Forget About Human Rights

The Donald J. Trump’s indifference to human rights, law, and basic morality was on display again in December 2019. For example, his

+ Greeting the Russian Foreign Minister in the Oval Office while Ukraine’s president never got there, another reminder of Trump’s reluctance to support Ukraine against a Russian invasion;

+ Readiness to excuse Saudi Arabia for one of its officers killing three sailors and wounding eight others;

+ Pleasure at securing a more than $700 billion defense budget while stripping food support (“SNAP”) from hundreds of thousands of needy Americans.

The president’s “ignore human rights” syndrome also extends to North Korea, where the U.S. delegation to the United Nations for a second year refused to put North Korea’s human rights on the Security Council agenda for Human Rights Day, December 10, 2019. Eight of the Council’s fifteen members signed a letter to schedule the meeting but needed a ninth signature, which the United States again refused to provide.

“Once again, the U.S. has prevented the U.N. Security Council from scrutinizing North Korea’s abysmal human rights record, apparently because of President Trump’s special relationship with Kim Jong Un,” said Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. director for Human Rights Watch. “By blocking this meeting, which was set to go ahead on Human Rights Day…the Trump administration is sending a message to Kim that the U.S. no long considers arbitrary detention, starvation, torture, summary executions, sexual violence and other crimes against the North Korean people a priority,” Charbonneau added: “North Korea and many other abusive governments can now rest assured that they have little to fear from the Trump administration when it comes to human rights.”

The South Korean government also joined the effort to buy the North’s good will by appeasement. In mid-November 2019 Seoul  withdrew from a list of more than forty co-sponsors of a General Assembly resolution condemning “the grave human rights situation” in North Korea. This was the first time since 2008, the era of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy toward North Korea, that Seoul declined to co-sponsor the resolution.

The General Assembly resolution tried to advance the 2014 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic (DPRK). The commission accused the DPRK of crimes against humanity, including murder, enslavement, torture, rape, forced abortions, and persecution. The inquiry found that “the gravity, scale, and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” The decision-making process for these abuses “is dominated by the Supreme Leader and a small group of people” in the Workers’ Party of Korea and the National Defence Commission, some of whom are “relatives of the Supreme Leader.”

In December 2014 the UN General Assembly urged the Security Council to refer these human rights accusations to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Security Council then voted to discuss DPRK human rights as an agenda item separate from nonproliferation. China and Russia voted against this decision but could not veto it, because the issue was “procedural.”

In March 2017 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights moved to help its field office in Seoul develop a depository for evidence regarding suspected violations of international law. In 2018 the UN General Assembly again urged the Security Council to consider taking the DPRK rights abuses to the ICC. Since China, Russia, and perhaps the United States might veto the measure, however, this discussion did not take place. In 2018 and 2019 the Trump administration made sure that the DPRK abuses were not even debated on “Human Rights Day.”

While Seoul and Washington sought to secure the good will of North Korea’s Great Leader, the DPRK launched one ballistic rocket after another (thirteen since May) and tested an engine that could propel an ICBM across the Pacific. It appeared that the U.S. president would suffer the worst of two worlds—a gradual improvements in Kim Jong Un’s nuclear missile forces and no easing of Kim’s repression of human rights. There were also signs that Moscow and Beijing were developing closer ties with Pyongyang. On December 11, 2019 China’s U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun said it was “imperative” for the UN Security Council to ease sanctions on North Korea to support talks between Pyongyang and Washington.

If all this did not disturb the U.S. president’s composure, the scorn heaped on him by NATO allies and the widening penumbra of impeachment could hardly brighten his horizon. As such pressures mounted, they were unlikely to alter his disdain for human rights.

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Walter Clemens is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Boston University and Associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He wrote Complexity Science and World Affairs (SUNY Press, 2013).

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