Trump's approach to human rights? It's personal, critics say.

Many presidents have been inconsistent on highlighting human rights abuses, excusing strategic allies and lambasting foes. But critics say Trump appears to be guided more by his personal feelings for the nation's leader.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Trump, along with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (l.) and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (r.), perform the group 'ASEAN handshake' in the opening ceremony of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Manila Nov. 13.

When President Trump spoke to South Korea’s National Assembly last week, his emphasis on the systematic abuses and absence of basic freedoms in the authoritarian state to the north made him sound like a fervent champion of universal human rights.

But since landing in the Philippines Sunday on the last stop of his nearly two-week-long Asia trip, Mr. Trump has said nary a word about the flagrant rights abuses of strongman leader Rodrigo Duterte – at least not publicly.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says human rights “briefly came up” in Trump’s meeting with President Duterte Monday, which she said instead focused on ISIS, illegal drugs, and regional security. But Duterte’s spokesman said there was “no mention of human rights” in the 40-minute conversation.

The contrasting treatments of human rights violations – highlighted in the case of North Korea, skipped over with ally the Philippines – puts Trump in the company of other presidents whose promotion of traditional American values like democracy and personal freedoms has been tempered by a broader pursuit of US national interests, regional and human rights experts say.

What distinguishes Trump from most other recent presidents, some add, is the degree to which a personal sense of either admiration or dislike of a leader plays a part in determining how the Trump administration approaches the treatment of human rights in particular countries.

Thus strongmen like Mr. Duterte – whose deadly “war on drugs” marked by at least 10,000 extrajudicial killings has earned Trump’s praise – or Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi are treated to accolades despite their records of weakening personal and political freedoms.

But other authoritarian leaders, like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un or Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, receive only barbs for sometimes similar strongman tactics.

“With President Trump, it’s the personal relationship and a personal like or dislike of a leader that matter most,” says Brian Eyler, director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia Program in Washington. “So we have the president tacitly endorsing Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ earlier this year, despite the severe rights violations that have accompanied a militarized response to drug use.”

Different reasoning

Consistency has never really been a hallmark of any US president’s pursuit of human rights as part of his broader foreign policy.

For decades, presidents have highlighted or overlooked human rights abuses and infringement on democratic rights in other countries based on where a country fell on the ideological spectrum or how important a country was to other US priorities.

Bullit Marquez/AP
Protesters recite prayers during a candle-light vigil led by the Roman Catholic church to call the attention to the thousands of people killed in the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's so-called war on drugs, Nov. 5 in suburban Quezon city northeast of Manila, Philippines. Human rights was a major topic of conversation during President Trump's visit to South Korea, but did not come up when Mr. Trump met with Mr. Duterte in the Philippines this week, according to Trump and Duterte aides.

During the cold war, Soviet-aligned dictatorships were blasted, while friendly rights abusers got a pass. Saudi Arabia’s political and human-rights shortcomings have long been swept under the Oval Office rug because of the kingdom’s oil and its strategic importance to the global economy.

Barack Obama downplayed the Iranian government’s rights abuses, including the violent repression of demonstrations following the disputed elections of 2009, because of his over-arching pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran that he believed could forestall the rush to another American war in the Middle East.

“Every presidential administration has had to situate human rights considerations within the broader context of our bilateral relations with any given country, which also often includes shared economic interests, security goals, or cooperation on transnational problems,” says Frances Brown, who served as a democracy specialist on both the Obama and Trump national security councils before joining the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

“This doesn’t mean these various objectives are always in tension,” she adds, “but they do raise questions of relative public emphasis, private emphasis, sequencing, and inter-dependencies.”

So while what many see as Trump’s lack of consistency in raising human rights issues is hardly new, some international human rights experts say what is different is Trump’s silence on violations is based not on national interests, but on his apparent admiration for strongmen leaders.

“What has been consistent in US foreign policy for decades is how human rights rarely take the first place and indeed are usually outweighed by security and economic interests,” says Hurst Hannum, a professor of international law at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.

