The Trump administration has stopped cooperating with UN investigators over potential human rights violations occurring inside America, in a move that delivers a major blow to vulnerable US communities and sends a dangerous signal to authoritarian regimes around the world.
Quietly and unnoticed, the state department has ceased to respond to official complaints from UN special rapporteurs, the network of independent experts who act as global watchdogs on fundamental issues such as poverty, migration, freedom of expression and justice. There has been no response to any such formal query since 7 May 2018, with at least 13 requests going unanswered.
Nor has the Trump administration extended any invitation to a UN monitor to visit the US to investigate human rights inside the country since the start of Donald Trump’s term two years ago in January 2017. Two UN experts have made official fact-finding visits under his watch – the special rapporteurs on extreme poverty and privacy – but both were invited initially by Barack Obama, who hosted 16 such visits during his presidency.
The silent treatment being meted out to key players in the UN’s system for advancing human rights marks a stark break with US practice going back decades. Though some areas of American public life have consistently been ruled out of bounds to UN investigators – US prisons and the detention camp on Guantánamo Bay are deemed off-limits – Washington has in general welcomed monitors into the US as part of a wider commitment to upholding international norms.
Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s human rights program, said the shift gave the impression the US was no longer serious about honoring its own human rights obligations. The ripple effect around the world would be dire.
“They are sending a very dangerous message to other countries: that if you don’t cooperate with UN experts they will just go away. That’s a serious setback to the system created after World War II to ensure that domestic human rights violations could no longer be seen as an internal matter,” Dakwar said.
Among the formal approaches that have failed to receive a response from the US over the past several months are queries about family separation of Central Americans at the US border with Mexico, death threats against a transgender activist in Seattle and allegations of anti-gay bias in the sentencing to death of a prisoner in South Dakota.
The new breach with international experts comes at a perilous moment for the US, both externally and within its own borders. Externally, Trump has forged an increasingly unilateral path on foreign policy: in June he shocked the world by pulling the US out of the UN human rights council, complaining it was a “cesspool of political bias”, and he has caused further consternation by siding with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, despite evidence linking Prince Mohammed to the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Domestically, Trump has run roughshod over the constitutional rights of asylum seekers at the US border, attempted to deny the legal existence of transgender people and introduced tax cuts that have greatly exacerbated income inequality in a country in which 40 million people live in poverty, among many other controversies.
The timing of the break in relations with UN investigators coincides with the publication in June of the official findings of Philip Alston’s visit to the US to research poverty. As UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty, Alston castigated the Trump administration for aggravating levels of inequality that were already the most glaring in the western world.
Alston’s robust criticism was received badly by Nikki Haley, then US ambassador, who accused him of biased reporting. She hinted that the administration was minded to turn its back on international accountability by saying it was “patently ridiculous” that the UN should focus on America’s internal human rights standards when it could be looking into countries like Burundi.
It is not known whether the decision to sever cooperation with the UN monitors was directly related to the spat over Alston’s report. But emails seen by the Guardian involving top US state department officials in Geneva show that by July they were rebuffing contact with international agencies on grounds that they were “considering how best to engage with special procedures”, the blanket term for the network of UN special rapporteurs.
In a statement to the Guardian, the state department declined to explain why it was no longer responding to UN experts or to say whether non-cooperation was now permanent policy. A spokesman said the US remained “deeply committed to the promotion and defense of human rights around the globe”, but pointedly omitted any reference to US compliance domestically.
Similarly, the spokesman expressed “strong support” for UN special rapporteurs, but only in the context of their investigations into other countries. The US backs those mandates “that have proven effective in illuminating the most grave human rights environments, including in Iran and DPRK [North Korea]”, he said.
Paradoxically, the Trump administration’s decision to shun the UN’s independent watchdogs places the US among a tiny minority of uncooperative states. There are very few countries that resist international oversight from UN special rapporteurs – one of them is North Korea.
Individual UN experts expressed dismay at the US cold shoulder they are now receiving. Alston said the move would set “the most unfortunate precedent as the US has always tried to press other countries to be accountable. This sends a message that you can opt out of routine scrutiny if you don’t like what is being said about your record on human rights.”
Felipe González Morales, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, has twice approached the US government requesting a formal visit to inspect how the country is handling immigration including the crisis at the Mexican border – once in March and then in July. He has yet to receive a reply.
“In the absence of an official visit, we cannot publish a country report to be presented to the UN human rights council,” he said.
The UN expert on adequate housing, Leilani Farha, told the Guardian that she was concerned about the silence emanating from the US state department. Having been appointed to the post in 2014, she made five official complaints to the Obama administration and in each case received “timely, thoughtful and constructive responses, even if we continued to disagree”.
Farha expressed unease at the new lack of engagement at a time when so many human rights problems were cropping up in the US, including a homelessness crisis in many cities.
“This suggests the US has abandoned even the most rudimentary forms of human rights accountability, and a whittling away of access to justice for those in the US whose human rights may have been violated,” Farha said. “It also demonstrates a rather inappropriate arrogance, at a time when human rights in the US are particularly fragile.”
The US government will not be able to avoid international scrutiny entirely. In 2020 it will face a routine “universal periodic review” undertaken by the human rights council – an obligation Trump cannot escape despite having withdrawn US membership.