America must remember its obligations to the world

America must remember its obligations to the world

US President Donald Trump addresses the UN General Assembly on September 24, 2019. (Getty Images/AFP)

At the recent opening of the United Nations General Assembly session in New York, the United States spoke often and forcefully about its commitment to human rights around the globe. The American delegation, which included President Trump, committed much of its focus to the importance of protecting rights. After three years of proudly proclaiming the mantra of “America first,” the US is reminding the world that it is not neglecting its role as an advocate for the oppressed.

The President explained the American conception of rights at a UN event on religious freedom. He said: “The United States is founded on the principle that our rights do not come from government; they come from God.” He said that 80 percent of the world lives in countries that do not maintain religious freedom, and he called on the rest of the world to help end “religious persecution.”

In his speech, Trump laid out some of the work the US has done and continues to do, ideally in conjunction with other nations, “to stop the crimes against people of faith, release prisoners of conscience, repeal laws restricting freedom of religion and belief, protect the vulnerable, the defenseless, and the oppressed.” He decried violent attacks against Jews, Christians, Muslims and others. He recognized an American pastor who had been imprisoned for his religious practices in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey. Most importantly, Trump called on the rest of the world to join the US in ending discrimination against and oppression of people for their beliefs.

Demonstrating that the President’s speech was not mere rhetoric, the US led a group of 30 nations in publicly condemning China. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan pointed out the dreadful mistreatment of approximately one million Uighur Muslims in China. The Uighurs have been placed in camps, alternatively referred to by the international community as detention or concentration camps but called “vocational training centers” by China. There are reports that in these camps Chinese authorities are subjecting Uighurs to extreme physical abuse, reeducation, enslavement and forced conversion.

It is imperative that the nations of the world that already protect religious liberty and freedom of conscience within their own borders join together to condemn religious oppression elsewhere.

Ellen R. Wald

At the event, which was co-sponsored by Canada, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, Sullivan said that the UN had “a singular responsibility to speak up when survivor after survivor recounts the horrors of state repression.” Sullivan’s purpose was to raise awareness of the repression of Uighurs, but surely he had no illusion that the UN would act. The UN has been largely ineffective at addressing human rights abuses. After all, China is one of several blatant human rights abusing nations to proudly hold a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. Moreover, China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which means it can veto any UN resolution against itself.

While Sullivan was not speaking out of any expectation that the UN would actually act against China as a body, he was addressing the nations of the UN. It is imperative that the nations of the world that already protect religious liberty and freedom of conscience within their own borders join together to condemn religious oppression elsewhere. It is also vital that the oppressors — both the populations and the governments — come to the realization that men and women should not be shackled by the hate of their neighbors. What is happening in China and what is happening to 80 percent of the world cannot continue.

Moreover, the American delegation at these events was making a very specific point about the US. Over the past three years, since Trump was elected, the US has been criticized for his slogan “America first.” It has riled many foreign — and domestic — commentators. Perhaps it has been seen as a selfish statement, with many fearing that the US is only thinking about itself. But that is unfair. The phrase is, “America first,” not “America only.” Every government should look out for its own people’s interests first. In a democracy especially, when politicians can be removed from office in a simple election, a political leader should always seek first to promote his or her constituents’ interests.

However, even when the Trump administration or a future US administration promotes American interests first, it must remember its obligation to the people of the world. The US is the richest country in history. Its citizens live in relative peace with great opportunities and protected rights. The American experiment has succeeded tremendously so far, and Americans must recognize their fortune. To that end, the government and the people of the US have an obligation to advocate for the persecuted and the victimized, whether they are Uighurs in China, dissidents in authoritarian regimes, Zoroastrians in Iran, Christians in various spots in the Middle East or Jews in Paris or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This week at the UN, the US delegation warned oppressive governments that it is still fighting for the oppressed. Maybe this will give some comfort and hope to those suffering today.

• Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view