As a country founded on liberal democratic ideals, it is consistent with both our best American values and our economic and security interests to support the peaceful spread of democracy and protection of human rights around the world. Since at least World War II, presidents of both parties have embraced this idea as a core tenet of our foreign policy.
In the wake of World War II, President Truman invested in the Marshall Plan to help our European allies restore their economies and defend their democratic institutions. President Kennedy launched the US Agency for International Development because he recognized that, in an interconnected world, the prosperity and freedom of people around the world is closely tied to the prosperity and freedom of Americans here at home. Under President Reagan, the U.S. launched the bipartisan National Endowment for Democracy and gave voice to our American aspiration that we "remain freedom's staunchest friend." Since the fall of the Soviet Union, American global leadership in support of democratic governance, human rights, and well-regulated market economies has coincided with three decades of unprecedented global gains in human welfare.
President Trump’s cynical “America First” philosophy has represented a sharp break from that tradition, surprising our allies and adversaries alike. Since his inauguration, President Trump has embraced authoritarian leaders while heaping criticism on our democratic allies. He has praised North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un as a “pretty smart cookie”; cited Egyptian President and perennial human rights abuser Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi as a “great friend and ally”; and called Russia’s authoritarian President Vladimir Putin “really very much of a leader,” despite Putin’s attacks on American elections.
Meanwhile, President Trump has routinely sparred with and criticized America’s democratic allies, while casting doubt on America’s commitment to NATO, a defensive alliance grounded in shared democratic ideals. Trump’s rhetoric and policies have led long-standing allies to plan for the possibility of a world without strong American support for the rules-based international order. Just as troubling, the President’s National Security Strategy failed entirely to prioritize democracy and human rights. This intentional devaluation of a traditionally bipartisan pillar of American foreign policy has shaken our allies and emboldened our adversaries.
Congress has played a key role in rejecting the Trump Administration budgets that tried to shortchange democracy and human rights. Congress rejected administration proposals to cut the international affairs budget for Fiscal Year 2019. Even some of President Trump’s own cabinet sees the value in maintaining funding of these programs: despite supporting the president’s plan to gut democracy and human rights-related foreign assistance, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo affirmed at his confirmation hearing that promoting democracy is imperative to U.S. national interests and an effective “tool of American foreign policy.” He also committed that defending human rights would be a priority for the State Department.
At the U.N., the Trump Administration has taken backwards steps from defending human rights abroad. On June 19, 2018, U.S. then-Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley announced that the United States would withdraw from the U.N. Human Rights Council, claiming that the cause of human rights promotion would be better served by the United States abandoning the Council, rather than continuing to work from within to improve it. The administration’s decision was roundly criticized by human rights NGOs. Then, on August 31, 2018, the Trump administration cut off US funding to UNRWA (U.N. Relief and Works Agency) which provides aid to Palestinian refugees and claimed it was a “irredeemably flawed operation”. And, in January 2019, the Trump administration has stopped cooperating with and responding to UN investigators over potential human rights violations in the United States.
In Venezuela, the Trump Administration took important and positive action. In response to the gross abuses of Venezuela’s Maduro regime, the Trump administration recognized Juan Guaido as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela in coordination with U.S. allies in the Organization of American States. But by threatening the use of military force, which would almost certainly backfire, the administration threatened to fracture international support for the country’s democracy movement.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Large majorities of Americans support efforts to promote democracy and defend the human rights of the vulnerable populations around the world. These actions advance both our national security and our highest values as a country. Today Congress must lead that effort by supporting a robust international affairs budget, challenging the Trump Administration’s support for abusive regimes, and enacting legislation to strengthen U.S. support for democracy and human rights. Here’s what you can do to help:
Introduced by Representative Eliot Engel H.Res.221 reaffirms the importance of upholding democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in United States foreign policy. This resolution reaffirms that the US commitment to uphold democracy and human rights at home and abroad as well as to promote greater respect for human rights and democracy around the world, promote organizations that defend human rights and democracy worldwide, and calls for the United States to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Refugee Convention Protocol of 1967, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Representative Christopher Smith and Senator Marco Rubio sponsored H.R. 649/S.178 the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019. This legislation condemns the human rights violations of ethnic Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, and calling for an end to arbitrary detention, torture, and harassment of these communities inside and outside China.
Senator Jeff Merkley introduced S.Res.34, a resolution expressing the sense of the Senate that the Governments of Burma and Bangladesh ensure the safe, dignified, voluntary, and sustainable return of the Rohingya refugees who have been displaced by the campaign of ethnic cleansing conducted by the Burmese military and to immediately release unjustly imprisoned journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
H.R.549, the Venezuela TPS Act of 2019 was introduced by Representative Darren Soto. This bill provides relief to Venezuelan nationals by permitting them to qualify for temporary protected status, which prevents their removal from the United States and allows them to obtain employment and travel authorization.
Fact Sheet: Human Rights Conditions on U.S. Military Aid to Egypt – POMED, August 2018
Why We Must Support Human Rights – John McCain, New York Times; May 8, 2017
To Strengthen Trump’s National Security Approach, Promote Human Rights – John Bellinger and Richard Fontaine, Lawfare; Jan 10, 2018
Democracy Promotion Under Trump: What Has Been Lost, What Remains – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; September 2017
When the U.S. Gives Up on Human Rights, Everyone Suffers – Foreign Policy
Promoting Human Rights: Is U.S. Consistency Desirable or Possible? – Mark Lagon, Council on Foreign Relations; October 19, 2011
Russia and America Aren't Morally Equivalent –Thomas O. Melia, The Atlantic; February 27, 2018
State Department Human Rights Reports Selectively Criticize Abuses – Human Rights First Press Release; April 25, 2018
President Trump’s Second Foreign Affairs Budget: Democracy, Governance, and Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa in FY19 – Andrew Miller and Todd Ruffner, Project on Middle East Democracy; June 14, 2018
The Democracy Project: Reversing a Crisis of Confidence – The Democracy Project; June 2018
Freedom in the World 2018 – Freedom House; January 2018
Freedom in the World 2019 - Freedom House; February 2019
Trump Administration Civil and Human Rights Rollbacks - The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights