from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Global Agenda: Getting Human Rights Right

November 22, 2016 12:05 pm (EST)

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

This blog post is part of a series entitled Global Agenda, in which experts will identify major global challenges facing President-Elect Trump, the options available to him, and what is at stake for the United States and its partners. This following post is authored by Mark P. Lagon, centennial fellow and distinguished senior scholar Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He was formerly president of Freedom House, and ambassador-at-large to combat trafficking in persons at the U.S. Department of State.

Offering recommendations on human rights to the incoming administration is a daunting task. As Angela Merkel’s probationary congratulations to President-Elect Donald Trump indicate, many abroad and at home wonder not only about Trump’s global human rights stance, but also his protection of human rights here in America. She said:

Germany and America are bound by common values—democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views. It is based on these values that I wish to offer close cooperation, both with me personally and between our countries’ governments.

It is indeed in question whether Trump will allow the United States to be the exemplar necessary to credibly promote human rights in global governance. And the mutual affinity of Trump with the personas and policies of strongmen like Presidents Putin of Russia and Erdogen of Turkey make one wonder about the president-elect’s appetite to address human rights globally anyway.

Yet instead of hoeing such already well-tilled soil of speculation, let’s stipulate that the United States must, will, and can address human rights concerns globally. Moreover, it would advance President-Elect Trump’s pledge to “make America great again” by adopting human rights policies reinforcing the credibility and interests of the United States at no added financial costs beyond today’s, and some burden-sharing at the United Nations and by Europe.  Three recommendations deserve the incoming president’s attention.

First, despite a propensity to stress sovereignty and unilateralism on the campaign trail, don’t reject multilateral bodies out of hand. Here, the incoming administration has two opportunities.

The first is the U.S. reelection to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on October 28, after a one-year mandatory hiatus. The United States should go in with both feet. Despite the UNHRC’s over-emphasis of Israel and rights-abusers among members, U.S. membership and leadership between 2010 and 2015 helped seize surprising wins. The council established a resolution on and rapporteur devoted to Freedom of Association and Assembly. It did the same for Iran, which had been addressed only in the General Assembly for nine years. The council’s commission of inquiry on North Korea reframed global focus on Pyongyang’s atrocities, and propelled the UN Security Council to add the issue to its regular agenda without Chinese or Russian veto. The council does more good, and does less bad, when the United States is an active participant.

Another opportunity is the Community of Democracies (CD). Backed by Democratic and Republic administrations since its inception in Warsaw in 2000, this informal body holds ministerial meetings of the world’s democracies every other year. The Obama administration had committed the United States, which currently holds the presidency, to host the ministerial in 2017. The incoming administration can use the CD to forge solidarity—inside and outside of the United Nations—among the world’s democracies at a time when autocratic nations have been squeezing freedom of assembly and expression, which have receded for ten years straight according to Freedom House. Hosting the CD would provide the United States with a venue to demonstrate its commitment to pluralism and tolerance at home, and to encourage such commitment in Global South democracies as well as in Bolivia, Ecuador, Hungary, the Philippines, and Poland.

Second: don’t give up on Europe and its institutions. There are concentric circles of the “liberal world.” On the outer reaches are Global South democracies that are wrestling with peaceful transitions of power, corruption, and permitting civil society voice. Then there are major rising democratic powers—such as Brazil and India—that are ambivalent (at best) about promoting liberal values beyond their borders. At the epicenter remain the democracies of North America and Europe. The United States is much better at fighting for liberal norms globally if Europe is strong and steady.

As such, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) matters. President-Elect Trump may not be as concerned about Russia as Mitt Romney was or Barack Obama is, but the East-most members of NATO certainly are—in the wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and its global media campaign to sow doubt about Western governance.

The European Union (EU) also matters. In embracing the special U.S. relationship with the United Kingdom post-Brexit, the Trump administration shouldn’t do so at the expense of the EU. Observers lauded how NATO and the EU incentivized liberal reform in nations seeking admission in the 1990s; these institutions can reprise this role as they fight backsliding in their Central European members. Instead of emulating the populist playbook of Poland’s and Hungary’s leaders, the United States can help the EU hold its respective governments accountable. The Western core matters to the viability of the whole “liberal world.”

Third, to paraphrase candidate Bill Clinton, it’s China, stupid. The biggest governance problem in the world—even more so than Russia or the Middle East—is China. The President-Elect made clear his desire to be tough in dealing with Beijing, but it is based on the wrong reasons and emphases.

China is the biggest governance problem partly because of the state of freedom of expression, assembly, and worship within China. As CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Jerome Cohen discerns, as the economic growth which the CCP uses to justify its monopoly on power has slowed, Xi Jinping has been tightening repression in China. Openness, transparency, and freedom of expression instead would not only be good for the Chinese people who are denied these rights, but also serve the interests of America and American businesses.

China is also the biggest governance problem because it offers a pernicious model to developing nations that they can grow while fettering political freedom, civil society, and pluralism. Nations like Ethiopia and Rwanda have been influenced by China’s model, despite the likelihood that democratization would accelerate economic growth and inclusion (as it did in Taiwan and South Korea).

China is, moreover, the largest concern due to its impact on global governance institutions. It retards action on North Korea and Syria with its veto threat in the UN Security Council. It continues to play an outsized role on the UN Human Rights Council, garnering 180 of 193 nations’ votes in the most recent election, while Russia lost its seat (in the wake of bombing civilians in Aleppo). Its new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank may create a new normative center of gravity among international financial institutions. China is feisty, to say the least, in the World Trade Organization dispute mechanisms. And, controversially, a Chinese official, Meng Hongwei, recently assumed the helm of Interpol for the first time, further underscoring China’s wide-reaching influence on the global stage.

In 2005, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick called for China to be a responsible stakeholder in global institutions. Eleven years later, Beijing is hardly a guarantor of current liberal norms despite wielding more influence in international forums.

It would be folly to dismiss multilateral bodies, give up on Europe, or fail to see China as top priority. However understandably worried some Americans and observers abroad are about rancid election year rhetoric, the new administration very much has it in its power to get these three areas of human rights right.