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What we want to hear in the State of the Union Address: Restoring America’s global human rights leadership

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We can predict that President Trump’s State of the Union address will be rife with hyperbolic references to walls and refugees. But what about America’s obligation to uphold basic human rights around the world? To challenge strongmen, help democracies and uphold the human rights of every person on this planet?   

For decades, presidents from both parties have promoted universal human dignity and civil rights. But since Donald Trump took office, we’ve watched America stand by – or even send signals of support – as dictators stomp on these rights. When it comes to global leadership, the State of our Union is degraded, debilitated, and demoralized.

{mosads}These days, many Americans have a more expansive view of global human rights, including protections for women and girls, and LGBTI people, and persecuted ethnic minorities and indigenous people. Now members of Congress are showing signs of pushing the administration to right the wrongs of these last two years. We can begin by making a commitment to make three broad changes:     

Policy changes: The U.S. administration must call out all dictators, not just those it disagrees with politically. One place to start is Guatemala. President Jimmy Morales has ripped the rule of law to shreds and trampled on his judiciary. Morales exiled an anti-corruption commission co-led by the United Nations as it was investigating top government officials and relatives of Morales.

The Morales administration also misused military equipment – provided by the U.S. – to intimidate civilians and encircle the American embassy. Yet our administration was mum. Last fall, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then-U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley even tweeted messages of support. Now, the administration should set a marker: Morales must stop impeding the work of the commission, known as CICIG, or face repercussions.

Just as important, the U.S. needs to hold Myanmar’s military accountable for overseeing the killings, rape and exile of hundreds of thousands of the Rohingya people. Last year, a highly-regarded team of lawyers and investigators examined events in Myanmar for the State Department, concluding “there are reasonable grounds to believe crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes were committed against the Rohingya.” Yet State demurred in making any legal determination, and Secretary Pompeo, our chief diplomat, has refused to label these atrocities what they are. 

{mossecondads}Myanmar and Guatemala are among the 19 developing countries where American Jewish World Service (AJWS) supports the work of human right advocates. The list of offending countries is long and growing longer. By holding some of the worst offenders accountable, we can send clear signals to autocrats everywhere. 

Legislative changes: If the administration refuses to take on this urgent global work, Congress must pick up the slack and restore our place as one the world’s standard bearers in human rights. Last year, Congress introduced legislation to sanction Myanmar military officials, provide assistance to the Rohingya people, and help create standards for international justice. That legislation stalled in the Senate because of leadership’s opposition. This session, we are encouraged that several bipartisan leaders in both chambers will push for action on this legislation and for justice for the Rohingya people. 

The U.S. also must stand for the sexual health and reproductive rights of women and LGBTI people around the world. The administration has kept chokeholds on global health dollars, ending support for any foreign NGO that refers patients for abortions or advocates for the repeal of abortion restrictions. Organizations that refuse to comply are often forced to shut their doors, ending any other humanitarian, educational or nutritional services that they provide. The 116th Congress can remove such restrictions with legislation expected to be introduced in coming weeks. Congress also can promote sexual and reproductive health and rights with legislation ensuring that our global health spending offers equitable access to care for women, girls and LGBTI people.  

Restoring foreign policy building blocks: At home, we need to secure our international and human rights institutions after two years of reckless abandonment. The State Department and USAID have been gutted and dozens of vital positions remain vacant. We need to restore our diplomatic muscles, maintain foreign assistance, and find qualified nominees. They should carry out—rather than undermine—the work of offices, such as State’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.  

The president concluded last year’s State of the Union vowing the U.S. will be “mighty, strong, safe and free.” We’re anything but that until we return to the bipartisan values of human rights in our foreign policy. Only then will the state of our union be strong. 

Rori Kramer, who has served as a senior staff member in the Senate and the State Department, is director of government affairs at American Jewish World Service. 

Tags Donald Trump Mike Pompeo Nikki Haley

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