Reclaiming Human Rights In The Trump Era: Lessons From “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights”

The first International Human Rights Day of the Trump presidency is unquestionably a powerful call to arms. This day celebrates the world’s adoption, almost 70 years ago, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the bedrock of all human rights policy insofar as it recognizes that human rights are relevant to all and advocates for a shared humanity rooted in these universal values. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration states, with utter simplicity and beauty, that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Although the actions of most governments violate these principles, this year marks the first time in several decades when the president of the U.S. has demonstrated total disregard for them. In fact, President Trump has assaulted human rights at home and has abandoned it as a part of foreign policy.

The Abandonment of Human Rights Principles Abroad

Let’s begin, then, with President Trump and human rights abroad. This president’s call to “bomb the shit out of them [ISIS]” has resulted in an expansion of military force, increased civilian casualties, and a heightened risk of nuclear war. In case these realities were not jarring enough, President Trump just recently categorically stated that he will not “yell” about human rights in countries with authoritarian leaders. Of course he has visited, hosted, and often complimented heads of state—such as Philippine President Duterte, Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—who are accused of human rights violations.

In fact, President Trump’s foreign policy is centered on national security and economic interests—human rights and democracy are not a priority. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is even quoted as having told State Department employees that promoting human rights and democracy “really creates obstacles” to advancing American interests. Clearly this stance ignores the reality that the promotion of human rights and democracy creates the stable societies and allies that are crucial to America’s future.

The War at Home On Human Rights

When turning to President Trump’s battles against human rights at home, the primary challenge is only how to identify the innumerable fronts that this president is threatening. Merely considering a sampling of concerns is sufficiently stomach-churning. President Trump is now unabashedly anti-choice and his deplorable treatment of women stands as a testament to his retrograde views on them as well as his stances on gender and LGBTQI rights. He has tried to close our borders, threatened immigrants, and shut the door to refugees. He has ushered in an era of hate-based harassment of people of color and of Muslim and Jewish communities. He supports torture and has issued dangerous statements supporting gun violence and policing while also exacerbating our criminal justice problems. Indeed, the Trump administration’s actions affirm that it does not understand that equality, justice, and freedom prevent violence and sustain peace.

The only good news is that President Trump’s election and policies have been met with fierce and unprecedented civil resistance, more often than not spearheaded by women.

It is women who immediately—and perhaps instinctively—recognized the threat posed by the election of this president. They sprang into action to organize the now-famous Women’s Marches. While a panoply of issues energized millions of marchers, there is little doubt that one of the key rallying cries of the resistance has been “Women’s Rights are Human Rights.”

Women and the Road Ahead

Understanding the origins of “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” sheds light on why we must continue to resist the Trump Administration’s assault on human rights. This rallying cry arose from a historic declaration nearly a quarter century ago—the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights—that first recognized the human rights of women and girls. I was fortunate enough to be a part of the women’s coalition then that lobbied extensively for the world community to begin to accept the centrality of women’s rights to all human rights. We considered this 1993 declaration by the global community to be a landmark victory:

The human rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights. The full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life . . . and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on grounds of sex are priority objectives of the international community.”

Two years later in Beijing, this statement—“Women’s Rights are Human Rights”—became the genesis of a rallying cry that Hillary Rodham Clinton cemented into public consciousness. While this slogan was considered a bold claim when first made, in hindsight it appears to be a self-evident truth. Of course women’s rights are human rights. How could they not be? After all, why would women be relegated to a side issue? We know that if we empower women and girls, we empower people. Feminists and our allies have always known the power of women’s rights and gender equality. Although we understood the revolutionary principle of “Women’s Rights are Human Rights,” we had no way of knowing that one day it would inspire women and men around the world to organize a powerful civil resistance against a U.S. President. This resistance has inspired millions of acts of bravery, including the unmasking in the U.S. of the horrendous pattern of rapes, assaults, and sexual harassment of women.

On this International Human Rights Day, as President Trump wages war against the innumerable principles that we hold dear, it is important to recall that the arc of history is in our favor as long as we assert our human rights. We must continue to hold fast to our values and our shared humanity. And we must mobilize, advocate, and vote around these issues and know that we will set in motion chain reactions that will continue to inspire others. Although we can never know all the positive actions that we may catalyze, a future generation will be able to celebrate International Human Rights Day because we resisted and acted upon our conviction that all human beings are equal.

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