Trip to Saudi Arabia

He cites as an example how Hillary Clinton “downplayed” human rights concerns on her first trip to China as secretary of State, even though she had long championed universal human rights, specifically in China.

Others say Trump has hardly been different on that score, and they cite as evidence his trip to Saudi Arabia last spring – an important overture to regional leaders in his pursuit of US strategic interests – when he publicly told an audience of Muslim monarchs and strongmen, including Saudi leaders, that “we are not here to lecture you.”

But Dr. Hannum, who is on leave at Oxford University this year writing a history of human rights, says he sees little pattern so far in Trump’s citing of human rights concerns or in where the administration’s places the issue among other national security objectives.

“With Trump it’s difficult to determine on what basis he condemns some countries and leaders and not others,” Hannum says. “He does demonstrate an attraction to international leaders that most of us would consider authoritarian,” he adds, “but it has been very difficult to identify the policy interests or the ideology that determine whether he speaks loudly or quietly, if at all,” on human rights.

“More than anything,” he says, “it seems to be based on a personal admiration of dislike for the leader in question.”

Human rights advocates say Trump’s admiration for autocrats – or at least autocratic tendencies in leaders – can be seen in the list of leaders he has invited to the White House, including those from Egypt, Turkey, Vietnam, and Thailand.

Ideological underpinning

Yet while most human rights experts bemoan the Trump administration’s treatment of human rights, some advocates say they are heartened by what they see as a renewed ideological underpinning to the issue under Trump.

The focus they discern after 10 months of Trump foreign policy: condemnation of the world’s totalitarian regimes.

“This administration has set a pattern of condemning loudly and repeatedly what President Trump has referred to as the world’s ‘captive nations,’” says Marion Smith, executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a Washington human rights organization.

Trump has consistently raised the issue of totalitarian regimes’ abuse of human rights, Mr. Smith says – in his speeches in Poland, at the NATO summit, and now in Seoul – but he adds that it was above all Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September that defined the issue for the world.

“At [the UN] President Trump connected the actions of the regimes in Cuba and Venezuela, Iran and North Korea, with their ideologies, and he laid out on the global stage how one leads to the other,” he says. “We have not had a sitting president probe that connection in such a forceful way since Ronald Reagan.”

Smith says Trump’s presidency is shaping up as a “time to recover lost ground” after the Obama administration’s “muddled approach” to the human rights violations of totalitarian regimes.

Depleted ranks of official advocates

But other experts say that administrations define their human-rights priorities by more than presidential speeches. More important for actually making progress on issues like political rights and personal freedoms is the bench of human rights experts, State Department under-secretaries, and ambassadors who keep the pressure on the issue and constantly remind partners and adversaries alike that the issue remains a US priority.

And on that score, these experts add, the Trump administration is telling the world that human rights are not a top priority.

Under typical conditions, senior administration officials would be advocating the place of human rights in every discussion of national security interests, from bilateral relations to regional challenges. But Ms. Brown, now a fellow in Carnegie’s democracy and rule of law program, says the Trump administration “varies from ‘typical’ times” in key ways.

First, she says the State Department’s “major reorganization” under way under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has democracy and human rights officials in a kind of limbo where they have “less high-level political backing.” And second, she underscores the impact of a State Department that remains “undermanned at senior political and career levels while the administration has demonstrated its preference for bolstering military instruments of power.”

Some human rights advocates see a glimmer of hope in Secretary Tillerson’s plans to visit Myanmar (also known as Burma) this week to press for a solution to the Rohingya crisis that has pushed more than 600,000 members of the Muslim minority group out of their homes and primarily into neighboring Bangladesh.

But as Tufts’ Hannum says, “It’s the assistant secretaries and other senior officials, and then the folks under them, who keep the human rights fires burning and make sure that US policy is based on more than simply the president’s personal attractions and dislikes. But so far,” he says, “we’re not getting the sense that anyone is really making human rights a priority in this administration.”

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