A Wake up Call for the Senate: Amnesty International’s State of the World’s Human Rights report

By Adotei Akwei, Managing Director for Government Relations for Amnesty International USA

Yesterday Amnesty International released its 2016 Annual Report, The State of the World’s Human Rights.

For people who have been consumed with the political transition in the United States, the report is a sobering reminder that the rest of the world is still out there and that there are serious challenges with dangerous implications for the United States. The report also highlighted a major question equally fraught with risk: whether Washington would truly renounce its aspirations to being a global force for human rights and return to foreign policy solely driven by a narrow, short term definition of national interest.

Covering over 150 countries and territories, the report documents the rise of the politics of demonization where populist leaders have imposed exclusionary and discriminatory policies, spewed inflammatory language blaming particular groups of people for economic and security concerns, and reneged on their domestic and international human rights obligations. Underneath those trends, the report highlights examples of the consequences of a global community that appears to have lost the political will to protect and adhere to — or aspire to adhere to — the international framework which was established in the aftermath of the Second World War:

  • The continuing disregard for international law in Syria, including the use of Security Council vetoes to block efforts to help Aleppo civilians not one but twice;
  • The use of chemical weapons in Sudan and possible genocide in South Sudan,
  • Tens of thousands of Rohingya in Myanmar deprived of a nationality, displaced by “clearance operations”, and being subjected to unlawful killings, indiscriminate firing, rape and arbitrary arrests;
  • The systematic crackdown on refugee and migrants rights in Hungary, where the government proposes automatically detaining every asylum seeker;
  • The closing political space for national NGOs in India and Russia, where more and more propaganda labels critics as “undesirable” or “foreign agents”.
  • Tens of thousands locked up after a failed coup in Turkey, with hundreds of NGOs suspended and a massive crackdown on the media;
  • The spike in hate crimes in the U.K following the referendum on European Union membership, and a new surveillance law that grants significant increased powers to intelligence agencies, law enforcement as well as local authorities to interfere with private communication and information in the UK and abroad;

§ The election campaign in the United States that included misogynist, Islamophobic, and xenophobic rhetoric, and raised serious concerns about the strength of future U.S. commitments to human rights domestically and globally. These concerns have increased following a raft of executive actions by President Trump that directly undermine human rights standards that the United States helped draft and that it has committed itself to upholding.

The report is a stark reminder of why people are fleeing their homes, and risking their lives to escape the violence and danger that has engulfed their homes and find some safety and security for their families and themselves. It is these stories and these obligations that have been the basis of the repudiation of the president’s policies and fueled the demonstrations and protests that started less than 24 hours after President Trump’s inauguration and continue to take place.

The President’s policies and rhetoric should also be triggering alarm and opposition in Congress and in particular in the Senate. The Senate has “skin” in protecting the international human rights system because it has played a major if not prominent role in helping to build it. Yes Presidents and Secretaries of State may have signed United Nations conventions, they may have driven the negotiations and played critical roles in breaking deadlocks or disarming opposition from other governments, but it is the Senate that has been responsible for confirming that vision of a global community based on the respect and protection of the rights of the individual, making it legally binding on the U.S. government and placing the political and diplomatic weight of the United States behind treaties by virtue of its authority to consent (or deny) ratification of those treaties.

Has the Senate been an engine of breakneck ratification? Absolutely not — the list of unratified treaties is unfortunately longer than it should be, but the list of treaties it has ratified has been critical to the realization of hopes to improve the human condition — the same hopes that led to the founding of the UN. The Senate — and Congress for that matter — have skin in the game, in that for all of its flaws and failures, the international system to protect human rights has been to the benefit of the United States, be it through efforts to end conflict or to contribute to a system of rules and values that governments could be pressured to abide by without resorting to arms.

The Amnesty report will be received in different ways by different governments. Many will attack the organization’s competence and legitimacy, dispute the facts, question motives behind the assertions or simply ignore the report completely.

Hopefully this will not be the case in the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Senate, where once again it will have to take on the mantle of driving the U.S. government to be a force for human rights as opposed to one dismantles human rights protections.

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