The U.S. State Department under President Donald Trump stopped cooperating months ago with United Nations officials investigating human rights violations inside the United States, The Guardian reported — a move widely viewed as setting a dangerous signal to authoritarian leaders across the globe.
Though the Trump administration has not offered its precise rationale for the break in communication, it is noteworthy that the silence correlates with last year’s report from UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty Philip Alston, which delivered a scathing review of the administration.
The Guardian said that State Department officials have stopped responding to “to official complaints from UN special rapporteurs, the network of independent experts who act as global watchdogs on fundamental issues such as poverty, migration, freedom of expression and justice”, with communications stalled since May 7, 2018 and “at least 13 requests going unanswered.”
Further, the Trump administration has not invited a single UN monitor to visit the U.S. in the two years Trump has been president, though two such monitors have traveled to America for official fact-finding visits: the special rapporteurs on extreme poverty and privacy.
Both were invited prior to Trump’s ascension to the White House by former President Barack Obama, who himself made 16 invitations to UN experts during his two terms in office.
The silent treatment being meted out to key players in the UN’s system for advancing human rights marks a stark break with US practice going back decades. Though some areas of American public life have consistently been ruled out of bounds to UN investigators – US prisons and the detention camp on Guantánamo Bay are deemed off-limits – Washington has in general welcomed monitors into the US as part of a wider commitment to upholding international norms.
Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s human rights program, said the shift gave the impression the US was no longer serious about honoring its own human rights obligations. The ripple effect around the world would be dire.
“They are sending a very dangerous message to other countries: that if you don’t cooperate with UN experts they will just go away. That’s a serious setback to the system created after World War II to ensure that domestic human rights violations could no longer be seen as an internal matter,” Dakwar said.
Issues brought to the Trump administration’s attention by UN monitors that have been met with silence include “queries about family separation of Central Americans at the US border with Mexico, death threats against a transgender activist in Seattle and allegations of anti-gay bias in the sentencing to death of a prisoner in South Dakota.”
The State Department has shown little transparency regarding the decision to ignore UN experts’ requests, telling The Guardian that the U.S. is committed to human rights issues around the world but failing to acknowledge its avoidance of such issues within its own borders.
In a statement to the Guardian, the state department declined to explain why it was no longer responding to UN experts or to say whether non-cooperation was now permanent policy. A spokesman said the US remained “deeply committed to the promotion and defense of human rights around the globe”, but pointedly omitted any reference to US compliance domestically.
Similarly, the spokesman expressed “strong support” for UN special rapporteurs, but only in the context of their investigations into other countries. The US backs those mandates “that have proven effective in illuminating the most grave human rights environments, including in Iran and DPRK [North Korea]”, he said.
Coincidentally, by going silent with UN investigators, the U.S. joins North Korea as one of very few countries refusing to cooperate with the international body on human rights.
The UN expert on adequate housing, Leilani Farha, told the Guardian that she was concerned about the silence emanating from the US state department. Having been appointed to the post in 2014, she made five official complaints to the Obama administration and in each case received “timely, thoughtful and constructive responses, even if we continued to disagree”.
Farha expressed unease at the new lack of engagement at a time when so many human rights problems were cropping up in the US, including a homelessness crisis in many cities.
“This suggests the US has abandoned even the most rudimentary forms of human rights accountability, and a whittling away of access to justice for those in the US whose human rights may have been violated,” Farha said. “It also demonstrates a rather inappropriate arrogance, at a time when human rights in the US are particularly fragile.”