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On human rights, Trump writes Eurasia’s leaders a blank check

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On March 18, Russia held a presidential election. There’s a lot we already knew about it before the election: Putin would win, much of the opposition would boycott, protests would be repressed, and President Trump would likely miss another opportunity to hold a European country accountable for violating human rights. The Trump administration’s silence will not be an accidental omission but part of a broader strategy to deprioritize the topic in Eurasia and around the world.

As detailed in Amnesty International’s recently-released annual report, The State of the World’s Human Rights, authorities across Eurasia spent much of the last year silencing their critics. They’ve used the courts, the police, the parliament, and the media to do it and their efforts have been shockingly effective. On human rights, the region is heading in the wrong direction and, through its deafening silence and resolute inaction, the Trump administration is abetting its slide.

{mosads}It need not be this way. In addition to the Russian election, the next several weeks offer the Congress and the White House a chance to chart a new course. Confirmation hearings for the new ambassadors to Poland and Hungary offer an opportunity to secure commitments from both nominees to champion human rights, and to express alarm about efforts to silence dissent in both countries. Also, as Turkey becomes further enmeshed in Northern Syria, Secretary Jim Mattis must clarify that the U.S. will not discount human rights as it discusses defense.

A change of course is critical. In February, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to Turkey to slow the U.S.’s growing estrangement from its NATO ally. Despite the arrest of over 50,000 people in the wake of 2016’s failed coup — including lawyers, civil society leaders, journalists and human rights defenders, such as Amnesty International Turkey’s board chair Taner Kilic and American citizens like Pastor Andrew Brunson—Tillerson failed to raise human rights in his discussions. And when President Erdogan launched a controversial military campaign in Northern Syria, he threatened to arrest those who opposed him and promptly followed through on the threat. The Trump administration said nothing.

In July 2017, President Trump spoke in Poland, praising the country’s emergence from decades of Soviet domination, but his speech included no mention of the Polish government’s growing hostility to the rule of law. Just weeks after President Trump’s visit, Poland’s parliament adopted a series of judicial reforms designed to erode the courts’ independence. In response, thousands of Poles took to the streets and the reforms were ultimately vetoed. Amnesty International documented numerous instances of Polish security services harassing, surveilling and prosecuting peaceful demonstrators while restricting their rights to protest. Senior White House officials never bothered to express their concern.

Next month, the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is set to enact a series of draconian laws that would pose an existential threat to civil society. The bills would allow authorities to identify organizations that assist migrants, while forcing them to pay massive taxes and seek government permission to continue their work. Once again, senior Trump administration officials issued no protest.

While some U.S. representatives have condemned human rights violations in Eurasia, top-level officials including Tillerson, Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and President Trump himself have conspicuously avoided the subject. The result: governments across the region choose to operate as if the “real” power behind the administration tolerates their abuses.

One thing is clear: if Trump administration officials continue to turn their back on human rights, they will enter history as presiding over the greatest erosion of liberty in Europe since the fall of the Berlin wall nearly three decades ago. The accolade will be richly deserved. 

Daniel Balson is advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International USA.

Tags Donald Trump Rex Tillerson

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