
In some instances, the Trump administration has pushed back against China and Russia but in other cases, it has left the arena open for the two countries to exert more influence. Last week, the United States announced it was withdrawing from the U.N. Human Rights Council.
The budget talks are playing out in parallel with negotiations over two major reform initiatives that are high priorities for Western powers and for the U.N. secretary-general. The overlapping negotiations — which need to be concluded by July 1 — have given China and Russia greater leverage to eliminate posts in the human rights arena.
Over the past several decades there have been remarkable human right successes at the United Nations. Response to mass atrocities is better than it used to be: war crimes tribunals including the International Criminal Court, tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and hybrid courts in Sierra Leone and Cambodia also contribute to the development of enforcement standards. When they are effective they really do changes states’ conduct.
The imperative to provide people with adequate healthcare is strongly embedded across the globe. The right to freedom from slavery and from forced labour has also been integrated into national and international institutions. The steady accumulation of human rights related conventions has encouraged more states to implement binding legislation in their constitutions and statutes. There is an agreement about climate change when few thought it ever possible. Sometimes parts of the world look at a move like allowing women to drive on a Saudi Arabian public road and simply roll their eyes at gratitude amongst patriarchal tyranny. And yet massive advances in the role of women have been initiated by U.N. programmes and U.N. leadership for many decades.
But implementing respect for human rights by international bodies is really hard. Some of the worst violators refuse to join treaties or institutions. Negligence of obligations that have been signed up to is hard to penalise. Using sanctions or force is particularly fraught. Sometimes at the end of a war, negotiators choose not to hold human rights violators accountable. No international institution forced the United States to close Guantanamo Bay, for example, and few countries assisted.
So I’m not offering a full-throated defence of the United Nations’ role in supporting human rights.
But we will miss it.
While intergovernmental organisations can and do successfully push for civil and political rights, the United Nations remains the central global institution for developing international norms and legitimising efforts to implement them. The United States, China, and Russia are now in full swing cutting away hard at the capacity of the United Nations to uphold human rights across the world. They are three central agents within the United Nations as a whole.
2018 is the high tide of global human rights, regrettably. There will be no stronger cross-national architecture for human rights than that already within the United Nations. Whatever we thought was bad about supporting human rights across the world, is about to get a whole lot worse. The international order of human rights is in full retreat.