Donald Trump has tweeted the phrase “human rights” four times as president. Each instance came during a three-day period beginning on New Years’ Eve 2017 (here, here, here, and here), and each targeted Iran.
The Trump administration’s attacks on Iran’s human rights record didn’t end there. Last May, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, noting that “America stands with the people of Iran,” levied a new series of sanctions against Iranian security leaders for human rights abuses and censorship. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo frequently highlights Iranian human rights abuses, culminating in a July 22 speech titled “Supporting Iranian Voices.” Indeed, the Trump administration has chosen to fixate on Iranian human rights abuses as a central pillar in its campaign against the Islamic Republic. But singling out Iran while turning a blind eye to worse abuses elsewhere risks doing real damage.
That Iran has an odious human rights record is beyond dispute. In the past year the Iranian security apparatus has crushed popular dissent, resulting in the death in custody of peaceful demonstrators. The authorities persecute human rights defenders, journalists, activists, LGBT persons, and religious minorities, as well as women protesting against the compulsory hijab. They execute prisoners at one of the highest rates in the world, including juveniles and individuals denied basic due process. Iran has contributed to atrocities in Syria through its military support for President Bashar al-Assad and its aid to various Shi‘a militias.
Foreign policy is a messy business. Deciding how to speak out about human rights is one of the more difficult balancing acts facing democratic governments. Different governments will take different approaches, though usually they will be tougher on adversaries than on friends. Part of the Russian and Chinese diplomatic appeal to authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes is that, unlike Europeans or North Americans, they do not lecture on human rights.
The Trump administration came to office signaling a desire to shake up diplomatic norms. In his inaugural address, Trump assured listeners that no longer would the United States “seek to impose our way of life on anyone.” Some foreign observers praised the new administration’s nationalistic approach as more honest than its predecessors, especially when contrasted with the uneven—and often counterproductive—record of American democracy promotion.
But in practice, this laissez faire attitude has meant a worrisome gravitation toward autocrats. Trump has praised leaders from Russia, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and even North Korea, while disdaining traditional allies.
At first glance it would seem that the Trump administration is exercised about human rights in Iran and nowhere else. But concern with the Iranians’ wellbeing is hardly consistent with Trump’s travel ban—originally designed as “preventing Muslim immigration.” Iranian citizens were included in each of the travel bans issued in 2017. A few classes of travelers, such as 12,000 Iranian exchange students, were exempted in the most recent incarnation, though still subject to enhanced screening. A reimposition of sanctions aimed at bringing about the collapse of Iran’s economy is unlikely to help Iranian democratic aspirations.
Unfortunately, this cynical use of human rights is likely to cause further damage to norms elsewhere, at a moment when authoritarianism is rising. It suggests that the Trump administration sees human rights primarily as a tool to be exploited in pressuring Tehran. Worse, the message to America’s authoritarian allies is clear: So long as you say nice things about Donald Trump, feel free to be as repressive as you like with your own populations.
Trump has praised North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un as “very honorable,” despite the fact that he rules over a gulag state. He has enthused that Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte had done an “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” even though his government has been accused of conducting thousands of extrajudicial killings.
And consider Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two of Trump’s closest Arab partners. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi (who has “done a fantastic job,” according to Trump) has presided over the arrest of thousands of prisoners without trial, and the shuttering of hundreds of nongovernmental organizations and websites. In 2017, the State Department suspended $195 million worth of U.S. security assistance, pointing to rising levels of repression and human rights abuses. But in July, Pompeo reversed course, citing unspecified—and dubious—improvements. Whatever leverage American assistance might once have had has dissipated. The Trump administration has given Egypt a clean bill of health.
Last Saturday, Egyptian courts sentenced 75 people to death for their role in the 2013 protests, which spiraled out of control at Raba‘a Square in Cairo. Although security forces killed hundreds of protesters in the ensuing violence, no member of the security forces has been prosecuted.
In Saudi Arabia, the purge against dissent, which began last fall, continues. The Saudi government has highlighted its decision to remove the prohibition on women driving. But the move coincided with the arrest of a dozen prominent Saudi activists, most of them women’s rights campaigners. The public prosecutor is seeking the death penalty against a prominent religious scholar, Salman al-‘Awda, who has been critical of the ruling family. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has continued to provide military assistance for the Saudi and Emirati campaign in Yemen, despite increased concerns by United Nations officials that coalition attacks against civilians might amount to war crimes.
In his July 22 speech, Pompeo declared, “I have a message for the people of Iran: The United States hears you; the United States supports you; the United States is with you.” Citizens of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, North Korea, and elsewhere might ask whether the United States is with them too.