Fletcher in the News

Trump's Approach to Human Rights? Prof. Hannum Discusses with The Christian Science Monitor

When President Trump spoke to South Korea’s National Assembly last week, his emphasis on the systematic abuses and absence of basic freedoms in the authoritarian state to the north made him sound like a fervent champion of universal human rights.

But since landing in the Philippines Sunday on the last stop of his nearly two-week-long Asia trip, Mr. Trump has said nary a word about the flagrant rights abuses of strongman leader Rodrigo Duterte – at least not publicly.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says human rights “briefly came up” in Trump’s meeting with President Duterte Monday, which she said instead focused on ISIS, illegal drugs, and regional security. But Duterte’s spokesman said there was “no mention of human rights” in the 40-minute conversation...

...So while what many see as Trump’s lack of consistency in raising human rights issues is hardly new, some international human rights experts say what is different is Trump’s silence on violations is based not on national interests, but on his apparent admiration for strongmen leaders.

“What has been consistent in US foreign policy for decades is how human rights rarely take the first place and indeed are usually outweighed by security and economic interests,” says Hurst Hannum, a professor of international law at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. He cites as an example how Hillary Clinton “downplayed” human rights concerns on her first trip to China as secretary of State, even though she had long championed universal human rights, specifically in China.

Others say Trump has hardly been different on that score, and they cite as evidence his trip to Saudi Arabia last spring – an important overture to regional leaders in his pursuit of US strategic interests – when he publicly told an audience of Muslim monarchs and strongmen, including Saudi leaders, that “we are not here to lecture you.”

But Dr. Hannum, who is on leave at Oxford University this year writing a history of human rights, says he sees little pattern so far in Trump’s citing of human rights concerns or in where the administration’s places the issue among other national security objectives.

“With Trump it’s difficult to determine on what basis he condemns some countries and leaders and not others,” Hannum says. “He does demonstrate an attraction to international leaders that most of us would consider authoritarian,” he adds, “but it has been very difficult to identify the policy interests or the ideology that determine whether he speaks loudly or quietly, if at all,” on human rights.

“More than anything,” he says, “it seems to be based on a personal admiration of dislike for the leader in question.”

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