The separation of children from their parents at the U.S. border denied migrants their humanity. But the impact was broader and even more profound. Their personal tragedies reveal the significance of the United States’ withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council. This step threatens the future of rights within the United States — for migrants and citizens alike.
The U.N. Human Rights Council preserves rights that the international community first defined after World War II in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The U.N. General Assembly ratified this declaration in 1948 by an impressive vote of 48 to 0. It was a momentous response to the evidence that citizenship rights had not offered security against the murderous policies of Nazi and fascist regimes.
Although citizens suffered from the breakdown of rights in the 1930s, the first targets were migrants. As philosopher Hannah Arendt reflected, in Europe it was the right of asylum that went first. Acknowledging a right of asylum would limit the modern state’s own sovereign right to control its borders. But a state that denied asylum on principle exposed the weakness of the international order itself, and thus the rights of all human beings. The victims had no recourse to a greater authority, and the state showed itself no longer accountable to external norms.
The dissolution of external norms accompanied and enabled the collapse of democracies in Europe in the 1930s and freed fascist and authoritarian regimes to do as they wished. The state could reject asylum seekers and other migrants, and then turn with impunity against its own citizens.
Without human rights, civil rights broke down. In the 1920s and 1930s, denaturalization laws also became part of a modern state’s prerogatives — a punishment it could employ for vaguely defined crimes. In 1938, Poland stripped Jews living abroad of their citizenship in one instance of mass denaturalization. The Nazi government then rounded up approximately 17,000 of these migrants to deport. Since Poland would not accept them, they huddled in a no man’s land on the border. This was what today we would call a deportation of undocumented (“illegal”) migrants. Many of them were children born in Germany who did not speak Polish.
Deportations signaled that some citizens were better than others. In 1938, while Poland was denaturalizing Jewish citizens living abroad, Nazi Germany passed legislation stripping its Jewish citizens of the few rights they had still retained: They were banned from their professions, their property was confiscated and their children were expelled from public schools.
Declaring a person to be unworthy of rights was a prelude to declaring these men, women and children to be entirely outside the protection of a legal system — their fates were at the mercy of those in power. Under fascist and authoritarian regimes, rights transformed into privileges of people belonging to the correct region, race, religion and sexual orientation. It was a short step from there to segregation, concentration and extermination.
We did learn from this history. When the war ended, the Allies dissolved the international organizations that had left the rights of states unchallenged and had failed to intervene to preserve the rights of people. They established a new U.N. and, within it, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Commission on Human Rights — the predecessor of today’s council, from which the United States has just withdrawn. Human rights were aspirational, but the states committed to these institutions promised to protect the rights of individuals, offering them a guarantee beyond the rights of citizenship that had failed so catastrophically in the 1930s.
Now, however, the United States has declared itself no longer accountable to this international standard. The United States’ withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights Council occurred a single day after the U.N. high commissioner for human rights condemned the policy of separating families, calling it “unconscionable.” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley asserted that the decision to withdraw was a response to the double standards of other council members. Incidentally, Nazi Germany employed a similar argument when it withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933.
The U.N. Human Rights Council does have issues that we need to address, but we cannot be forward-thinking about those issues if we undermine the institution’s principles. It is indeed troubling, for example, that 14 of the council’s 47 members appear on Freedom House’s list of unfree countries. Yet even Freedom House criticized the United States’ departure, arguing it is better to lead than to cede the field. Haley used the word “hypocrisy” repeatedly in her description of the council and its members. But it takes hypocrisy to new heights to withdraw from the highest international human rights organization in the name of defending human rights — the day after it has criticized you for violating these very same rights.
In the heat of the moment, it is easy to lose sight of how decisions taken today will matter for our children and grandchildren. Rejecting international standards will matter beyond the current migration crisis at the United States border. Already, lurking within the story of family separation is another about excluding people from the rule of law. The same month the family separations began, the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement ended a program that paid for lawyers to represent detained migrant children.
A few days after issuing an executive order that apparently disavowed the separation of families, President Trump revealed the real direction of his thoughts by calling for simply doing away with any legal process for migrants: “When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came.” The following day he again tweeted that deporting migrants would be better than hiring judges and “going through a long and complicated legal process.”
The Trump administration’s particular interpretation of the law has denied migrants’ basic rights. Faced with criticism, the president suggested ending legal process altogether.
The violation of rights and the threat to legal process at the border and in migrant detention centers affects all Americans. History teaches us that civil rights depend on human rights. Turning away migrants, denying them rights and legal process and isolating the United States from institutions protecting universal rights potentially precedes a breakdown of citizenship rights and equal rights under a rule of law.
History does not have to repeat itself, but we are undoing the system we once put in place to ensure it will not.