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USA: Time for renewed vigilance for equality and human rights


United States

11 November 2016

The election of Donald Trump as 45th president of the United States begs sober reflection on the role human rights issues have played in the presidential campaign, and on the broader implications his victory has for human rights in the US and internationally.

The president-elect’s campaign for office caused worldwide consternation for the open disdain he showed for human rights and equality. Both in formal debates and off-the-cuff remarks, he denigrated women, Muslims, migrants, people of color and people with disability, among others. He boasted unashamedly about evading the civic duty to pay taxes, pledged to “cancel” the recent global agreement on climate change and threatened to dismantle health care reforms which have extended coverage to millions. In the course of his campaign, he has justified torturing detainees and sexually assaulting women, while widespread allegations have surfaced of the abuse of workers under the real estate mogul’s employment.

Many of these are human rights issues at the core of CESR’s work. The prospect of a presidency which promotes or condones human rights abuses in this way is therefore serious cause for alarm, particularly in light of the racist, repressive and misogynistic discourse and actions unleashed and given legitimacy by his campaign. As in other contexts, rhetorical vilification can be a prelude to victimization in reality, and many people across the country have reported feeling increasingly fearful for their safety and rights because of their gender, color, migration status or sexual orientation, for example.

Many of the grievances which appear to have fuelled Donald Trump’s support are also related to the economic and social rights issues on which we campaign. Deepening deprivation, growing inequality and large-scale blue-collar job losses linked to a globalized economy have fed widespread disillusionment with the political establishment and appear to have been powerful drivers of Trump’s electoral victory. As seen in many other countries, the failure of governments to address these grievances leaves a vacuum that populist politicians fill through vitriolic fear-mongering and scapegoating of migrants, Muslims, minorities and convenient “others” – even if, as in the US, members of these communities are often in reality among the most economically and politically disadvantaged. Demographic analyses of the vote reveals a country starkly divided along lines of race, geography, gender and levels of education, and indicate that Donald Trump’s support was strongest in areas with the highest levels of income inequality.

Economic inequality and its relationship to other entrenched forms of disparity and discrimination is perhaps the paramount public policy concern that this electoral outcome should bring to the fore. The gap between rich and poor in the US has escalated in recent decades to levels not seen since the 1930s. As CESR and US human rights organizations and networks have highlighted, stark income inequalities correlate with pronounced and persistent racial and gender disparities in access to education, health, housing, work and other areas of economic and social rights enjoyment.

Statements made during the campaign raise serious fears that the inequality crisis will become even more acute under the new administration. As a recent CESR report highlights, reducing economic inequality from a human rights perspective requires a set of redistributive and pre-distributive policies such as tackling discrimination, protecting labor rights and levelling the playing field through progressive taxation and well-resourced social services such as health and education. These policies are diametrically opposed to those espoused by the president-elect. Behind the rhetorical pledge of massive job creation lies an agenda for corporate deregulation with potentially disastrous consequences for labor, social and environmental rights. Internationally, the likely disengagement from multilateralism could put the brakes on ongoing progress to tackle fundamental global human rights concerns such as climate change, cross-border tax abuse and the sustainable development agenda.

While it has always been a challenge to push US administrations to recognize that human rights apply in the sphere of economic and social policy, advancing economic and social rights against this backdrop will likely be even more of an uphill struggle over the next four years. Longer-term, proposed appointments to the Supreme Court could affect how constitutional values of equality, human rights and social justice are understood and defended for generations to come.

Human rights guarantees contained in the US’s domestic legal order – as well as in international standards which the US historically helped to forge – represent a critical bulwark against the arbitrary abuse of power. The current context demands renewed resistance and readiness by the human rights community to deploy these safeguards whenever people’s rights are under threat from the impact of US policies, within or beyond its borders. It also demands greater efforts to articulate progressive rights-based alternatives to the trickle-down economics that are fuelling social and economic inequality and political disenfranchisement. This means bringing a critical human rights lens to the dogmatic policy prescriptions of austerity, deregulation, liberalization and privatization that have consolidated their hold in every continent since the global financial crisis of 2008.

As an international, non-partisan organization which seeks to hold all governments accountable to their human rights obligations, CESR will support and complement the efforts of national partners to hold the new US administration accountable to its human rights obligations in all areas of public policy, and to ensure that the legal and institutional protection of all human rights – and the space to claim and defend them – is not eroded but robustly reinforced. As part of our ongoing work to address widening economic inequality as one of the key human rights issues of our time, we will remain particularly vigilant to ensure that no government is allowed to trump the fundamental premise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that all human beings are “equal in dignity and rights”.