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Much has transpired in the realm of foreign affairs since the recent announcement that the United States would withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council. But as our traditional alliances are being strained and our President pursues closer ties with Russia, it worth revisiting this controversial decision, with its echoes of a Soviet mentality.

Before the announcement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo extolled the “God-given dignity and freedom of every human being.” He told of inherent, inviolable human rights, professing their divine source and sanction: “They are given by God, and not by the government. Because of that, no government must take them away.”

Pompeo and Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, preached a harsh word against the hypocrisy of earthly powers that pose as protectors of divinely assured rights. Members of the Human Rights Council are playing politics, they charged—admitting offending nations and condemning Israel, yet unmoved by injustice elsewhere and unwilling to call allies to account.

The United States, Haley contended, must quit the Council straightaway, lest the taint of hypocrisy erode American credibility.

Human rights are holy ground. The moral imperative to uphold them is sacrosanct. No government is at liberty to disregard them. Disfavored minorities must be defended. Hypocrisy will not be tolerated.

As a longtime human rights proponent, I find these principles compelling. But in probing the thick irony of Pompeo and Haley’s remarks, I question how we as a nation are to face ourselves in the unflattering light of their judgment.

Extraordinary Limits on Sacred Human Rights

Within the four corners of Pompeo’s prepared remarks lie extraordinary qualifications to the high ideals he and Haley trumpeted. Pompeo candidly clarified that American participation in multilateral human rights institutions is ultimately subject to “our national interests” and “our national sovereignty.” He praised Haley’s “sincere passion to protect the security, dignity, and the freedom of human beings around the world—all while putting American interests first.”

In deed and word alike, this Administration has undeniably elevated its America First doctrine high above the universal rights and freedoms Pompeo and Haley ascribed to the Creator God. Our government fails to come with clean hands to the question of human rights.

The most recent and brazen violation is the President’s erstwhile policy of wrenching traumatized children from desperate migrant parents—a policy the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights rightly recognized as “unconscionable.” While this policy is thankfully giving way under the weight of public outcry and judicial review, one wonders where divinely bestowed human rights figured as the Administration effectively orphaned over 2,000 vulnerable children.

At various turns this government has resisted core human rights principles of equality and nondiscrimination. Opposing basic civil rights for LGBTQ individuals and asylum for survivors of gendered violence, it has defied the defining feature of human rights: they belong to every human being, without exception.

The Tradition of American Exceptionalism

And yet we cannot lay the blame for U.S. hypocrisy exclusively at Trumpian feet. Although this regime excels in the art of American exceptionalism, our national superiority complex has been passed down for generations.

The U.S. has long exemplified a singular form of exceptionalism, proudly presuming the mantle of world leader on fundamental rights and freedoms while doggedly resisting accountability. We eschew most international human rights treaties—including those on women, children, and the disabled—and have no national institution to coordinate our actions on human rights. In this we stand apart from key allies like Great Britain and Canada, and some 120 countries in total that have created national institutions to protect and promote human rights. [1]

Calls for the U.S. to join global human rights initiatives are met with facile cries of “national sovereignty”—invoked like a shibboleth to shutter all talk of commitment and accountability. But how much do we revere the divine grantor of human rights, really, if our will to uphold them is subject to satisfying our own will to power?

(It is worth recalling that the defense of unfettered national sovereignty is one the Soviets invoked to justify their decision (along with a handful of their client states) to abstain when the UN General Assembly voted to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the founding document of human rights law—in 1948.)

Virtuosos of Hypocrisy

In attempting to justify U.S. withdrawal from the Council, Haley perpetuated a national savior complex that is the virtuoso of hypocrisy among nation states. She invoked the myth that America’s chief role in the international human rights community is that of exemplary leader, lighting the way for the less enlightened.

It is no surprise that other countries appealed to American egoism in trying to keep the U.S. involved. Too often, even human rights advocates play this card, urging America to participate so that we might lead, appealing to our stubborn self-conception as the world’s elect.

But the façade of American heroism falls away when a leader like Haley reviles UN authorities for pointing out that our separation policy tramples on children’s fundamental human rights. Her outraged insistence that the U.S. alone will decide its border policy—irrespective of international human rights law—illustrates the tyranny of absolute sovereignty. We lose all moral standing to cry “hypocrisy!” when our leaders declare that we shall do whatever we please, human rights be damned.

There is no taking the speck from our brother’s eye without extracting the timber from our own. Our self-praise does not help us grow in respect for human dignity and worth. Instead, it enables us to model the politically calculated inconsistency on human rights that belies any vain claims of virtue. And it makes us vulnerable to Russian quips that the Council is more effective without us, anyway.

Particularly if our leaders dare to profess that human rights are grounded in the very person of God, then we should learn to do right. We might begin by considering ourselves more soberly—as a nation human and imperfect, struggling mightily to embody our glorious potential and ideals. We, too, need community, accountability, and at times forgiveness.

Human rights are sacred ground. Our leaders are duty bound to uphold them. We must honor all those in the minority. And we must never suffer hypocrisy.

This much I can agree with.

[1] For more on this See Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions, “Chart of the Status of National Institutions” (Feb. 21, 2018). See also Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “National Human Rights Institutions: History, Principles, Roles and Responsibilities” (Geneva 2010).

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