The political campaign and subsequent election of Donald Trump as president of the United States raises important questions about neutrality in university classrooms. Across disciplines, but particularly within the realms of international relations and political science, my colleagues struggle to identify fair and ethical approaches for “teaching Trump”. Yet as a human rights professor, the need to offer a critical perspective on current events has taken on a new, incredible sense of urgency.
My perspective on politics – one viewed through a “human rights lens,” if you will – requires me to assess U.S. domestic and foreign policies with an eye toward human rights frameworks such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and various binding instruments of international law. These rights are universal (meaning they belong to everyone, by virtue of being human) and are inalienable (meaning nothing you can do or say can strip you of your rights). The U.S. Constitution comes second to these principles, although it’s noteworthy that the Bill of Rights reinforces fundamental guarantees to justice, as well as freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion.
There is a difference between respecting varying political opinions and condoning the violation of human rights. We can debate whether President Trump’s proposed import tariffs will strengthen the U.S. economy, for instance, but we cannot ethically discuss whether some people have more of a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness than other human beings. In my scholarly work, I warn against the creation of “hierarchies of personhood” that translate into some people counting more as human beings worthy of rights protection. This is a process I see unfolding within American politics, where there is an increasing willingness to disregard human rights obligations in pursuit of national economic and security goals. Regardless of whether you are a Trump supporter or his staunch critic, we all have a vested interest in holding governments accountable to human rights norms. These are the ideals meant to hold states in check, adopted by the international community after Nazi Germany succeeded in killing more than six million innocent people without breaking a single law. When those protections no longer matter – when the well-being of certain people no longer matters – the jump toward oppressing larger groups of people, perhaps including yourself and your loved ones, becomes a much shorter distance indeed.
The first weeks of Trump’s presidency have given me cause for great concern on a variety of human rights-related fronts. Among them are an immigration ban which bars for 90 days people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. It further bans all refugees for 120 days – and Syrians indefinitely – despite the fact that refugees selected for U.S. resettlement already undergo a rigorous screening process and are entitled to special protections under the UN Refugee Convention. (Refugees are not, by any stretch of the imagination, “illegal immigrants” – a term dangerous applied to them by Trump.) Attacks on the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and Planned Parenthood threaten the right to health for thousands of America’s poorest citizens, while a “global gag rule” imperils the lives of women around the world. The privileging of corporate interests above environmental protection – including pushing ahead the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and moving to strip the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of its powers – threaten fundamental rights to health and livelihood, as well as cultural and religious rights of indigenous populations and others. Frequent attacks on the media are quickly becoming a war on the “fourth estate” of U.S. government, thus infringing of rights to freedom of expression that have been central to American identity since the country’s founding. Relatedly, anger over anti-Trump protests have fermented political views directly opposed to rights to freedom of expression and assembly – including a proposed law in North Dakota that would protect drivers if they hit anti-DAPL protestors with their cars. Rather than attempting to bridge the country’s deep racial divides and work toward safer cities, Trump has also threatened to further militarize the police (“send in the Feds”) in Chicago’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods while simultaneously scaling back on the country’s almost non-existent gun laws. (The U.S. House of Representatives just voted to end a law preventing people with severe mental illnesses from purchasing guns, for instance.) Notably, a United Nations report on the civilian acquisition, possession, and use of firearms highlights the “devastating impact” of gun violence on human rights – including the rights to life, security, education, health, an adequate standard of living, and participation in cultural life. And last but certainly not least, there is growing concern that Trump will seek wholesale exemptions to anti-discrimination measures in the name of religious liberty. In other words, Republicans could make it legal for companies and organizations to deny services, jobs, grants, health care, and various other social goods on the basis of “religious objections”. (I should note here that some U.S. Christians used their religion to justify slavery and racial segregation and object to racial equality, just in case you weren’t aware.) The list continues, but I hope I’ve made my point: Human rights norms are under threat in a number of deeply troubling ways.
In the classroom, I tell my students that it is not my place to tell them how to vote or engage in politics. However, it is my job to teach them how to think critically and make informed decisions. That is an enormous task, particularly when social networking and suspicious media sources inundate them with fabricated “news” stories and cleverly-disguised hate speech. Yet a vital resource in their toolkit is their knowledge of human rights, including an understanding of what human rights exist under international law and why they were formulated in the first place. If we remove the political drama and the emotional ploys, we can ask ourselves: Does this policy respect universal human rights? Is the government fulfilling its responsibilities as a duty bearer of these basic rights and protections? These questions will lead us through these dark political times. If we keep asking these questions – and we keep insisting that all human beings are worthy of a life of dignity – then we will stay on the proper course.
As a human rights educator and scholar, I will not normalize human rights violations as an acceptable or unavoidable cost of international politics and business. I will continue to align my political and moral beliefs with Article 1 of the UDHR, which states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” I will demand that my government upholds these values. And when it does not: I will resist.