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The end of America as Human Rights Champion

November 30, 2016 at 10:24 pm

When Fidel Castro died on Friday, it seemed for a moment that Donald Trump’s America would revert back to being a voice on democracy and human rights. Trump’s Vice President-to-be, Mike Pence, responded by tweeting about “standing with the oppressed Cuban people,” while Trump himself promised to help the Cuban people enjoy “prosperity and liberty”.

Such talk from Washington would have once made Arab autocrats swear, but the new US president has made it clear he cares little about the suffering of others. His silence on the destruction of Aleppo by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, and Russian President Vladimir Putin should put to rest any doubts. It is small wonder that strongmen greeted Trump’s triumph with delight: Trump’s “America First” policies leave any international commitment to defending the vulnerable ringing hollow. Even the most oppressive (like Al-Assad) now expect much less pressure from Washington over their rights violations and abuses.

It’s no wonder then that Donald Trump has embraced not only Putin but also Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. He has backed up his talk of America allying with Russia and the Syrian regime by sending his son to meet with pro-regime figures. He has dismissed all other facets of the Syrian war, vindicating Al-Assad’s murderous strategy of fostering jihadism and annihilating the Syrian democracy movement to make the West see him as its “least bad” option. That Al-Assad sees Trump as a “natural ally” should come as no surprise at all: Trump is the perfect man to ensure Al-Assad’s cynical ploy succeeds.

On the whole, Trump apparently has no problem with Arab leaders brutalising their own citizens. He lauded Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for being “so good” at killing terrorists and said unabashedly that Iraq and Libya would be better off with their former dictators in power. Both of these countries have known chaos in the years since Hussein and Qaddafi fell, but the US president-to-be conveniently brushes aside the atrocities these men committed to bring about their downfall.

If Trump’s approach to the Middle East is callous, he seems at least to know the basics. As far as Africa goes, Trump seems to have little concern at all. This is a change from the Obama administration which was outspoken in criticising leaders like Rwanda’s Paul Kagame for changing term limits to stay in power. Obama condemned corruption in Kenya and imposed sanctions on Uganda after it passed a law mandating harsh sentences for gay people. He also authorised sanctions for those guilty of atrocities in South Sudan.

Then again, to say corrupt and autocratic leaders feared Barack Obama would give him far too much credit. Trump might signal the end of Washington’s outspokenness, but Obama earned a reputation for tough talk and little else.

Syria and its “red line” are the best example, but dictators like Al-Sisi have also forced American objections to give way to acquiescence as they tear apart institutions and lay the groundwork for a lifetime in power. When Iranians poured into the streets protesting a stolen election in 2009, Obama said practically nothing. In the one case where Obama did directly intervene – Libya – the United States took part half-heartedly and abandoned the country to anarchy after Qaddafi fell.

Obama’s purely rhetorical defence of human rights is part of a global trend. Since he took office, the world as a whole has become less free. Weary from the cost of the Iraqi and Afghan wars, US funding for democracy promotion under Obama shrank 28 per cent by the end of 2014 and stood at less than $2 billion per year. The most drastic cuts (72 percent) came in the Middle East, at the precise moment the Arab uprisings made such support most necessary. The entire continent of Africa (excepting Liberia and South Sudan) was left with just $80 million in funding for democratisation and governance.

With America’s footprint on the continent already so faint, African leaders have found their most convenient scapegoat in the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC has pursued justice against men like Laurent Gbagbo and Malian jihadist Ahmad Al-Mahdi, unnerving African leaders who fear they could also fall prey to its justice. Those men have lashed out against the ICC, falsely criticising it for only targeting Africans. Three African countries backed up their words by withdrawing from the ICC. More are likely to follow.

Sudan’s Omar Al-Bashir, wanted by the ICC for war crimes in Darfur, deserves credit for fatally undermining one of Africa’s few mechanisms for accountability. South Africa’s decision to leave came after it ignored an order to turn Al-Bashir over to the court. Uganda and Djibouti also refused to extradite the Sudanese war criminal, although it should come as no surprise that someone like Djibouti’s Ismail Omar Guelleh would refuse to submit a fellow head of state to the mercy of an international human rights tribunal when he is on the ICC’s watch list himself. Guelleh’s own record of abuses includes corruption, rigged elections and deadly violence against opposition figures. Like Al-Assad (and unlike Al-Bashir), Guelleh can count on powerful friends who want him to remain in place: the United States, China, Japan and the Europeans all have military bases there, and Djibouti is the hub for Obama’s drone war in Somalia and Yemen.

By refusing to turn their colleague over, Al-Bashir’s fellow African leaders exposed the holes in the international community’s ability to disquiet the most culpable rights offenders. With the entire African Union hinting at leaving the ICC, one of the few remaining voices for international accountability might collapse at the precise moment the United States wants to give up the struggle. When the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings succeeded six years ago, it seemed as if the era of tyrants acting with impunity was over; as Trump moves into the White House, it seems those tyrants have never had less to fear.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.