Democracy Dies in Darkness

WorldViews | Analysis

Trump rails against Iran over its human rights record. But he spares allies.

January 4, 2018 at 1:34 PM

Russian President Vladimir Putin with President Trump at a summit in Danang, Vietnam, on Nov. 11. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin Pool/Sputnik/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Since he was elected president, Donald Trump has used the term “human rights” just four times in his nearly 2,900 tweets. All four references have come in the past few days. And all are about Iran.

Over the past week, thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets to call for economic reforms, an end to corruption and more freedom. On Twitter, Trump took Iran to task for trying to silence the protesters by blocking social media and for jailing activists and generally restricting the freedom of its people.

The president is right — Iran has a dismal human rights record. According to Human Rights Watch, free speech and dissent remain highly restricted in the country. Journalists, bloggers and human rights activists are routinely jailed, often without trial. Women face discrimination and restrictions.

But the Iranian government is far from alone when it comes to repression. Authoritarian leaders and governments around the world exhibit similar tendencies. And many have earned nothing but praise and affection from Trump.

On a recent visit to China, Trump called President Xi Jinping a “very special man” and celebrated their close working relationship. This, even though Human Rights Watch has reported that under Xi's leadership, “the outlook for fundamental human rights, including freedoms of expression, assembly, association and religion remains dire.”

Chinese officials routinely jail critics. Media is tightly controlled in China. And when it comes to Internet censorship, China has one of the worst records in the world. As my colleagues have reported, the country has a rigid censorship program, and the government routinely filters searches, block sites and erases content that reflects poorly on Xi and his Communist Party. Social media sites such as WhatsApp are blocked.

On a November trip to the Philippines, Trump celebrated his “great relationship” with President Rodrigo Duterte, whose brutal crackdown on drugs has left more than 7,000 people dead — many alleged to be extrajudicial killings. Trump also said Duterte was “fantastic” in a talent show. (Trump's spokesman said the president raised human rights issues at a meeting in private, though Duterte's spokesman denied that.)

On his visit to Asia, Trump did not publicly reference what some have described as an “ethnic cleansing” campaign in Burma by the military against Rohingya Muslims, hundreds of thousands of whom have fled to neighboring Bangladesh.

Related: [From Burma to the Philippines, Trump largely ignores human rights on Asia trip]

The list goes on and on.

In a speech in Saudi Arabia in May, Trump told an audience that included Middle Eastern kings and strongmen, “We are not here to lecture.”

Soon after taking office, he reversed an Obama-era ban on allowing Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi to visit the White House. Sissi led a military coup that ousted elected President Mohamed Morsi. Hundreds were killed in related violence. Sissi has filled the jails with his opponents and strangled the free press. “We agree on so many things,” Trump said of the Egyptian leader in April. “I just want to let everybody know in case there was any doubt that we are very much behind President al-Sissi.”

In a speech in Poland this summer, Trump hailed the country's right-wing Law and Justice party, which is systematically dismantling the country's democratic institutions.

In truth, it seems as if Trump cares about human rights violations only when he can use them as a cudgel against his enemies.

(The Trump administration did not respond to a request for comment. But in November, national security adviser H.R. McMaster said the president often speaks about human rights privately with world leaders. He explained the administration's decision to condemn adversaries such as Syria and Venezuela on human rights grounds but not the Philippines, Turkey and Russia, this way: “How much does it help to yell about these problems? It hasn’t really delivered in recent history anyway.”)

In a speech to the South Korean parliament, Trump described North Korea as a “hell no person deserves.” In gruesome detail, he laid out the many abuses the regime has carried out, including the killing of babies, later carted away in buckets. Early in his administration, the president met with the wife of jailed Venezuelan dissident Leopoldo López. Afterward, Trump publicly called for López's release.

Mark Leon Goldberg, who edits the UN Dispatch website and hosts the podcast “Global Dispatches,” warned that this pick-and-choose approach weakens human rights advocacy around the world.

“I think people realize the selective application of human rights concerns signals a kind of disingenuousness on the part of the Trump administration,” Goldberg said. “They're not as willing to publicly chastise allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, while they are willing to comment on Iran and Venezuela.”


Amanda Erickson writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Previously, she worked as an editor for Outlook and PostEverything.

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