A Retreat from International Human Rights is not Gender-neutral

By Robin Skrebes, Amanda Lyons, Karen Brown, Barb Frey | May 8, 2017

In its first 100 days, the Trump administration’s “America First” rhetoric and actions have led to an increased focus on national security and a retreat from international institutions. In particular, these early days have been marked by disengagement from or attacks on international human rights systems that play a key role in the protection of women’s rights.

For all their shortcomings—including their own historic gender biases—international human rights norms and institutions provide an advocacy space for groups whose dignity, worth, agency, or security have been systematically undermined by state policy and practice. This has been especially true for the rights of women. We have observed retreats from human rights at home, from human rights in foreign policy, and from the spaces and practices designed to uphold women’s rights globally. Here, we highlight some of the human rights effects of the fledgling administration’s actions—and inactions.

Retreat from human rights at home

Trump administration policies have eroded human rights within the United States. For instance, just days after his inauguration, President Trump authorized the US Army Corps of Engineers to grant an easement for the Dakota Access oil pipeline to pass beneath Lake Oahe and the Missouri River, ignoring the sovereign rights of the Standing Rock Sioux regarding the threat to clean water for their indigenous community. Indigenous women are not backing down from this fight. They continue to lead their communities in struggles for land rights, cultural restoration, and environmental justice.

Early April saw another threat to existing human rights protections when Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of all consent decrees adopted to decrease the discriminatory practices of U.S. police departments. When U.S. District Judge James Bredar upheld the consent decree between the Baltimore PD and the Justice Department, Sessions blasted the ruling, suggesting that the decree would “reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less safe city.” But the Baltimore consent decree had resulted from a year-long DOJ investigation that found widespread racial bias, use of excessive force, repeated patterns of unconstitutional arrests, and hostility toward women and LGBT civilians. Rescinding the consent decree would be more likely to result in “a less safe city” for people of color, including women of color.

And the Trump travel ban drew widespread condemnation as a violation of human rights. Four UN Special Rapporteurs (along with other UN bodies) found that the Jan. 27, 2017 Executive Order “breaches the country’s international human rights obligations, which protect the principles of non-refoulement and non-discrimination based on race, nationality or religion.”

The push to roll back health guarantees also runs contrary to established international human rights standards related to the right to health and the principles of equality, non-discrimination, and non-regression. We learned through a document leaked to Dana Milbink of the Washington Post that the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health sent a confidential urgent appeal to the Trump administration on the human rights implications of its various proposals to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, especially highlighting the disparate impact on people living in situations of poverty and social exclusion.

Disregard for human rights in foreign policy

An emerging foreign policy conveys a disregard for human rights standards in favor of “national security”. First, the Trump team has embraced Heads of States known for serious human rights violations while ignoring those issues, including those of Egypt, Pakistan, China, Russia, and most recently, the Philippines. In explaining his “very friendly conversation” with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whom he welcomed to the White House despite UN, EU, and U.S. condemnations of his brutality toward his own people, Trump suggested that the strategic and military importance of the Philippines in relation to North Korean aggressions outweighed other considerations. Incongruously, Trump also welcomed a meeting with “smart cookie” Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s despotic leader. The strategic security interest of these moves remains questionable.

Bombing is another favored “security” tactic. An increase U.S.-led airstrikes has led to civilian casualties in Mosul, Syria, and Yemen. A January 30th airstrike in rural Yemen, for instance, killed approximately thirty, including ten women and children. The Trump administration has lowered the threshold for the CIA and the U.S. military to target identified terrorists with drone strikes, even if it means tolerating more civilian casualties.

Disengaging from international women’s human rights

Disengagement from international institutions that uphold human rights and a withdrawal from its leadership role on international women’s rights characterize the new face of U.S. human rights policy under President Trump. The Trump administration even threatened withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, before ultimately attending and promoting its particular priorities at the 34th session in Geneva in March. Another notable indication of a retreat from leadership on women’s rights (as we feared in our opening post for Gender Policy Report) came from a leaked budget suggesting that the administration plans to cut all funding for State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.

While Ambassador Nikki Haley has asserted herself as the highest profile woman in the Administration—outside the Trump family circle—she apparently had too high a profile for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. He recently reined her in, asking her to vet her public remarks.

The Administration also put some problematic new faces on the U.S. delegation to the 61st Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, held in March at U.N. Headquarters in New York. Joining Ambassador Haley on the delegation were Lisa Correnti, Executive VP of C-Fam (the Center for Family & Human Rights), a group that opposes reproductive rights for women and supports the criminalization of homosexuality, and Grace Melton of the Heritage Foundation. According to Graeme Reid at Human Rights Watch, C-Fam is an “ardent supporter” of Russia’s propaganda law against LGBT persons. In fact, following the Commission, C-Fam went on to celebrate that the UN meeting was frustrated, that no final agreement was reached, and that the delegation from the Russian Federation shared their stance on sexual and LGBT rights.

On March 30, the Trump Administration cut all funding to the U.N. Population Fund for Women (UNFPA), a dramatic reduction that, according to U.N. Foundation President and CEO Kathy Calvin, “threatens the health and rights of millions of girls and women around the world, particularly those in crisis situations.” Women around the world rely on the UNFPA for reproductive health care, including contraceptives, support for the prevention of child marriage, and ending the practice of female genital mutilation.

Secretary of State Tillerson’s failure to show up for the public release of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, mandated annually by Congress, underlined his disregard for human rights. Even Republican Senator Marco Rubio was taken aback by this breach of precedent, remarking that he was “disappointed that the Secretary of State did not personally present the latest report.” When the U.S. failed to appear for its hearings before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, reviewing the situation of the Dakota Access pipeline and the administration’s immigration restrictions, that, too, was unprecedented.


These examples demonstrate the Administration’s broad trend to disengage from or actively undermine international human rights standards—with women’s rights particularly hard-hit. In just 100 days, human rights have been tossed aside in favor of the appearance of military might. And with its retreat from international institutions and human rights norms both at home and abroad, the new Administration’s actions and omissions are dramatically diminishing protections for the human rights of women and LGBTI persons in favor of big talk, big guns, and big money.