It was an encouraging declaration Monday from the new United Nations Secretary General António Guterres. He said in a speech that “To human rights defenders, I say: thank you for your courage. The United Nations is on your side. And I am on your side.”
It’s a difficult time for those who defend and promote the rights of others, and his words are welcome. In contrast to indications from President Trump’s opening weeks in office, Guterres offers some comfort to activists struggling in difficult and dangerous places.
There was no such declaration of solidarity from Trump in his speech to Congress last night. In fact, the caveat after he said “Free nations are the best vehicle for expressing the will of the people...” of “America respects the right of all nations to chart their own path” will be read as a green light to dictatorships that his administration won’t be that interested in raising human rights issues with them. His proposal to slash the State Department and foreign aid budgets by 37 percent confirms a drastic upending of priorities.
Where the White House was once an imperfect source of solace to some activists, it now looks like an increasingly unlikely ally for human rights defenders.
President Trump’s assaults on the media, attacks on refugee rights, reports that his administration is considering withdrawing from the U.N. Human Rights Council, and his increasing chumminess with dictators are all alarming signs for human rights defenders hoping for support from Washington.
From Hungary to Egypt, from Kenya to Mexico, human rights defenders are worried that support for their work will slip far down the U.S. list of priorities. It’s not as if Washington has a perfect record on this issue, and the Obama administration, its allies and predecessors all fell short on protecting defenders. News has emerged that suspects in the murder of Honduran human rights defender Berta Cáceres, killed a year ago tomorrow, are linked to U.S.-trained military. Two of those arrested for the killing were reportedly trained at Fort Benning in Georgia 20 years ago.
But many defenders have been helped over several decades by the American government, with financial and diplomatic support, and with visas to safety in the U.S. It’s still a place human rights activists have expected to get help, despite it not always being delivered.
For many years I’ve heard defenders express disappointment that Washington isn’t doing enough to protect and support them, but have never heard any complain that Beijing or Moscow have let them down. The expectation has been different for the U.S., fueled by the rhetoric of promise from successive administrations. In May 2011 President Obama’s speech about the middle eastern uprisings of earlier that year pledged that “we intend to provide assistance to civil society, including those that may not be officially sanctioned, and who speak uncomfortable truths”.
It didn’t always happen ― ask the Bahraini dissidents who spoke uncomfortable truths, many of whom are still in jail ― but until now Washington has been somewhere defenders have looked to for help. That’s now seriously threatened, as the Trump presidency has started its life by assaulting human rights. There are still powerful pockets of support in the U.S. government for human rights activists to find, including in staff at some American embassies, with members of Congress, and at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, but the outlook for defenders hoping for American protection is now looking bleak.
Guterres has publicly declared he is on the side of human rights defenders. It looks increasingly clear that President Trump is not.