The United States’ Human Rights Paradox

On March 13, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador Michael Kozak, a Senior Bureau Official in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, gave remarks at the launch of the State Department’s 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. Pompeo told the press corps that publicizing the annual human rights report is crucial for “articulating abuses and pressuring noncompliant regimes” in an effort to effect change. Ambassador Kozak followed up with specifics about how the report is crafted—namely that Secretary Pompeo told Kozak and his team “to keep it to the facts … and not draw conclusions but … let the facts speak for themselves.” The report contains information about roughly 200 countries and territories, including the states and territories in the Middle East and North Africa.

Contradictions of the Trump Administration

The annual reports on human rights practices are not unique to this administration; indeed, they preceded President Donald Trump and will survive beyond his time in office. But since Secretary Pompeo took control at Foggy Bottom, the administration’s posture toward human rights has been contradictory, and his remarks during the launch of the latest reports illustrate this point. Pompeo spoke with all his “swagger” about how Washington can shame foreign countries into rehabilitating their human rights records, saying at one point that “abuses will be meticulously documented and then publicized.” The irony of Pompeo’s tactics, though, lies with his extremely selective application of his own rules. For instance, later in the presser, Pompeo immediately turned to Iran as the leading example of the aforementioned “noncompliant regimes,” yet he failed to publicize the poor human rights record of a state like Saudi Arabia, a country that organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International routinely criticize as much as Iran, if not more.

It is evident that Pompeo and Trump Administration officials use human rights violations as a cudgel against regimes they do not like. Take, for instance, remarks made by Brian Hook, the US special envoy for Iran, at a conference on civil society in Iran on Capitol Hill last week. He reiterated a talking point that the administration has adopted: that the Iranian ruling regime is neglecting and abusing Iranian citizens and that the United States will stand with Iranians and help them by raising their plight on the global stage. But administration officials fail to do the publicizing that Pompeo demands for other clear displays of human rights violations when those “noncompliant regimes” are friendly states (e.g., Saudi Arabia or Egypt) or states with which the Trump Administration hopes to make a deal (e.g., North Korea). Indeed, the preface of this year’s human rights report states plainly that this administration will “engage with other governments, regardless of their record, if doing so will further US interests.”

There are plenty of good reasons why the US government should engage with—or at least talk to—other countries, especially because there needs to be more dialogue and more diplomacy in the present, not less. However, this sometimes arbitrary distinction between who gets named and shamed and who enjoys the support of the White House because they “further US interests” sets the United States up for being labeled hypocritical in the eyes of the rest of the world. Furthermore, it can dishearten those striving to secure basic human rights in friendly states like Saudi Arabia or Egypt when they hear the White House is “standing with the Iranian people” but seems uninvolved in aiding their political struggles.

Congress Tries to Elevate Human Rights

While the administration is selective toward the human rights abuses it publicizes, Congress has consistently made an effort to champion the cause of human rights. It is unsurprising that Congress would take this role; it is a much larger body and each district has unique interests in the human rights practices of foreign governments. But while the Trump Administration embraces Cold War realpolitik, members of Congress have elevated the importance of human rights abuses among friends and foes alike.

Indeed, while Pompeo used the release of the human rights report to pillory Tehran, members of Congress were listening to the family members of detained Saudis describe Riyadh’s human rights abuses. In addition, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) talked about the need for Congress to hold the Saudis accountable, stating plainly that since the Trump Administration will not confront Riyadh over its actions, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee must do so. Saudi Arabia was featured heavily on Capitol Hill, but it was not alone. Lawmakers also met with Syrian activists to raise awareness about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s systematic abuse and torture in his network of prisons in Syria.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) perhaps encapsulated best what many lawmakers feel when she penned an op-ed arguing that the United States “must apply [its] universal values to all nations.” She, too, went after Saudi Arabia, but she noted that human rights abuses by the likes of Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates do a great deal to destabilize their own states and the broader region. Despite the negative press she had received in recent weeks due to her comments about Israel, she did not shy away from addressing the suffering Israel exacts on millions of Palestinians as a human rights concern as well.

Ultimately, the United States’ policy toward those who violate basic human rights will continue to oscillate as the Trump Administration decides which countries further US interests and which do not. Members of Congress have taken it upon themselves to project a more consistent message when it comes to Washington’s policy on human rights; many of them likely agree with Omar’s words, “Valuing human rights also means applying the same standards to our friends and our enemies.”

Also Happening This Week in Washington

 I. Congress

1) Legislation

War Powers Resolution. Shortly after last week’s publication, the Senate voted to adopt its War Powers Resolution (S.J. Res. 7), as amended, with 54 senators in favor and 46 opposed. The resolution will go to the House of Representatives for a new vote (separate from the War Powers Resolution vote earlier this year) and it should have the votes to pass the lower chamber.

