Human rights after Trump

The dominant logic of redressing human rights violations has been appealing to a Big Brother-like state, like the US. But the Trump administration has made the weakness of this framework impossible to ignore, argues Nanjala Nyabola.

Donald Trump doesn’t often speak of places outside the US, but when he does it is almost always in apocalyptic terms. He predicts the apparent end of Europe given the increase in migration from other parts of the world, or defends the indefinite detention of Latin American children in fear of a gang that has repeatedly expressed disinterest in operating in the USA. He warns that life in Africa is ‘vicious’ even while ‘many of [his] friends have made money there’ and his sons are permanent fixtures on the trophy hunting circuit. It seems that in his mind he is the last line of defence that the US has against imagined disasters that are destroying the rest of the world.

For those who work in global human rights, Trump presents an interesting challenge. The world is more unstable and today, almost every conflict is seemingly intractable – lasting 20 years or more and producing refugees at unprecedented levels. Democracy is retreating with the rise of fascism even in seemingly established democracies, while emerging democracies are struggling to protect the few gains they have made since the end of the Cold War. Violence – Janus-faced and increasingly unstoppable – is pervasive and, as when instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were developed, the world needs a coordinated effort to define and protect the rights of its most vulnerable victims.

Yet the rise of Trump and other rightwing leaders has caught institutionalised human rights advocacy flat-footed. The Trump administration makes no pretence of the fact that their primary interests are domestic, so the predominant logic of appealing to a Big Brother-like figure to intervene in other parts of the world is falling on deaf ears. At the same time, the administration itself has recently become a proud and public perpetrator of many of the rights violations. For example, the large-scale, indefinite detention of refugees and migrants, particularly of minors, in the name of defending borders violates the core principles of refugee and migrant protection. If any other country had separated children as young as a one-year old from their parents indefinitely and subjected them to sham legal proceedings they would no doubt have been referred to the UN and one of its many implementing bodies. But because it is the US – Big Brother himself – institutionalised human rights seems powerless.

Outside the US, this feeds the impression that human rights as such are irrelevant. The underlying idea of human rights is that they are universal and apply regardless of the implicated state, but the simplified argument has lately been ‘be good, Big Brother is watching’. Thus, reporting on crises and conflict around the world is considered incomplete if it doesn’t feature an appeal to or threat of Western intervention. Yet the Trump administration exempts the US from the global human rights framework, the threat becomes idle and many cases where urgent international, intervention for ordinary people is needed, as in the DRC or South Sudan, millions go unaided.

It is important to underscore the qualifier ‘institutionalised’. These threats are especially pertinent to large international organizations that position themselves as interlocutors between Western powers and other parts of the world. These challenges weigh particularly heavily on organizations that depend on informal networks with foreign embassies in order to be effective. In fact, the bulk of human rights documentation and advocacy in the world is done by small organizations, taking on a mining company here or a police unit there in defence against a highly localised threat. These groups continue to plug along.

But even these local groups at the very least require consensus on the minimum standards of human rights that should be expected – an assumption that the entire enterprise of protecting humans is pulling in the same direction. The Trump administration has been a reminder that such a framework cannot depend on the existence of a Big Brother, and that for the sake of the most vulnerable, the time has come to define a standard of human rights protection that will function without the United States.