New York Times (Editorial)
March 27, 2017
Across the world, American diplomats champion, and sometimes fund, nongovernment organizations that fight for human rights, often in authoritarian countries. Despotic leaders often go to great lengths to malign these groups and blunt their influence by limiting their ability to be seen and heard.
Last Tuesday, the Trump administration borrowed from the despot playbook by boycotting hearings in Washington before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Participants heard from critics of the administration’s executive orders on immigration policy. Another session dealt with the plight of Japanese immigrants in Latin America who were forcibly taken to an American internment camp during World War II. A third featured experts who raised concerns about challenges to people seeking asylum in the United States.
Some of this obviously displeased an administration that has already been widely criticized for its insensitivity to human rights concerns. Its boycott marked the first time the American government has refused to show up at a hearing convened by the commission, which is part of the Organization of American States, a hemispheric diplomatic body.
In a statement, the State Department justified its decision by arguing that “it is not appropriate for the United States to participate in these hearings while litigation on these matters is ongoing in U.S. court.”
That is absurd. For starters, the mere presence of American representatives at the hearings would have had no bearing on legal challenges to the Trump administration’s efforts to ban people from Muslim-majority nations from traveling to the United States. In the past, State Department officials have attended hearings on contentious issues that have been the subject of litigation, including the C.I.A.’s secret prison network, the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and immigration detention policy.
The failure to send representatives puts the United States in ignominious company. During the commission’s most recent session, only the governments of Cuba and Nicaragua chose not to face their critics. The Cuban hearing dealt with human rights concerns of Cubans of African descent. The Nicaraguan hearing was about the country’s dismal record on freedom of expression.
No government enjoys being the subject of a hearing before the commission. But for years, the commission’s sessions have served as a crucial forum for critics of government policy to air their grievances in a prominent, neutral forum. The government of Colombia, for instance, recently dispatched a senior representative to respond to concerns about a spate of attacks targeting human rights defenders. The government of El Salvador did the same when the subject was the threats and stigmatization faced by that country’s gay and transgender communities.
The American government’s misguided decision will make it easier for neighboring governments to disregard principles and commitments enshrined in the O.A.S. charter, which holds that citizens of the Americas are entitled to be governed by democratic governments that uphold human rights. This risk could have been easily avoided by merely showing up.
A version of this editorial appears in print on March 27, 2017, on Page A18 of the New York edition with the headline: An Abdication on Human Rights.
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