No Assistance for Assad. On March 13, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Eliot Engel (D-New York) introduced H.R. 1706 to limit the kinds of assistance that can benefit areas of Syria under the control of Bashar al-Assad.

Defining Anti-Semitism. Senator Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) introduced S. 852 to establish a definition of anti-Semitism for use by the federal government.

US-Israel Joint Research and Development. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-California) introduced H.R. 1795 allowing for the United States and Israel to work jointly on research and development programs “to establish directed energy capabilities that address threats to the United States, deployed forces of the United States, or Israel.” Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Florida) also introduced a bill (H.R. 1820) this week to authorize other kinds of cooperation with Israel.

Condemning Perceived Anti-Semitic Comments of Rep. Ilhan Omar. GOP members introduced H. Res. 241, explicitly condemning their colleague, Ilhan Omar, for recent comments that they and others insisted were anti-Semitic.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Lawmakers Release a Joint Statement on Iraq’s Security. On March 18, the chairs and ranking members of three House committees released a statement calling on the Trump Administration to do everything it can to support Iraqi institutions responsible for maintaining the state’s security. The statement was released as the Iraqi parliament weighs asking foreign troops to leave.

Senator Cruz Criticizes United Nations for Helping Hamas. On a conference call on March 18 with the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) lambasted the United Nations as being “useful idiots” that aid Hamas. His comments came after a UN investigation reported that the Israel Defense Forces’ “use of lethal force in response [to Gazans’ right of return protests] was rarely necessary or proportionate.”

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Administration Orders US to Provide Funds to Syria. As was noted in last week’s report, the United States was present at Belgium’s donor conference for “Supporting the Future of Syria.” Afterward, the State Department announced that, per the president’s request, the United States would be providing millions of dollars of support for the group popularly known as the White Helmets as well as for the UN Impartial and Independent Mechanism that is responsible for helping bring to justice those responsible for some of the worst crimes committed during the Syrian war.

Trump Administration Extends Sanctions Waiver for Iraq. Though the administration has vowed to cut off all potential sources of income for Iran, it agreed to extend Iraq another 90-day waiver to allow Baghdad to continue meeting its energy demands.

2) Department of State

State Department Drops References to Israeli Occupation. In the aforementioned 2018 human rights report, the State Department dropped all references to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. Instead, this year’s version refers to those territories as “Israeli-controlled,” a change that Ambassador Kozak said was made by the department’s lawyers and that his office simply followed.

Ambassador Sale’s Travels to UK to Talk Hezbollah. On March 14, Counterterrorism Coordinator Ambassador Nathan Sales traveled to London to discuss the United Kingdom’s recent decision to designate Hezbollah a foreign terrorist organization in its entirety. Prior to this development, the United Kingdom had only recognized Hezbollah’s “military wing” as a terrorist organization.

Pompeo Meets with Guterres, Griffiths, before Visiting Middle East. Over the last week, Secretary Pompeo met with UN Secretary-General António Guterres and the UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, to discuss conditions in the Middle East broadly, and in Yemen specifically. After these meetings and some domestic travel, Pompeo set off for the Middle East where he is visiting Kuwait, Israel, and Lebanon March 19-23.

State Department Official Targets Syria, Iran at Disarmament Conference. On March 19 Yleem D.S. Poblete, the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, spoke before the Conference on Disarmament to label Syria and Iran as members of a group of “malign actors” undermining the common cause of disarmament. She cited Syria’s use of chemical weapons during the years of civil war and Iran’s exploration of ballistic missile capabilities, among other activities.

3) Department of Defense

Reports Suggest Pentagon to Leave 1,000 Troops in Syria—but CENTCOM Denies It. On March 17, the Wall Street Journal reported that US military officials were crafting a plan to leave roughly 1,000 US soldiers in Syria. Shortly after publication, however, General Joseph Votel, commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), and Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan both disputed the report.

CENTCOM Hosts GCC Defense Ministers. CENTCOM is hosting a two-day conference with the defense ministers of the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Jordan, and Egypt this week in what is likely an effort to jump-start the Trump Administration’s coveted “Arab NATO” plan.

III. Judicial Branch

Palestinian-Americans Sue Israeli Settlement Enterprise in US Court. In a first, two Palestinian-Americans, with the help of the Center for Constitutional Rights, are intervening in one lawsuit between Israelis and Israeli-Americans and the online hospitality company Airbnb in order to sue those profiting from Israel’s settlement enterprise in the occupied West Bank. Though this is not the first lawsuit of its kind, it is the first to be undertaken in a US court.