Trump’s presidency: A threat to global human rights

Başak Çalı warns of a deterioration of hard-won human rights standards and their political support.

If we go by what Donald Trump said about human rights on the election trail, there are many reasons to be worried about what his forthcoming presidency means for the global human rights regime. During the campaign, one worried commentator was the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein. He called Trump ‘a global danger’ for human rights.

The largest risk I see are legal and political retrogrades of very hard won gains for human rights standards and their political support.

Legally, Trump has advocated for policies that flagrantly violate international human rights law. He has argued against the international legal ban on torture, vowing to bring it back for ‘terrorists’. He has pursued an openly discriminatory and racist agenda regarding minorities and vulnerable groups in the United States and elsewhere. If talk such as the resumption of torture or a ban on Muslims to enter the country becomes government policy in any shade, these would be in blatant violation of international human rights law, including the United States’ existing treaty obligations under the United Nations treaties. As far as any such practice in the US goes, the judiciary will be called upon to play a significant role in the protection of human rights. Given that Trump will be able to choose how to fill the empty seat on the US Supreme Court, domestic concerns about a decay in human rights may also translate into a concern for the decay in constitutional rights protections. Extra-territorially, however, if this discourse becomes practice, there is a real risk of a re-institutionalisation of torture practices in detention centres outside US territory.

Politically, Trump’s campaign has promised to ‘Make America Great Again’. This focus holds no interest in advocating for, developing or supporting global human rights standards. Domestically, Trump supports the death penalty, has argued that women who have abortions should be punished and is against marriage equality for all. Internationally, he has no interest in fair share arrangements for the protection of refugees, or improving human rights standards in other parts of the world. His introverted conservatism shares important commonalities with the current leaders in the UK, Russia and Turkey. He is, in many ways, an ideal totem for all who seek to undermine human rights in their own countries. One only hopes that this global anti-human rights discourse is counteracted by counter-movements that vehemently support human rights in the US and beyond in the years to come.

More about the author

  • Başak Çalı, Professor of International Law | Co-Director, Centre for Fundamental Rights