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4 January 2019

Why the US ending cooperation with UN human rights probes matters

The Trump administration’s disregard for human rights has alarming consequences worldwide

By Sophie McBain

The US has stopped responding to requests made by UN investigators to look into potential rights abuses within the country, a Guardian report has revealed. The US has not responded to any requests since May 2018, the newspaper reported, and at least 13 requests have gone unanswered. A number of them are related to the disastrous and monstrously cruel family separations policy and the treatment of migrants at the US-Mexico border.

As a general rule, Western, developed countries tend to cooperate with UN human rights rapporteurs while countries with terrible human rights records are more likely to deny them access. As the Guardian points out, North Korea is one of a handful of countries that routinely denies access to UN probes. In 2017, Myanmar also barred UN investigators from entering the country. Once again, President Donald Trump finds himself in excellent company.

The Guardian report follows seven months after the US withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council, which Nikki Haley, then the US ambassador to the UN, said was a “hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights”.

The two things may be directly related: by withdrawing from the Council, the US has less of an incentive to cooperate with its special rapporteurs and investigators. But both decisions also point to the Trump administration’s broader disregard for human rights, whether that’s demonstrated through its policies such as family separations at the border and summary deportations, or through the president’s rhetoric.

In the aftermath of the gruesome killing of the Saudi Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of his own government, Trump issued a statement making clear that he considered maintaining lucrative arms contracts with the Kingdom a bigger priority than sanctioning the state for killing a journalist and a resident of the US. At best, Trump is suggesting that human rights questions matter only as far as they don’t conflict with getting America a good deal, at worst he’s implying they don’t matter to him at all.

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For authoritarian leaders around the world, Trump’s presidency has been a boon – and not just for the likes of Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un and Mohammed Bin Salman. The pressure to cooperate with the UN or to pay lip service to human rights is decreasing: after all, the president of the United States threatened during his campaign to “lock up” his democratic opponent, and routinely attacks the courts and the press.

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Trump’s impact worldwide is chilling in its immediacy. Consider this, for instance, since Trump was elected to office the number of journalists worldwide arrested or disappeared for producing “fake news” has tripled, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The United States has long been more enthusiastic about challenging other countries on their human rights records than inviting scrutiny of its own, but while under Barack Obama there was a renewed effort to engage with the UN Human Rights Council, Trump has turned back the clock. And the world is becoming a more dangerous place for it.