Essential American principle of liberty is under threat

Essential American principle of liberty is under threat

As if the current US administration had not done enough to harm the United States’ international reputation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley announced this week that the US will leave the UN Human Rights Council. The move was poorly timed, as observers looked on aghast with the US in hot water over its zero tolerance policy on illegal immigration. A worrying trend has developed whereby the US is actively shirking its responsibility to lead, whilst readily seeking to undo its commitment to freedom, liberty and democracy. 

The American departure is significant. It is the first time a member has voluntarily left the Human Rights Council. Just as it is the only country in the world not signed up to the Paris Agreement on climate change, the US has now joined North Korea, Iran and Eritrea as the only nations to refuse to participate in the humanitarian council’s meetings and deliberations.

With over a year remaining on its term, the US has removed itself from weighing in on key issues that could affect its allies, especially in building important coalitions to tackle major human rights abuses. Though the US government’s contribution to the council has been varied, it has helped shape its more significant decisions, such as the establishment of a commission into serious human rights abuses in North Korea. By withdrawing, it has effectively ceded leadership to China, whilst also emboldening its repeated efforts to undermine internationally accepted norms on human rights. 

With this move, the US has also effectively forfeited the role it played in the council’s initiatives related to South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia. Though it is unclear whether the US plans to disengage from these issues entirely or indeed choose to follow them, quitting the council is a clear signal of the Trump administration’s disregard for international institutions. 

The decision to withdraw is all the more significant as it coincided with international consternation over the US administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy. Images have emerged of children in tears after being separated from their parents and, just as Republicans scrambled to limit the fallout, the administration has shown itself once again to be irresponsible. Though since the tenure of George W. Bush the US has had clear issues with the Human Rights Council, what is extraordinary is that Pompeo would criticize the record of countries currently sitting on it, whilst the zero tolerance policy on the Mexican border is receiving unprecedented global criticism. The US motion to withdraw came directly after UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid Al-Hussein’s severe warning to the US to cease the policy, stating that “the thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable.” Donald Trump has since bowed to public pressure and signed an executive order promising to keep families together in migrant detention centers.

Quitting the Human Rights Council is a clear signal of the Trump administration’s disregard for international institutions. 

Zaid M. Belbagi

As with the Paris Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal and the fiasco at the G-7, the US has brought into question its central role in underpinning the post-1945 international order. Where previous administrations stressed the importance of trade rules, the role of international organizations and long-standing alliances, the current White House has displayed a growing willingness to intentionally damage these central tenets of the rules-based international system. 

The withdrawal has also drawn further consternation in light of the president showing respect for a dictator with abysmal human rights records the world over. In waxing lyrical about Kim Jong Un’s leadership skills last week, the president stunned the international community by showing complete disregard for the crimes of the North Korean regime. 

Internally, Trump actively sought to undermine the institutions that exist to check executive power. Having initially interfered with the work of security agencies, he most recently declared his right to self-pardon — a prospect that is completely removed from the principles upon which the US was founded. As a nation born out of a desire to escape tyranny, the US has always been a home for families fleeing oppression and in search of freedom. 

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions bizarrely quoted the Bible to support the zero tolerance policy, calling on Americans to “obey the laws of the government,” he unintentionally used a command from Romans 13 used by British colonialists during the American Revolution of the 1770s and by southern slave owners prior to the Civil War. In pursuing increasingly divisive policies, the importance of liberty to the American raison d’etre is being continuously eroded. 

America is too important and its positive impact on human civilization too great for it to become a nation where commentators have a platform to claim that distraught infants are child actors “coached by liberals.” There can be no liberty if individuals do not seek to guard it for each other; a lesson which the current US administration will soon learn. 

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid

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