Reflecting on United Nations Day: Trump’s Budget Cuts Impede Critical Human Rights Programs

By: Meredith Cullen, Government Relations Administrative Assistant

While celebrating United Nations Day on October 24, we should reflect on the importance of this body and demand accountability for the Trump administration’s lack of support for international human rights institutions. On October 2 a leaked email from a senior State Department official alluded to a $25 million funding cut for U.N. human rights programs. While Congress has already allocated funding for most foreign assistance programs, this leaked email signals that the Trump Administration could put many in limbo. The proposed funding cuts would lead to a $7 million reduction in contributions to the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and more than $16 million for programs run by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. They would also place severe restrictions on over $10 million in voluntary contributions to U.N. human rights, including women’s rights, programs.

Were they enacted, these cuts would dramatically exacerbate an already severe situation. The U.N. budget already labors under a deficit precipitated by cuts in the FY 2019 budget proposal. In that budget, the administration requested an additional $80.1 billion in funding for the Department of Defense while the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), who administer critical humanitarian programs, saw their budgets slashed from $55.6 billion to $39.3 billion. Many senior international posts including the Ambassador to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) and the Ambassador to the Human Rights Council have been left vacant, signaling a lack of human rights support. To top it off, the U.S. formally withdrew from the U.N. Human Rights Council in June, claiming the Council seated members with poor human rights records and placed undue emphasis on Israel’s actions.

The White House’s increasingly negative influence on the international stage is repeatedly on display. Time and time again, this administration has seemingly forgotten that it styles itself a champion of freedom and dignity around the world. In front of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly, Trump campaigned for an isolationist and nationalist agenda. He bragged about his administration’s great success and his bragging was met with laughter from the world leaders around him.

These budget cuts are incredibly impactful to both US foreign policy and the functioning of the international system. Two main programs would see cuts, most notably the U.N. Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, which issues grants to organizations that support medical, psychological and social rehabilitation of torture victims, and the International Organizations and Programs fund, which is the main conduit through which the U.S. government aids health, development and humanitarian agencies.

The UNHRC is not above reproach or without need of reform. Amnesty International has clearly and vocally expressed concern over the elevation of human rights abusers to the Council. In April 2018, Amnesty joined with other human rights organizations to issue a report providing concrete ways the Council could be made more effective, more responsive and more impactful. Yet despite its flaws, it plays a critical role in spotlighting human rights violations around the world. In Libya, the UNHRC dispatched an international commission to investigate violent repression of peaceful demonstrations in 2011. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Human Rights Council passed a resolution to combat sexual violence and protect human rights defenders. In July 2018 the Council extended mandates of the Special Rapporteurs on Belarus and Eritrea to inquire on their human rights situations. Additionally, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) plays a pivotal role in overseeing U.S.-backed investigations into human rights violations, including those in Syria and North Korea. Funding cuts from one member state is unlikely to sway these institutions. No single nation dictates the Council or the High Commissioner’s actions.

The U.N. Human Rights Council serves people around the world. Victims of abuses look to the Council to advocate for their protection when their rights are violated by their own governments. Human rights defenders need the Council to support their work to provide international focus to their agendas. Trump is mistaken if he thinks that one regional group or state can define the direction that the Council will take. Instead, the Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will continue to serve their mission and address the most pressing human rights concerns with or without the U.S. government’s involvement. The U.S. can choose to have a seat at the table or watch as the world moves forward without its input. In pulling out of the Council and curtailing funding, the Trump Administration has opted for the latter option. Amnesty is calling on the U.S. government to cease undermining the valuable work of the U.N. Human Rights Council and reprioritize resources for the State Department and USAID to champion human rights in multilateral forums.

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