Commentary

The Price of Ignoring Human Rights: Lost Credibility, Brutal Allies and New Enemies

One of President Donald Trump’s less admirable qualities is his warm regard for foreign dictators. They don’t have to be full-fledged despots to win his friendship, but other than Cuba’s Raul Castro, the president seems to identify with those who bury liberty in the name of security.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin is one, but no one views Russia as an ally. Similarly, President Trump has a budding bromance with China’s President Xi Jinping, whom the former called “a very good man” and “gentleman,” though the relationship appears to run only one-way. President Trump even had some complimentary words for North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, “a smart cookie” who’d succeeded staying in power despite his relative youth. Of course, executing scores of people, including one’s uncle, tends to cow the opposition.

Worse is President Trump’s warmth for the countries on Washington’s Friends list which crush their peoples’ liberties. There’s not only the moral price paid for flouting the nation’s basic ideals. There’s also hypocrisy’s practical cost, as people who believe individuals should be treated with respect and dignity turn into America’s sharpest critics.

The president’s summit invitation to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was distasteful, but the latter is more thug than dictator. His murderous tactics against drug dealers warrant prosecution, but overall democratic and legal processes still survive. Although the group Freedom House has downgraded the country from Free to Partly Free, so far, at least, its people are free to criticize and even replace President Duterte. The Philippines may be a semi-failed state, but it’s been that way since the restoration of democracy in 1986 and before.

Another misguided Trump invite went to Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. The slightly unstable generalissimo seized power three years ago promising happiness for his people while arresting them for the slightest sign of unhappiness, including wearing political t-shirts and making the hand protest popularized in the Hunger Games movies. After putting off the promised return to democracy, the junta last year gave the people an ugly choice: remain under military rule or approve a constitution which provides for military rule, once removed.

Washington should maintain its commitment to human liberty, endorsing it always and promoting it whenever possible.

Freedom House rated Thailand Not Free, noting that the regime “continued to suppress political dissent.” In particular, the junta monitored and intimidated those who criticized military rule. Chan-ocha, who once penned a song celebrating his role, exercised “unchecked powers beyond judicial oversight,” which isn’t likely to change that much under the new constitution, even if elections eventually are held. In its 62-page report State noted that “citizens no longer had the ability to choose their government through free and fair elections.” The most serious problems included “limitations on civil liberties,” “abuses by government security forces,” “arbitrary arrests and detention,” and “poor, overcrowded, and unsanitary prison and detention facilities.”

President Trump hosted Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after calling to congratulate the latter for cheating his way to victory in the constitutional referendum to create a Putinesque presidency. President Trump might not have explicitly endorsed his counterpart’s dictatorial tactics, but that was the message communicated to Turks, especially more Western-oriented, liberal and secular people opposing the country’s slide toward dictatorship. Despite rigging the electoral system and banning most opposition, Erdogan’s side barely broke 51 percent. Instead of responding with conciliation, he ordered more arrests and firings after his victory.

Ankara is more than just a nominally friendly nation. (It actually has been hostile in practice for a long time: the Turkish public is one of the most antagonistic toward Washington in the world.) Turkey is a member of NATO, but these days Ankara is friendly with Russia and isn’t likely to do much to prevent the Red hordes from conquering Europe, or whatever the alliance’s duties theoretically may be. Turkey is a prospective member of the European Union, but no one believes the EU is about to approve entry of an authoritarian, Islamist regime which long turned a blind eye to Islamic State activities and reignited Turkey’s murderous war against the Kurds.

Erdogan, who became prime minister in 2003, began as a reformer. But a few years ago he turned oppressor. Even before his brutal conduct in the referendum campaign, Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2017 survey rated Turkey Not Free: bad on political rights, worse on civil liberties, and awful on press freedom. The group reported a “dramatic decline in freedoms.”

Turkish liberties were in sharp decline even before last July’s attempted coup, which, reported Freedom House, “led the government to declare a state of emergency and carry out mass arrests and firings of civil servants, academics, journalists, opposition figures, and other perceived enemies.” Since then around 50,000 people have been arrested, more than 110,000 at least temporarily detained, 150,000 fired from public jobs, and an untold number forced out of their private positions. Some of those still free have been barred from leaving the country. Turks who fled overseas to avoid persecution have had their passports cancelled.

The vast majority of those affected had nothing to do with the coup; many, in fact, stood for democracy. Opposition to Erdogan was far more often their real offense. The touchy, egotistical president has taken to prosecuting most anyone, including school children, using social media to criticize him. When traveling his bodyguards beat up protestors abroad, including in America.

