Moral leadership

We live in curious times. Human rights are under attack, not only by Russia and China, but also by the United States. They are undermining democracies and supporting authoritarian regimes, ruthless autocrats, and right-wing parties. Duterte, Erdogan, Nazarbayev, Kim Jong Un, Putin, and Sissi are all welcome at the White House. The current president and his administration systematically ignore human rights abuses outside the U.S. borders and often praise the dictators that are responsible for these abuses. Even more, within the country itself human rights are consistently ignored and more and more violated. The recent policy of separating parents and children, even babies, when they seek refuge is a horrible illustration of human rights abuse. The United States is the only member of the United Nations that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Now we know why they have not accepted these human rights that the rest of the world has adopted.

It is therefore hypocritic that the USA has now left the Human Rights Council with the pseudo argument that it is a “cesspool of bias”, especially regarding Israel, a country with a long tradition of serious human rights violations. In what position is the U.S. itself, and particularly the current administration, to make such a judgment? In her recent book Evidence for Hope, Kathryn Sikkink, Professor of Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, argues that it is a mistake to confuse the human rights movement with the human rights policies of the US government. Human rights law has origins in the Global South as well as in the Global North. In fact, the U.S. has never been the main driver of human rights. For much of the post-World II period it has been the major obstacle to the advancement of human rights, not its main proponent. Instead of promoting human rights, subsequent U.S. governments have assassinated democratically elected heads of states (e.g. Mossadegh and Arbenz), illegally invaded countries, arranged military coups, executed extrajudicial drone killings, tortured, and detained people indefinitely without trial. Affiliation with autocrats and lack of any respect for human rights therefore is nothing new in U.S. history.

The role of human rights defenders was actually played by developing countries, such as Latin American countries and India. Scholars and lawmakers in Latin America regarded international law as one of the “weapons of the weak” which they could use to balance US power. In 1917, Chilean jurist Alejandro Alvarez was the first to propose the idea of the international rights of the individual to the American Institute of International Law. In 1944, the Dumberton Oaks Conference negotiated the establishment of an international organization succeeding the League of Nations. The U.S. delegation was instructed to avoid any detailed discussion of human rights. U.S. drafts of the UN Charter did not contain any references to human rights. Only China pressed for an explicit statement against racial discrimination but was overruled. Latin American countries organized the response. They prepared a draft declaration on the rights and duties of man. During the San Francisco Conference in 1945 establishing the United Nations, the Mexican government argued for a broad system of international protection of human rights. The United States was reluctant to include human rights language in the UN Charter. In the conference with 50 participating states, twenty countries from Latin America constituted the most important voting bloc. Together with NGOs they assured that seven references to human rights were included in the UN Charter; they also made sure that promotion of human rights as one of the basic purposes of the organization. This history shows that human rights is not the language of the great powers but of the Global South. Human rights are a concern of the less powerful.

What I do not understand is why a country that emerges as a safe heaven for people escaping prosecution is now inhumane towards people that seek protection against similar threats. Especially religious people should remember the quest of the Pilgrim Fathers and so many others, and refrain from egoism and respect human dignity. It is incomprehensible that they support a president who lacks any moral leadership, even worse, who continuously ignores and violates human rights.



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