The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Maybe Tillerson and Trump will finally understand why human rights matter

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow in April. (Sergei Chirikov/European Pressphoto Agency)

President Trump, in a partial rollback of President Barack Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba, declared:

America will expose the crimes of the Castro regime and stand with the Cuban people in their struggle for freedom.  Because we know it is best for America to have freedom in our hemisphere, whether in Cuba or Venezuela, and to have a future where the people of each country can live out their own dreams.  (Applause.)
For nearly six decades, the Cuban people have suffered under communist domination.  To this day, Cuba is ruled by the same people who killed tens of thousands of their own citizens, who sought to spread their repressive and failed ideology throughout our hemisphere, and who once tried to host enemy nuclear weapons 90 miles from our shores.

He added, “Our policy will seek a much better deal for the Cuban people and for the United States of America.  We do not want U.S. dollars to prop up a military monopoly that exploits and abuses the citizens of Cuba. . . . We will not lift sanctions on the Cuban regime until all political prisoners are freed, freedoms of assembly and expression are respected, all political parties are legalized, and free and internationally supervised elections are scheduled.” Whatever you think of the policy choice, it was a robust expression of American support for freedom.

When the death of Otto Warmbier after being released from brutal captivity by the barbaric North Korean regime was announced, Trump’s written statement declared, “Otto’s fate deepens my administration’s determination to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency. The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim.”

Others were more direct. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, “Let us state the facts plainly: Otto Warmbier, an American citizen, was murdered by the Kim Jong-un regime.” He added, “North Korea is threatening its neighbors, destabilizing the Asia-Pacific region, and rapidly developing the technology to strike the American homeland with nuclear weapons. Now it has escalated to brutalizing Americans, including three other citizens currently imprisoned in North Korea. The United States of America cannot and should not tolerate the murder of its citizens by hostile powers.” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blasted the North Koreans and summed things up: “Otto is dead because of Kim Jong-un’s repressive, murderous regime.”

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After the administration explicitly gave Saudi Arabia a pass on human rights, rushed to embrace Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a fraudulent election, fawns over Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and does nothing but praise Russia and China, we’re pleased it has discovered that human rights are central to our national interests, not as Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson told State Department employees, a distraction. With regard to North Korea, we see that a regime that brutalizes and murders its own citizens will do the same to Americans and will seek to stay in power through acquisition of nuclear weapons. With Cuba, it has dawned on the Trump administration that loosening of restrictions with a repressive regimes should only occur when its conduct improves.

And yet with regard to North Korea and Cuba, Trump’s words have much less effect than they would had he maintained a robust, consistent stance on human rights. “The administration has spoken out on human rights in Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, even Iran,” notes human rights expert and former State Department official David Kramer. “But the president’s embrace of Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, Sisi and Gulf leaders, his explicit statement in Riyadh that the United States will not ‘lecture’ others regarding human rights, and the secretary’s marginalization of human rights and democracy in his various remarks undermine U.S. efforts to advance human rights around the world.” He adds, “Whereas the previous administration showed little interest in the promoting human rights at the highest levels, the current one shows actual disdain for it. That demoralizes those struggling for an improvement in human rights in challenging places around the globe.”

An effective human rights policy must always weigh conflicting concerns, and it often makes sense to deal with allies quietly, with a mix of carrots and sticks. That is not what has happened here. Trump, as Kramer says, cheered repressive regimes and explicitly disclaimed interest in human rights. His novice secretary of state declared in a speech on May 3 to employees of his department, “I think it’s really important that all of us understand the difference between policy and values.” Maybe now he understands they are inextricably linked.

Trump needs to lay out a consistent, defensible foreign policy that integrates human rights. Unfortunately, he has already emboldened repressive regimes to crack down on their people without fear of consequence. Perhaps Trump needs to actually nominate someone for the undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights post and end his bromance with dictators.