If President Trump is interested in learning the truth he need only check the 75-page human rights report prepared by the State Department. He would read of “inconsistent access to due process,” “government interference with freedom of expression,” “inadequate protection of civilians,” and “other human rights problems,” including prison overcrowding, an “atmosphere of fear that limited judicial independence,” and impunity for government officials accused of human rights violations.

Another Trump “bro” is Egyptian general and junta leader turned president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. “We agree on so many things,” gushed President Trump. The modern pharaoh has “done a fantastic job in a difficult situation,” said America’s president. Cairo is a long-time ally and recipient of some $30 billion in foreign aid over the last two decades, though it’s hard to imagine any modern Egyptian government that has to be paid not to commit suicide by restarting hostilities with Israel, the main justification for Washington’s expensive Egyptian bribe. The Trump administration justified its obsequious stance toward Cairo with the latter’s release of an Egyptian-American charity worker, one of several imprisoned Americans. Her freedom, though welcome, is small reward for kowtowing to a brutal dictatorship that has imprisoned some 40,000 people, most simply for opposing that brutal dictatorship.

Indeed, al-Sisi could give deposed Hosni Mubarak lessons in repression. When the military regime dispersed protestors in August 2013, it shot down several hundred and probably more than 1000 people, according to Human Rights Watch, more than killed by the Chinese military in Tiananmen Square.

Shortly after receiving Trump’s endorsement, al-Sisi implemented a new law intended to shut down any NGOs, domestic or foreign, which criticize the government. When I visited Egypt three years ago with a legal delegation, anti-torture activists told us repression was much worse than under Mubarak. Since then the al-Sisi regime shut down their organization, along with many others. The new rules go even further, regulating (and potentially destroying) 47,000 domestic groups. Mohamed Zaree, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, warned that “This law is the final nail in the coffin of civil society in Egypt.”

Freedom House rates Egypt Not Free. Noted the group, “The government harshly restricted dissent and assembly by activists from across the political spectrum during the year. The media were also targeted, with authorities harassing and sometimes jailing journalists who reported on political opposition of any kind.”

The State Department’s 59-page report on Egypt indicated that al-Sisi was behaving like a standard dictator, which is to say, not doing “a fantastic job.” State noted that “The most significant human rights problems were excessive use of force by security forces, deficiencies in due process, and the suppression of civil liberties.” Many people, mostly Egyptians but foreigners as well, simply disappeared. Some reappeared. Others were jailed. Some were murdered, including an Italian student, whose case brought international attention to the odious practice.

The Trump administration resumed F-16 deliveries to Bahrain, a Persian Gulf ally which also conveniently hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Alas, Bahrain’s government is an authoritarian Sunni monarchy which reigns over a Shia majority population. When faced with democracy protests growing out of the Arab Spring in 2011, the Bahraini royals blamed Iran, requested Saudi military aid, and suppressed dissent.

Freedom House rated the country Not Free, explaining that opposition groups “faced heightened harassment,” “attacks on freedom of speech and the press continued,” and many critics were stripped of their citizenship. State provided 49 pages of sometimes gory details. The primary human rights problems involved “limitations on citizens’ ability to choose their government peacefully,” as well as “restrictions on free expression, assembly, and association; and lack of due process in the legal system, including arrests without warrants or charges and lengthy pretrial detentions—used especially in cases against opposition members and political or human rights activists.”

The Crown Prince reportedly favors dialogue and conciliation, but he appears to have lost out to other members of the court. Repression accelerated after President Trump assured the regime that relations would be free of the “strain” of late. For instance, late last month the government dissolved the main opposition group. Moreover, aggressive Saudi Arabia hovers uncomfortably next door, fearful that any concessions to Bahrain’s Shiite majority would spur protests by the Kingdom’s Shia minority.

Another Gulf ally is the United Arab Emirates, which some U.S. military officials glorify as a “little Sparta,” which actually isn’t much of a compliment, at least if one cares for human liberty. Ancient Sparta was about as far from that ideal as one could imagine.

Nevertheless, the UAE military is involved in Syria—though more supporting jihadist, anti-Assad insurgents than fighting the Islamic state. Abu Dhabi also is allied with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, with Washington’s backing. This is one of the dumber wars supported by the U.S.: Americans are killing and making enemies of the Houthis, a people who not only have never attacked Americans but dislike the local al-Qaeda chapter as much as do Americans. There, at least, UAE’s supposed military prowess isn’t yielding much practical benefit for Washington.

