Human rights off the agenda – quietly.


The day could not have been better positioned for a loud, unrestrained, guttural howl of outrage and indignation. And while I did indeed hear words of anger, disappointment, and deep concern, there wasn’t a single howl. Not one. Disappointing…

It was just last Thursday, March 16th, and early that morning President Trump released his new “Make America Great” budget. It was a “skinny budget”, lacking the detail and policy weight of a comprehensive federal budget document, but it had the attention of everyone in that room.

“That room” was the Helene D. Gayle Global Development Symposium, hosted by the wonderful organization CARE, and held in the Reserve Officers Association building’s conference room. We were convened just across Constitution Avenue from the U.S. Senate offices – where the real budget battle will soon be fought. The audience gathered there was almost entirely women, which aligned with the topic: the plight of women and girls around the world. Still, the idealist might be excused if he or she presumed that the topic of women and girls – half the population of the world – might reasonably attract the attention and concern of men who are active in the international development community, but no. As happens so often, we were mostly women talking to women about women, ironically in a room resplendent of the patriarchy with somber pictures on the walls of distinguished (male) military icons staring down sternly at the impudent female speakers.

The weight of that just-published budget set the mood, despite the stalwart efforts of many speakers to be upbeat and positive. It felt to me that all of us were hunkered down in an attitude of resignation; self-made victims of a disempowering capitulation to “the way things are”. Many speakers spoke in pragmatic and occasionally wistful tones about the usual obstacles and successes, and how we might best find a way ahead for facilitating a type of development that would truly address and engage women and girls as full human beings. But there was no fire in their bellies, and there were no howls.

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright – a truly remarkable woman whose presence alone in any room is deeply inspirational – spoke on a panel with former USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, who was recently elevated to become president of the Rockefeller Foundation. Both disparaged Trump’s proposed slashing of foreign aid, but both were diplomatic and measured in their abhorrence of what this budget signified. Secretary Albright urged everyone to reframe the conversation so that Trump supporters would see how foreign aid is “in America’s interest” and to return to the contextualizing of foreign aid as an integral component of national security, as has been done under previous Republican administrations. Dr. Shah pointed out the obvious logical flaws in a foreign aid approach that cut U.S. contributions to multilateral institutions – contributions that leveraged five or six times as much money from other foreign donors, and he decried the impact of the proposed deep cuts to humanitarian relief and peacekeeping. As with so many, many conversations since Trump became president, speakers – some of whom were Republicans – adopted a defensive or at least a cautious stance, and pondered aloud how we all might best “protect the progress” that had been made for women and girls over the past decade – even in the face of potentially catastrophic changes eagerly sought by this administration. The language of “the resistance” however was either muted or absent in that room, as most of us simply felt the uncomfortable weight of a new America that is suddenly inward-turning, focused on strength and hard power, and dismissive of anything “soft”: compassion, care, and sensitivity to the suffering of the poor and vulnerable beyond our borders (and even within our borders). It was an uncomfortable recognition for a room filled with women who care.

Where were the strong voices insisting that human dignity is universal, that human rights must be protected and promoted, that poverty and conflict are not inevitable, and that women and girls deserve to have lives characterized by freedom, choice, influence, equity, health, and respect? Where was the clarion call to the barricades, to stand in solidarity with the powerless and the vulnerable around the world? Where were the demands that human rights matter, and that America must stand up to its leadership role as the global champion of human rights? Where were the howls of protest, disgust, and shock at what the Trump agenda means for all of us engaged in international development?

This wasn’t the discourse of the day, and there wasn’t as much as a single howl among the lot of us. At one point I did give serious thought to offering a polite and respectful challenge to Secretary Albright and Dr. Shah to reflect on where the United States ought to be moving on the topic of universal human rights, but I couldn’t bear the probability that these two speakers would wave this aside as irrelevant to our times. After all, we are in the era of America First, and we had better learn that language. Human rights – that was the language of a different time and place. Get over it.

It would have been too painful to hear that; then it would have been my time to howl, but I worried that such a cry would connote much more of anguish than of defiance. Are we really past the time of advocating for global values that speak to the universality of human dignity? Are we giving up on that essential conversation, and the once-powerful advocacy around it? Is the topic of human rights no longer a vibrant and motivating discourse to Americans?

Trump’s new budget, with its proposed drastic cuts in foreign assistance, humanitarian relief, and diplomacy, sends a withering message to this effect. So too did the realization last Thursday afternoon in that room with those committed development partners that the words “human rights” were notable by their absence. If we could not make the “pragmatic”, America-first, security and stability argument for foreign aid, then we should all just go home.

What if we are selling America short?

What if we were to hear instead a strong voice calling out to America – all of America – to stand in unity with those who suffer and struggle around the world, to stand up for universal human dignity, to believe in peace and equality. The irony wasn’t lost on me that the hosting organization for the event was CARE, yet the dialogue of care and compassion was suffused or implied at best. There were no howls to care – and to extend that care to those in such urgent need of care and solidarity in Syria and throughout the middle east. There was little said about the 65 million displaced persons, or the 22 million people who stand on the precipice of starvation in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, and South Sudan. Are Americans really that hard-hearted? That’s not ever been my experience of America, although recent political changes do give me pause.

Yes, it is true that the United States has been walking back from human rights leadership for a long time. Even in our recent domestic movements, such as the Occupy Movement and Black Lives Matter, the language of human rights is largely absent. As a nation, we were slow to adopt the Genocide Convention, and we are now the only country in the world who has not signed on to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. At least we have the (disquieting) company of South Sudan, Somalia, Iran, and three others in not signing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Our inactions speak as loudly as our actions.

Human rights however is more than these treaties, more than a Universal Declaration signed 69 years ago, and more than a body of international laws. Human rights is a moral framework – a way to own the reality that morally we are all fellow creatures on this planet. Human rights is a way to think and to be.

The universality, importance, and relevance of human dignity and human rights are under assault now by this president and his lieutenants to a degree unmatched since we emerged from the horrors of World War II. We’ve never needed that language, the advocacy, and the commitment that is integral to it, more than we do now.

It’s time to howl, and it’s time to act.


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