In the chaos following President Donald Trump’s assumption of power as the 45th President of the United States, numerous human rights organization including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were quick to label him a threat to human rights. In a time of growing uncertainty and dangerously divisive rhetoric, it becomes critical to parse out fact from fiction and to understand the practical implications of his policies.
During President Trump’s first week in office he wasted little time. He signed executive orders reinstating the “Mexico City Policy,” directing the construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, withholding federal funds from sanctuary cities, and blocking travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries. He also approved the construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines and confirmed the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. These decisions resulted in harsh criticism and protests around the country. While some of the effects of the executive orders were immediately felt, others require further action on the part of Congress to approve funding.
In his first week, President Trump made three key decisions that pose a significant threat to human rights in the United States and around the world.
Mexico City Policy
The reinstatement of the Mexico City Policy was not a surprising or unexpected act by an incoming Republican President. The policy has been revoked and reinstated since its inception during the Reagan Administration. The Mexico City Policy, also known as the Global Gag Rule, blocks foreign aid to non-governmental organizations abroad that may include abortion counseling in their family-planning services. It forces the organizations to make a difficult choice: eliminate abortion related counseling services or lose a significant portion of funding. In the past, the enforcement of the Mexico City Policy has led to higher abortion rates in the developing world, according to a World Health Organization report.
Regardless of the polarizing nature of abortion, the policy severely restricts women’s access to reproductive healthcare services such as contraception. Many women’s rights organizations argue that the policy doesn’t reduce abortion rates, but rather has the opposite effect. According to Marie Stopes International, the reduction of available family planning services could have incredible consequences to women’s health worldwide. The organization estimates that the repercussions of the Global Gag Rule could lead to 6.5 million unintended pregnancies, 2.2 million abortions, 2.1 million unsafe abortions, and 21,700 maternal deaths between 2017 and 2020.
Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines
In addition to their environmental implications, the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines threaten human rights. The Keystone XL Pipeline will extend from Alberta, Canada to Nebraska threatening the land use of First Nations communities in Northern Alberta. The Dakota Access Pipeline will be built across the Missouri River, less than a mile away from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation boundary. Both pipeline developments threaten the basic human right of access to clean water in the event of an oil spill. This risk manifested itself in December 2016, when a leak in the Belle Fourche pipeline in western North Dakota spilled over 180,000 gallons of crude oil into a creek. A 2010 UN General Assembly resolution recognized the basic human right to drinking water and sanitation which are now being threatened by the development of pipelines close to indigenous communities.
The construction of the pipelines also violates the right of indigenous peoples to the preservation of a healthy environment, and the right to be consulted in legislation that may impact them. The Organization of American States (OAS) adopted the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2016. This instrument preserves and affirms the rights to health, culture, lands, territories, and natural resources. Article 19 explicitly recognizes the right of indigenous peoples to live in harmony with nature in a healthy and sustainable environment. Article 23 further requires governments to obtain the free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous peoples before implementing legislation that may impact them. The Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines were authorized without the consent of indigenous peoples and remain a direct threat to their health and land rights.
President Trump signed an immigration ban his first week in office that went into effect immediately. The order barred US entry to individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries including Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen for ninety days. The executive order also eliminated refugee admissions for 120 days, restricting Syrian refugees indefinitely. President Trump clarified that he would prioritize persecuted Christian refugees over Muslims, effectively transforming the immigration policy into a discriminatory Muslim ban.
Not only does the order violate domestic law under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, banning immigration discrimination on the basis of nationality, but it is a violation of international law as well. The United States is a party to the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, which expands the 1951 Refugee Convention. Article 3 of the Convention requires that States do not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or country of origin, while Article 33 requires non-refoulement. The principle of non-refoulement states that nations will not return refugees and asylum-seekers to countries that may threaten their life or freedom. This provision is not only found in the 1951 Refugee Convention, but it is a binding principle of customary international law as well. The immigration ban was in direct violation of customary international law by deporting refugees who had already been approved for resettlement in the United States. The Ninth Circuit blocked the enforcement of the initial immigration policy, and a new executive order was issued on March 6, 2017. The most significant changes include the removal of Iraq from the list and the replacement of the indefinite ban on Syrian refugees with a 120-day freeze. The new immigration policy maintains the same character of discrimination and continues to threaten human rights. On March, 15, 2017, a federal judge in Hawaii blocked the revised travel ban, temporarily stalling the Trump administration who plan to appeal.
These three areas represent current threats and violations to domestic and international human rights by President Trump. His administration has brought fear and a policy of isolationism to the executive branch of the United States. The lack of due diligence and concern for international human rights standards is particularly alarming. President Trump’s administration and policies must be vigilantly patrolled for human rights violations. Non-governmental organizations in partnership with concerned citizens should continue to challenge and pressure the federal government to uphold and respect human rights in all policies.