However, the country also is rated Not Free by Freedom House. The government continues to suppress dissent, “restricting the use of social media and utilizing an expansive antiterrorism law that criminalizes criticism of the regime.” Even advocacy of peaceful change results in repression.

State Department has little better to say in criticisms running 35 pages. The main human rights problems, explained State, “were the inability of citizens to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections; limitations on civil liberties (including the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association); and arrests without charge, incommunicado detentions, lengthy pretrial detentions, and mistreatment during detention.” Other issues include police brutality, violations of privacy, and lack of judicial independence.

Worse, however, is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, long a favorite of American presidents, including Donald Trump. The Obama administration made its distaste for Riyadh evident in small ways, while still backing the KSA’s misguided war in Yemen. However, President Trump has returned to a policy of shameless adulation, restoring munitions shipments and considering increased American intervention alongside Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s civil war while awkwardly participating in the sword dance in Riyadh.

The country’s designation as an ally always had more to do with oil purchases than geopolitics, since the Kingdom was a major source of recruits and money for terrorist groups including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The KSA also propagates the fundamentalist Wahhabist interpretation of Islam around the world, including in the U.S., inflaming Islamist extremism.

Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s least free nations, rating a Not Free from Freedom House for both political rights and civil liberties. On religion Riyadh is totalitarian: It is one of the few nations in which not one church, synagogue, or temple exists. Social controls, especially over women, are authoritarian. Explained Freedom House, the KSA “restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties through a combination of oppressive laws and the use of force.”

In 57 pages the State Department detailed the Kingdom’s almost total lack of human liberty. The biggest human rights problems, noted States, are “citizens’ lack of the ability and legal means to choose their government; restrictions on universal rights, such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and the freedoms of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and pervasive gender discrimination and lack of equal rights that affected most aspects of women’s lives.” Beyond this are “arbitrary arrest and detention” and prison overcrowding, while no judicial independence and no due process.

Yet on his recent trip President Donald Trump essentially endorsed the Saudi royals, including their domestic repression, self-serving blockade (against Qatar), and aggressive foreign war (against Yemen). However, the House of Saud is not its country’s future for the relatively youthful population. The U.S., like the regime it embraces, risks being left on the wrong side of history.

Finally, Washington’s all-purpose ally, and domestic political favorite, is Israel. Donald Trump promised an even closer friendship, but has not yet followed through on his promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. However, the U.S. cannot escape being tainted by Israel’s mistreatment of millions of subject peoples.

Freedom House rated it Free since it protects the liberties of its citizens, including Arabs, though the latter suffer sometimes notable discrimination. However, those living under Israeli military occupation are the equivalent of Helots, the subject population of the ancient Spartans. They face a double form of oppression: Not Free status under the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas-controlled state in Gaza, and essentially nonexistent status under the Israeli security forces.

While many of the Palestinians’ problems come from their own corrupt and oppressive rulers, once nominally elected but accepting little accountability since then, Israeli occupation rule also is harsh and undemocratic. Noted State: “there were reports of human rights abuses including allegations of unlawful killings related to actions by Israeli authorities. Additionally, there were reports of abuse of Palestinian detainees, including children, particularly during arrest and interrogation; austere and overcrowded detention facilities; improper security detention procedures; demolition and confiscation of Palestinian property; limitations on freedom of expression, assembly, and association; and severe restrictions on Palestinians’ internal and external freedom of movement. Violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians continued to be a problem.” Moreover, “Harassment and attacks against Palestinians in Jerusalem by Jewish extremist groups reportedly were common, and these incidents rarely led to investigations or indictments.”

The U.S. cannot transform the world. It can’t even force close allies to change their ways. However, Washington should maintain its commitment to human liberty, endorsing it always and promoting it whenever possible. Most important, American officials should never appear to embrace repression and dictatorship.

Washington should maintain civil relations even with countries with awful governments. The U.S. should cooperate when it is in America’s interest to do so, as it often is. Sometimes Washington might have to ignore grotesque abuses. But the U.S. should do so only reluctantly and as seldom as possible. Indeed, repression can lead to instability. That has been well illustrated in the Middle East, where Islamists often provide the most serious and effective opposition to American-backed dictators.

Moreover, those wronged by allies of America have long memories about who to blame for their misfortune. Washington’s support for a coup against Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953 is still remembered. America’s favorability rating appears to move in reverse to Washington’s relationship with governing dictatorships.

Ultimately, shared interests should not be confused with shared values. Let President Trump go forth in the world seeking to make “good deals,” as he calls them. One of those should be increased international support for human liberty.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.