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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Human rights and U.S. foreign policy

Beginning in 1977, when Jimmy Carter appointed ACLU stalwart Patricia Derian to be the first Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, that office (renamed the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in 1993) has published an annual Human Rights Report on foreign nations. It’s a tribute to the people who work in the agency — its bureaucrats — that despite the varying commitments to human rights by the sitting president and even the agency’s own director, and regardless of how our relationships stand with the nations at the time the reports are written, the reports tend to be fairly thorough and objective.

For instance, when the 2018 report on Israel discusses Israeli conduct in the occupied West Bank, it cites Israeli restrictions on movement, which “affected virtually all aspects of Palestinian life, including access to places of worship, employment, agricultural lands, schools, and hospitals, as well as the conduct of journalism and humanitarian and NGO activities.” The report doesn’t recognize the occupation itself as the gross violation of human rights that it is, but given how much President Trump has promoted Israel’s ambitions at the expense of the Palestinians, one must give enormous credit to the staffers who produced that report as well as the more than 200 others.

The disconnect between the findings of the staffers and U.S. foreign policy, present almost from the founding of the office and its intention to make human rights a major consideration in our foreign relations, has led other nations to regard that intention skeptically. Only when Derian was in charge were concerted efforts made to move from findings to action. But even she couldn’t undo our support of Indonesia’s military takeover of East Timor, which Kissinger had secretly green-lighted before Carter took office. Under Carter, our military continued to help Indonesia kill 200,000 Timorese and secure the occupation that ended only in 1999.

When current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke this March 13 at the release of the 2018 Human Rights Report, he singled out the bad records of Iran, South Sudan and Nicaragua. Those choices confirmed our government’s longstanding use of human rights to criticize nations we oppose for reasons quite apart from their human rights records but remain silent about those nations (e.g. Saudi Arabia and Honduras) we favor despite their poor human rights records. But then Pompeo mentioned one other nation. “Then there’s China, which is in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations.” It’s hard to see how the current trade negotiations could have prompted this unexpected statement of the ugly truth.

We should never have granted China “Most Favored Nation” trade status to start with. George H.W. Bush did that, for which Bill Clinton severely faulted him during the 1992 campaign. But in 1994, despite resistance by members of his administration and Congress, Clinton gave in to business and industry lobbying and reinstated China’s MFN status. The admirable then-Sen. George Mitchell of Maine said of Clinton’s decision that it “will confirm for the regime the success of its policy of repression on human rights and manipulation on trade.” And so it has.

Pompeo concluded his remarks by saying, “Today, the State Department continues to play a leading role in championing human rights across the globe, honoring the vision of our founders and expressing our time-honored American aspiration for all people to be free.” That’s a yes, but mostly a no.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.