Comments this week by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo show little recognition that United States human rights violations in its own backyard have implications for its foreign policy.
While all US administrations have downplayed US violations of human rights, the Trump administration seems to have raised hypocritical invocation of human rights in US foreign policy to a new level.
At a June 10 press conference, a reporter challenged Pompeo to explain US credibility on human rights at a time when US citizens protesting against racism were being met with excessive force by federal and local law officers.
Pompeo responded that the reporter’s question was fundamentally flawed for “assuming there is a moral equivalency” between authoritarian countries that “repress their people and bludgeon their people” and a country like the US where journalists were able to directly question the Secretary of State about government actions. “Those things don’t happen in those nations,” he said.
But violations of human rights are violations of human rights, whether they occur in an authoritarian regime or in a democracy. The nationwide protests in the wake of the May 25 police killing of George Floyd are not just about local and federal law enforcement using excessive force against Black people and largely peaceful protesters. They reflect an ongoing history of violations of Black people’s fundamental rights, underlying structural racism, and the lack of redress for the harm suffered.
It’s no excuse to say that the right to protest and express oneself is more explicitly protected in US law than in other countries. International human rights law places obligations on the United States that are not dismissed by the situations in other countries.
The Trump administration has repeatedly invoked human rights only when it is convenient and with its own interpretation. US human rights rhetoric has always been greater than the reality of its foreign policy, which has included support for deeply abusive governments, but past administrations have also often invoked human rights to play a constructive role around the world. The credibility of the United States to do so will only suffer from Pompeo’s emphatic insistence on US exceptionalism.