The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly and of Association had some strong words for the U.S. Congress during his testimony to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission last Tuesday. Speaking on “closing space for civil society,” Maina Kiai urged the U.S. to “set an example by promoting and protecting the fundamental rights of its citizens, and the people on its soil.” If the U.S. does not stand strong in defending and promoting human rights, Kiai warned that there could be severe worldwide repercussions:
“We are in the midst of an epic global struggle, and it is not just civil society space, assembly rights, or any other human right in isolation. It is about our freedom writ large – a global clash between tyranny and intolerance on the one hand, and self-determination and dignity on the other that could shape the course of our world for generations to come.”
In lieu of describing specific incidents that threaten human rights, Kiai spoke broadly, explaining that “the point today is not to highlight specific trees; it is to show the forest — and to underscore that this forest is quite literally on fire.” He chided the U.S. that “[t]his is not a time for empty words, trite slogans and doublespeak. The stakes are too high – for the United States, and for all of us.”
That same morning, the U.S. had taken the unprecedented step of skipping a meeting at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The meeting focused on human rights concerns over the new administration’s recent executive orders on immigration and the travel ban and its asylum policies, as well as the resumed construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on indigenous land and its implications for the right to clean water, and was scheduled for just a week after the IACHR had expressed concern over new U.S. policies towards transgender students. The IACHR described the U.S.’s absence as troubling. Kiai’s words were relevant to the U.S.’s failure to appear, as he warned that “the United States should continue to play an active, and hopefully positive, role in multilateral bodies such as the United Nations. It means not playing favorites when it comes to human rights abroad, and recognizing that security and human rights are indivisibly linked. There can be no peace without justice. There is no stability without freedom.”
Kiai’s testimony followed his U.S. visit in July, during which he met with members of civil society, advocacy groups, and government officials in cities across the country. The visit coincided with the national conventions of both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as nationwide protests against recent killings of Black people by police, and in his official statement at the conclusion of his visit he criticized U.S. policies on policing, profiling, surveillance, and counter-terrorism. He remarked, “Today, unfortunately, America seems to be at a moment where it is struggling to live up to its ideals on a number of important issues, the most critical being racial, social and economic inequality, which are often intertwined.” While Kiai’s words to Congress doubled down on some of the recommendations he made in his July report, they also seemed to develop new urgency under a Trump administration marked by claims of increasing racism, misogyny, xenophobia, bigotry, and attacks on human rights defenders:
“It starts with the United States doing more to de-racialize the criminal justice system so that Black people feel that their lives matter. It starts with the United States embracing the power of freedom of peaceful assembly instead of allowing discourses and legal efforts to violate and undermine it. And it starts with the United States leading the fight against misogyny, intolerance and bigotry, both for all the people in its territory, but also as an integral part of its foreign policy and international relations.”
Indeed, the U.S. recently appointed anti-LGBTQIA, anti-women’s rights groups to its delegation to the UN Commission on the Status of Women meeting. And yet, further failing to heed Kiai’s words, the U.S. on Monday led a protest of a disarmament meeting in the General Assembly by remaining outside the room.
Meanwhile, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) released a report concluding that Israel’s occupation of Palestine constitutes apartheid. The U.S. and U.S.-based Israel advocacy organizations generated pressure on the U.N. to rescind the report, and when the UN complied by removing the report from its website, the ESCWA chief resigned in protest. Despite this setback, pressure on Israel to confront its human rights violations continues. The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory submitted his report to the Human Rights Council earlier this month. Among his recommendations, Michael Lynk urged Israel to “comply with international law and bring a complete end to its 50 years of occupation,” “repeal its recent legislation which confiscates private Palestinian lands,” “comply fully with Security Council resolution 2334 concerning the settlements,” “end the practice of demolition of Palestinian homes,” and “end the blockade of Gaza.” He also explored concerns over attacks on human rights defenders and urged Israel to respect their rights, combat harassment and incitement, and “repeal all restrictive legislation targeting” them.
It appears that despite Kiai’s warnings, the current administration intends to use the U.S. role at the UN for not only “playing favorites,” but for leveraging its participation in a way that could seriously undermine if not dismantle the entire structure of the international framework at this decisive moment of “epic global struggle.” Yet, in contrast to the U.S.’s politicking of its international engagement, we must urge independent international experts to remain unapologetic in their work to promote human rights.