Why it Makes Sense to Make a Big Deal About Human Rights Violations Abroad

When President Trump met his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte last week, there was some discrepancy over whether or not the United States President raised any concerns about Duterte’s ongoing campaign of extrajudicial killings, waged ostensibly in the name of a “war on drugs.”

Trump said he raised the issue briefly in their meeting. Duterte said it never came up. In any case, there was no public condemnation of these killings. And, in fact, the US national security advisor indicated as much in a briefing before Trump’s trip to Asia.

“The President is focused on is being effective in advancing and protecting human rights and advancing the rule of law,” National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters. “We’ve seen him do it quietly in every relationship. And so how much does it help to yell about these problems? It hasn’t really delivered in recent history anyway.”

That may or may not be true — but we do know that neglecting to condemn these human rights violations may, in fact,  make a bad situation even worse.  In a recent article in the American Prospect, I examined the impact of the Trump administration’s failure to make the kinds of routine gestures in support of human rights and democracy that have been standard for US presidents of both parties.

Here’s an excerpt.

THE IMPACT IS MOST acute in countries that have longstanding security arrangements with the United States, but over which Europe and other democracies hold little sway. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte is carrying out his “war on drugs” with impunity—and with little public rebuke from the Trump administration. In the seven months in which the presidencies of Obama and Duterte overlapped, the Obama administration routinely chastised Duterte over these kinds of extrajudicial killings. Duterte became so incensed over the criticism he famously called Obama a “son of a whore.” Obama later canceled a long-planned bilateral meeting with Duterte at the ASEAN summit, though the two men did “exchange pleasantries” in a brief meeting. Meanwhile, in October, the Obama administration canceled the sale of 26,000 rifles to the Philippines.

The contrast in approaches from the Obama administration to the Trump administration were apparent even before Trump took office. When asked multiple times during his Senate confirmation hearing (by Democrats and Republicans alike), then–Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson refused to say whether the extrajudicial killings that have accompanied Duterte’s “war on drugs” even constituted human rights violations worthy of condemnation.

Then, in August, during his first official visit to the Philippines as secretary of state, Tillerson met with Duterte and offered only the most indirect of criticisms. “Mr. President, we are all aware of the American people’s criticism of you and your handling of drug cartels,” he said, according to a State Department aide in the room who relayed this comment to the press.

A little more than one week after Tillerson’s meeting with Duterte, 32 people were killed in a series of raids near Manila—the most ever in a single night. The next day, Duterte directly threatened human rights groups. “One of these days, you human rights groups, I will also investigate you. That’s the truth. For conspiracy,” he said. “If they are obstructing justice, you shoot them,” he said.

Meanwhile, the government of Bahrain has stepped up its campaign against human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, charging him with terrorism and sentencing him to years in prison. Bahrain’s crackdown against democracy and human rights activists began in earnest in 2011 during an Arab Spring uprising there. The Obama administration came under criticism from human rights groups for sending mixed messages to the Bahraini government, criticizing them on human rights but nevertheless maintaining a major naval base in the country. The Obama administration, however, did seek to condition the sale of 19 new American fighter planes, at $2.8 billion, on improvements in human rights in Bahrain. In March, the Trump administration unilaterally lifted those restrictions, allowing the deal to proceed.

“What I think is being demonstrated right now is that even when you are not making positive breakthroughs, sometimes the steady application of that kind of pressure keeps things from getting worse,” [former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Rights and Labor Tom] Malinowski says. “Sometimes the knowledge that we are in their heads was not enough to stay their hands, but sometimes it would be.”

So, it would seem that Trump’s neglect of human rights issues could, in fact be having an impact.