August 07, 2018

Human rights panel worries about Trump policies; lauds activism of lawyers in response

What is the impact of President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach to human rights and other issues? That was the subject of the program “International Human Rights: Law and Policy in the Trump Administration” held at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Panelist Elisa Massimino, senior fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University Kennedy School of Government and former president of Human Rights First, said that there was nothing inherently wrong with an “America First” approach, but what was different with Trump is that he doesn’t accept the longtime consensus on the long-standing liberal, rules-based world order.

That was reflected, she said, in the administration stepping back from the United Nations Human Rights Council and discontinuing State Department annual human rights reports, among other moves.

Those responses were, Massimino said, “depending on the issue, hostility or neglect.”

Moving on to immigration, panelist Mary Meg McCarthy, chair of the ABA Commission on Immigration and executive director of Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center, said the difference now with the Trump administration has been the “evisceration of due process rights.” Before, she said, immigrants were free from arbitrary detention and free to seek asylum. But today’s situation denies “fundamental protections that are essential to a functioning democracy,” and it has all been done by executive order, not by legislation.

“What we’re seeing is … a brutality, a brazenness, a mean-spirited process that seeks to dehumanize noncitizens and persons of color,” she said.

“The rhetoric coming from Trump reverberates in a dangerous way internationally,” Massimino said, adding that what the president says and does, and how he demonizes others has consequences around the world.

She said that historically the U.S. government has celebrated a free press in the promotion of democracy, including giving journalists in other countries access to training. But today there is no campaigning to free imprisoned journalists, as in the past, and the president pushes an anti-media rhetoric that leaders in other countries pick up.

The Trump administration is different from others in that “this president has very few really committed ideals,” Massimino said. “He is much more a textbook populist.” Referring to how he speaks at his political rallies, she said, “The impact of that goes beyond the United States.”

Reflecting on the Muslim ban and changes in immigration law, McCarthy said we are seeing an increase in the number of people being detained and arrested in neighborhood raids. These are subtler than workplace raids and are not getting enough attention, she said. She added that the treatment of immigrants in detention is also worse than before.

She also noted the elimination of DACA and the end of protected status for Hondurans, Salvadorans, Haitians and Guatemalans. “The whole asylum system is being dismantled,” McCarthy said.

Massimino added that the refugee treaty says you can’t turn back people at the border who are fleeing persecution, but the administration is trying to deter people from coming by “treating them so badly; by separating families, by prosecuting them, sometimes by preventing them from even reaching the border.”

Moderator James R. Silkenat, ABA past president and director and treasurer of the World Justice Project, asked if there are there any bright spots in Trump’s approach to human rights. Massimino pointed to the Global Magnitsky Act, which President Barack Obama signed and which says the U.S. can sanction anyone who has anything to do with Sergei Magnitsky’s killing in Russia in 2009. That has been globalized through the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control and has been used to sanction 76 human rights abusers. It is a success story, she said, and it has strong bipartisan support.

Another bright spot is civilians and lawyers showing up at airports after the “travel ban” and jumping in to help immigrants at the border. This activism, Massimino said, will have to keep going “longer than the normal attention span of Americans,” but she said she’s been very encouraged by what she’s seen.

McCarthy’s bright spots are the media paying sustained attention to the plight of immigrants, and state and local governments stepping up to protect immigrants from cruel and harsh treatment.

On the topic of Trump’s personnel appointments, Massimino said, “personnel is policy.” She noted that 500-plus days into the administration, they finally nominated an assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. There has been no move to appoint a special envoy on anti-Semitism and the role of special advisor to the president on human rights has been recast as a special advisor on international organizations and alliances.

Massimino referred to the UN Human Rights Council as a highly flawed body and an “easy punching bag,” but said it’s the only place in the UN where victims of human rights abuses can go to challenge the policies of their governments in public. “It plays a unique and historic role,” she said.

The U.S. withdrawal from the council marks the first time a member has voluntarily left; and the U.S. joins Iran, North Korea and Eritrea as the only countries that refuse to participate in it. The reason cited was the treatment of Israel, but human rights abuses go down when the U.S. has a seat at the table, she said, and without American leadership bad treatment of Israel will likely increase and victims and activists in countries like North Korea Bahrain and Syria will suffer.

“International Human Rights: Law and Policy in the Trump Administration” was sponsored by the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice.