At every post-election panel on a human rights issue I’ve attended, the same question arises: How do you expect the Trump presidency will impact your organization’s human rights advocacy? For many in the human rights community—particularly those working on refugee, health, or national security issues—the answer to this question may already be crystalizing; these advocates have already shifted their energy toward fast-action legal resistance and exploitation of political divides to defeat unpopular executive orders and legislation. However, for others, especially those of us whose work involves direct interaction with the US government, the Trump presidency may lend itself to both diminishing and amplifying our advocacy in some surprising ways.
In considering how advocacy may change in the next few years, it is important to recognize that human rights are not simply a liberal cause. Perhaps because more left-wing policies—such as universal health care, expansive refugee protections, and less severe drug laws—have tended to support protection for many human rights (especially economic, social, and cultural rights), many people wrongly assume human rights falls into a partisan basket. But human rights are fundamentally non-partisan.
Take my organization, Freedom Now, which aims to free prisoners of conscience through legal, political, and public relations advocacy. A large part of our efforts involves persuading members of Congress or the State Department to reach out to a target government to press for the release of one of our clients. No matter the administration, whenever we look for a senator or a congressman to sponsor a bill or letter, we find strong allies on both sides of the aisle. These are men and women who, regardless of party affiliation, believe deeply that we should all enjoy the right to freely express ourselves, associate with whom we like, assemble where we want, and practice whatever religion (or non-religion) we please—and that, no matter how distasteful or destabilizing such freedoms may be to a particular government, no one should be imprisoned for practicing such fundamental rights.
So, the conservative or liberal bent of an administration has historically made little difference to its members’ support for human rights. What does make a difference, however, is how other countries perceive our government’s commitment to human rights. Should a foreign state come to believe that America’s commitment to human rights is superficial, any genuine effort by senators, congressmen, State Department officers, and diplomats to advocate for a particular cause will be met with skepticism. Like the stock market, persuasive political pressure is often a measure of confidence and trust; when authoritarian governments begin to doubt whether parliamentarians would actually back rhetoric with action, then letters, statements, and other measures of soft pressure lose their efficacy.
As the hegemonic power in the world, the United States carries significant authority, and it is not easy for most foreign states to disregard its opprobrium. However, if President Trump continues to downplay the human rights abuses of certain authoritarian countries, such as Russia, and if the executive policy backed by congressional silence and court acquiescence disregards the human cost of certain immigration and national security measures, it is likely that foreign states will learn to ignore pro-human rights language stemming from the American government as lacking both bark and bite.
Unfortunately, the current partisan political conditions will also endanger human rights advocates’ ability to rally US government support to begin with, no matter how sympathetic individual members of Congress or statesmen might be. This is not the fault of the Trump administration—the willingness of Republican and Democratic members of Congress to collaborate together has been declining for some time—but the 2016 election drew clearer partisan battle lines than ever before. When Freedom Now used to push for joint letters from the Hill, our biggest concern was how many congressmen we could persuade to sign. Now, we ask the simplest of gateway questions: Can we find even one Democrat and one Republican willing to work together to sponsor the letter?
But it is not all doom and gloom for human rights advocates; one surprising result of Trump’s win has been a surge in attention on the need to protect human rights on our own domestic soil. Many Americans are accustomed to thinking about human rights issues as problems that occur only in those “sad, underdeveloped countries far, far away,” but for the first time, we are seeing broader recognition that what we call constitutional civil liberties are human rights by another name. The parallels between journalists charged with felonies while covering the inaugural protests (though these charges were fortunately dropped!) and similar cases overseas—such as that of Mohamed al-Bambary, a Western-Saharan journalist who was sentenced to six years in relation to his coverage of an anti-Morocco protest—are becoming too close for the public to comfortably ignore.
While the public’s growing recognition of the importance of human rights in our domestic context is heartening, the best news for future advocacy efforts is how many Americans are beginning to put their money and their time behind the proposition that human rights matter. A tsunami of donations to the ACLU and other organizations that protect civil liberties attests to the newfound commitment of many Americans to upholding basic human rights. So, while the efficacy of US-based political advocacy might diminish in the next few years, we can hope to make this up in amplification of public relations advocacy—and better-funded human rights defenders. Instead of spending our time traipsing through the halls of Congress, we may spend it writing op-eds; organizing protests, petitions, and letter-writing campaigns; appearing on the nightly news; and engaging in any other activity aimed at increasing the public profile of our cause.
In a nutshell, the likely effect of a Trump presidency on US-based human rights advocacy is this: We will have to depend less on pressure coming from our politicians and more on pressure arising from our people. Whether this proves to be a boon or not will hang on the agility of human rights advocates to take advantage of these shifting winds.