What Would “America First” Mean for Human Rights Protection in the Middle East?

For decades, U.S. foreign policy has tried to balance the pursuit of national interests and the nation’s role as a champion of human rights. This balance gave a glimmer of hope to oppressed people worldwide that their rights and lives matter, even as they understood that those rights would not outweigh U.S. security and economic imperatives. The United States uses diplomacy and has on occasion conditioned military and economic collaboration on respect for the rights of individuals, organizations, and institutions to dissent. Previous administrations have struggled to achieve this difficult balance; they succeeded in some instances and failed in others. Yet, both Republican and Democratic administrations have embraced the notion that promoting human rights and democratic reforms in foreign partners is essential to U.S. interests. They recognized that states that are built on the respect of human rights and on the rule of law would be more reliable, stable, and prosperous trade and security partners. As such, diplomatic, economic, and strategic tools were applied, though selectively, in support of human rights in allied and adversarial countries alike.

However, President Donald Trump has defined his administration’s foreign policy as one that champions “America First.” This policy puts American national security—with a clear focus on fighting ISIS—at the center of the United States’ foreign policy while sidelining human rights protection. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has indicated that “it is really important that all of us understand the difference between policy and values… Our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated—those are our values. Those are not our policies… In some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals.”

The president’s trip to the Middle East provided a glimpse of how such an approach will be applied in a region plagued by human rights challenges. During his time in Saudi Arabia, the president stated that “America is a sovereign nation and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens. We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. [The] goal is to meet history’s great test—to conquer extremism and vanquish the forces of terrorism.” These words, together with the president’s embrace of autocrats in the Middle East and beyond, provide a very clear signal to world leaders that the United States will certainly not act (and may not even mildly object) if they violate human rights, particularly if they claim to do so on the grounds of countering terrorism.

Assured that their domestic actions would not trigger strong criticism by the United States, the Egyptian authorities have recently renewed a massive crackdown on civil society, arresting and trying a number of activists, as well as closing 114 websites (to date) on the grounds that they are a medium for terrorist propaganda. President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi of Egypt has enacted the Law on Associations, prohibiting nongovernmental organizations from engaging in any work that the government considers harmful for national security, public order, public morals, or public health. The law establishes a National Authority for the Regulation of Foreign Nongovernmental Organizations that has representation from Egypt’s top national security agencies to oversee the work of civil society organizations. The vague language of the law’s provisions in a security-charged environment increase the likelihood that the law will be used to silence opposing and critical voices and stifle human rights defenders and groups.

Similarly, the Bahraini authorities have engaged in heavy handed operations against their own citizens, justifying police forces’ actions on the grounds that these citizens advocate for violence and support terrorism. In a single protest in May 2017, Bahraini forces killed 5 and arrested 286 persons; such responses to citizen protests are unfortunately not new. The Bahraini authorities also suspended publication of the only independent newspaper in the country, Al Wasat, on the grounds that it stirs up tension and violence and jeopardizes Bahrain’s relations with other countries in the region. Further, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain approved in April 2017 an amendment to the constitution allowing military courts to try civilians “accused of threatening the security of the state.” This surge of human rights violations happened just two months after Secretary of State Tillerson lifted human rights as a condition (put in place by the Barack Obama administration) for the sale of F-16 fighter jets and other weapons to Bahrain, a country that is regarded as a key ally in the fight against terrorism.

A recent Freedom House report noted that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates remain countries of concern when it comes to their respect for human rights and their upholding of democratic values and the rule of law. Human rights defenders and groups in both countries continue to be subjected to intimidation and harassment. Both countries have troops in Yemen and claim to be fighting terrorism in that country. The war, which has been underway for almost two years, has resulted in 7,600 civilian casualties and has caused a humanitarian catastrophe. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Periodic Monitoring Review, “the situation in Yemen is worsening and more people are suffering and dying at the hands of a conflict that is using deliberate tactics to inflict suffering on civilians and to collapse community and institutional safety-nets that sustain life.” Yet the U.S. administration has had nothing to say about the actions of its allies.

Most Middle Eastern governments have a long record of violating the human rights of their citizens, including arbitrary detention, torture, forced disappearance, extrajudicial killing, and discrimination against minorities and women. Previous U.S. administrations put in place, albeit inconsistently, human rights conditions on military aid and support to these countries. The George W. Bush administration, for example, withheld aid to Egypt in protest of the conviction of Saadeddine Ibrahim, a prominent Egyptian human rights activist, in 2002. Human rights activists and groups in the region have counted on such engagement from the United States.

It would be a mistake for the United States to walk away from its long-standing support of human rights as a key component of its national security strategy. The crackdown on dissent in Bahrain, Egypt, and other Arab countries is far from leading to security and stability (as maintained by Arab leaders); in reality, such repression ultimately leads to instability and facilitates radicalization, threatening national, regional, and global security. The correlation between human rights abuses and state violence and support for violent extremist organizations and ideologies is well established. It is true that radicalization is complex and multifaceted. It differs from context to context and from individual to individual. What an analytical research has determined over the last decade, though, is that “[a]utocrats, political exclusion, flawed Western interventions, failing governance, closing avenues for peaceful political expression, the distrust of the state in neglected peripheries, traditional elites’ declining authority and the lack of opportunity for growing youth populations” are among the contributing factors for young people to join extremist groups. Terrorist groups leverage human rights violations, poor governance, the lack of the rule of law, discrimination, marginalization, and exclusion to radicalize individuals. Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Tunisia provide evidence that the failure of governments to protect their own citizens’ rights and address their grievances creates fertile ground for radical groups to galvanize enthusiastic recruits.

Adapting to these challenges requires adjusting U.S. foreign policy toward states’ obligations and responsibilities to their own citizens. Terrorism will not be defeated by military operations and airstrikes alone. Fighting terrorism must involve both defeating violent extremist groups and addressing the factors that drive these groups’ recruitment. Without such a broader, comprehensive approach advancing human rights and security as complementary interests, U.S. efforts to enhance its own security and that of its partners in the Middle East will fail. To put it simply, an effective foreign policy that focuses on national security and fighting terrorism must also help build inclusive societies rooted in human rights and the rule of law. This entails exerting pressure on Arab allies, partners in the fight against terrorism, to take concrete steps to open up political space and undertake real institutional reforms. In the words of 15 U.S. senators from both parties, “[a] world that is more democratic, respects human rights, and abides by the rule of law strengthens the security, stability and prosperity of America.”

Lana Baydas is a research fellow with the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Lana Baydas
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Human Rights Initiative