Thursday, March 23, 2017

This is What Hypocrisy Looks Like

by co-editor JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Human Rights Institute, Columbia Law School

This week saw further demonstrations of the Trump Administration's hostility towards the institutions designed to promote and protect our basic rights. As U.S. human rights advocates have noted, the failure of the US to show up to U.S. hearings at the Inter-American Commission marks a new low point for the U.S. relationship with human rights. These hearings were the first review of the US human rights record since Trump’s Inauguration, and the U.S. absence marks a sharp departure from the policy of engagement of recent Administrations, Democratic and Republican. And, while there is some indication that the U.S. absence is not a result of a specific policy of non-engagement, the overall picture for U.S. human rights accountability is increasingly bleak.

When asked about why the US chose not to appear for the three hearings focused on current and past U.S. policy, the State Department stated that the US has “tremendous respect for the role performed by the IACHR in safeguarding human rights and fundamental freedoms throughout the hemisphere, including the United States. However, it was not appropriate…for the United States to participate in these hearings while litigation on the matters was ongoing in U.S. courts.”

When pressed further as to whether the US would accept that explanation from another government who chose not to attend, the State Department representative went on to say “No, no”…but…we have our reasons.

So, what can we take away from these statements? First. the US might have some respect for human rights, under some circumstances. Second, the U.S. will hold other governments to a standard different than that applied to its own actions. So, there is the comforting thought that maybe, just maybe, things haven’t changed so much. Indeed, U..S exceptionalism in the realm of human rights is nothing new. U.S. rhetoric has never matched the U.S. reality. And, as noted on this blog earlier, U.S. participation at the Inter-American Commission has been repeatedly critiqued by human rights advocates.

Yet, the recent brazen acts of disregard for international institutions are an order of magnitude different, and a harbinger of more pernicious things to come. Earlier this month, Secretary Tillerson also chose not to show up for human rights. Tillerson failed to appear in person for the release of the United States’ annual human rights report (a comprehensive and powerful report, but one oft subject to criticism because it weighs in on the human rights record of every county other than the United States). The State Department literally phoned in their statement that human rights and democratic governance “form an essential foundation of stable, secure, and functioning societies,” signaling this is not a priority for the U.S.

But the State Department upped the ante by flouting Commission proceedings. The U.S. State Department chose to not to send representatives a few short blocks away to take a seat at the table at the Inter-American Commission. There was a calculation that it was not a priority to acknowledge the voices of civil society representatives, some who had traveled across the country at great personal hardship and others who have been waiting decades for redress, in order to discuss the toll that U.S. policy, past and present, has taken on their lives and communities, as well as to seek a response.

Take 86 year-old Isamu Carlos Arturo Shibayama, who testified in his case seeking a remedy for the forced removal of his family from Peru in 1944, as part of a U.S Program to relocate over 2,000 individuals of Japanese descent from Latin America and imprison them in the U.S., with the stated purpose of “securing” the Southern U.S. border. The United States stripped these individuals of documentation, declaring them “illegal aliens” and also used some of the detainees in hostage exchanges with the Japanese government. Yet, the Shibayama family never received adequate redress in U.S. courts. (Note too: The only explanation that was given publicly for the US failure to appear: that the U.S. did not participate due to pending litigation, doesn’t hold water for the Shibayama case hearing, which did not address issues subject to litigation). Also testifying was Maru Mora Villalpando, of the Northwestern Detention Center Resistance, who spoke passionately about the human impacts of the new Administration’s focus on privatization of immigration detention centers and the increase in immigration enforcement on immigrant and undocumented communities.

Ms. Villalpando noted that “the absence of the State today, after nearly 20 years of continuous presence at this table, is a symbol of the deterioration of U.S. democracy and the international leadership the U.S. claimed to have.” I must agree.

Democracy thrives on civil debate, on the exchange of ideas. Yet, we have entered a time when the governing Administration of the United States disavows the obligation to exchange ideas or even defend its policies – in international fora or otherwise. This week’s actions by the State Department occur at a time when U.S. rights-defenders, including judges, civil servants, and community leaders are increasingly ridiculed, harassed, and detained.

Of course, the mounting effort to undermine the sanctity of the institutions that protect democracy and promote dialogue is happening not only in the U.S., but across the Americas. Through its refusal to participate in the Inter-American hearings this week, the U.S. stands alongside Cuba and Nicaragua. Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, too, have track records of non-participation. Two years ago, I would have said these countries seem like strange bedfellows for the U.S. Now, I am not so sure. But, what I am sure of is that we must continue to fight for government accountability, and against government hypocrisy. And, further, that U.S. advocates engaging in this struggle would benefit from stronger alliances across the Americas. We must work together to ensure that civil society has the space to dissent and to challenge laws and policies that violate human rights at domestic, regional, and international levels.

{Editors' Note:  This is the third article in this week's series on the Administration's failure to participate in the IACHR hearing on March 21.  The other postings, by Deborah Weissman, Sarah Paoletti, Johanna Kalb, and Margaret Drew & Lauren Carasik, respectively, are here, here, here and here.  Tara Melish comments here, and Rick Wilson's comments are here. ]

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