An Unprecedented Retreat

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Curt Goering is CVT’s executive director.

Human Rights Day, December 10, marks the 69th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Historically, Human Rights Day has been a time to celebrate progress achieved on human rights, while taking stock of setbacks in other areas. It is also a time to reflect on the gap between what governments have committed to do on human rights and what their actual practice has been. Far too often that gap is deep and wide.

This year that gap has been especially evident in U.S. policy and practice, both foreign or domestic. While the U.S. Government has spoken out against certain critical human rights developments, such as the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Burma or Syria’s use of chemical weapons, 2017 has been a year marked by unprecedented retreat by the U.S. on global human rights leadership. That retreat has been evident in President Trump’s virtual silence on any human rights issues when he travels abroad, from his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia – when he failed to criticize the kingdom’s widespread and massive human rights violations – to his most recent visit to the Philippines, where he never once mentioned or even alluded to President Rodrigo Duterte’s role in massive extrajudicial killings there. In addition, the first visitor he chose to host at the White House was Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, President of Egypt, where dissidents and political detainees are routinely tortured. Indeed, President Trump seems to align with foreign leaders known for repression rather than the victims or survivors of violations their governments perpetrate.

For his part, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that national security and economic interests took precedence over human rights and democratic values. On the domestic front, we see this downgrading of human rights in many areas. Among others, it is evident in the series of Executive Orders, decrees and administrative announcements which are discriminatory against refugees, minorities, transgendered individuals and other marginalized groups. The fact that Secretary Tillerson didn’t even attend the release of the State Department’s annual human rights report, breaking with long tradition, and that many human rights posts in the State Department remain unfilled almost a year into Trump’s presidency, are further indications of purposeful neglect.

It is especially tragic that the U.S., which was so instrumental in drafting the UDHR, has this year been at the forefront of undermining its relevance. Around the world, the United States no longer is seen to champion human rights. Although that role has always been uneven and inconsistent, many dissidents and human rights defenders were encouraged by the value placed on human rights by the U.S. as they waged their struggles for greater freedom and dignity. No longer. Precisely because of the U.S. retreat on human rights, civil society organizations must step up. And they are. There is a constituency that is vibrant and ever stronger that promotes the Declaration’s values. NGOs and civil society organizations are at the forefront to fill at least some of the void created by the official retreat. And these organizations are not going to go away.

CVT is proud to be a part of that movement. We’re standing up with all the strength that we can muster to draw attention to the negative impacts of President Trump’s Executive Orders that severely limit travel by our client populations. We’re trying to inject into the national narrative the voices of torture survivors, with reminders of the ways that these orders set them back: They prevent families from being unified. They reopen wounds and elicit fear. They dash the hopes that motivate our survivors to heal, to keep going.

At the policy level we continue to call for accountability for the CIA’s brutal post-9/11 torture program. We approach the issues that concern us through a bipartisan lens and work closely with Republicans and Democrats who support our mission. While progress towards accountability is slow and may take years, we must keep up that drumbeat; we are determined not to let up.

Especially when our government fails to uphold the values enshrined in the UDHR, our role becomes all the more important, no matter how daunting the challenge. Sixty-nine years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt addressed the General Assembly after the Declaration was adopted and said, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.”

She couldn’t have foreseen that those words could not be more relevant than they are in her own country today, nearly 70 years after the UDHR’s adoption. On this International Human Rights Day, let us recommit to work even harder to ensure, in the words of the UDHR, that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” and that they are able to live free and equal as well. All of us can, and should do more to make that aspiration a reality.