Human rights in the age of Trump

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States raises serious questions about the future of basic human rights in America. 

In his almost daily barrage of media commentary and tweets to the American public, the new president has shown an astounding lack of awareness or concern for human rights, such as free speech and assembly, freedom of religious belief, racial and gender equality, freedom to travel, labor rights, public education, freedom from want, or the right to vote. 

Of course, what President Trump says on any given day may be quite different from what he and his administration actually do. Still, Trump voters seem to be undismayed, for the moment at least, and Trump was legally elected, and in a democracy voters get what they voted for — with a little help from the Electoral College.

Ignorance is part of the problem. In a large-scale, door-to-door poll throughout the Midwest (which voted for Trump), self-styled conservative voters were shown text taken from the U.S. Constitution, including the Preamble, which has the purpose to “promote the general Welfare.” A substantial number of respondents said they believed that the text must have come from some sort of “communist tract.”

This is a reflection of how far a significant segment of U.S. society has slid downhill from an understanding of American constitutional law and democratic government. One Republican state official showed unusually specific knowledge of political history, announcing that “Public school education was invented by the Communists in 1917.” (Note the accuracy of the date.) 

Given this state of affairs, it might be useful to review how Universal and American human rights became one and the same set of basic human rights for all.

In 1948, following the second “war to end all wars,” the U.S. signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Much of that Declaration, urged by U.S. participants, was cribbed from the U.S. Constitution. Yet the Convention now has the standing of International Treaty Law. 

What does that mean? According to Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, “All Treaties made under the Authority of the United States shall be the Supreme Law of the Land.” The term “Supreme” means, quite literally, “highest in rank or authority.” In short, in the USA there is no higher law.

So, what does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and thus the supreme law of the United States, actually say about some of these political and social issues? The following are a few succinct quoted examples relating to labor rights:

Article 22: “Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security.”

Article 23.2: “Everyone, without discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.”

Article 23.3: “Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration.”

Article 24: “Everyone has the right to reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.”

Article 25.1: “Everyone has a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, housing and medical care.”

Article 26.1: “Everyone has the right to education (which) shall be free at least at the elementary stage.”

In short, many of the social policies and programs proposed by “liberal” and “progressive” Democrats, and opposed by Trump supporters and “conservative” Republicans, are actually the embodiment of universal human rights and home-grown American values. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the U.S. Constitution are not “communist tracts” after all. They are the expression of democratic principles that are as American as apple pie.

Take the question of torture. Then-President-elect Trump infamously stated his support for a particular form of torture: “My administration will approve the use of waterboarding in a heartbeat. Only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work.” 

Work or not work, it’s torture. More recently, President Trump announced, “As I said before, we are going to bring back waterboarding.” What Trump doesn’t realize, or doesn’t care to realize, is that in 1984 (under President Reagan) the U.S. signed and bound itself to the “U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.” 

That binding international human rights treaty requires states, including the U.S., to criminalize all forms of torture (defined to include “waterboarding”), and to report, investigate and prosecute suspected acts of torture, and on due conviction requires punishment as a first-degree felony crime (i.e., imprisonment). The Convention was worded to aim specifically at heads of state (such as Adolph Hitler) and other high-level officials who authorize or condone torture.

If the president of the United States “engages in torture,” that is an impeachable offense, to be decided by a political body, the U.S. Senate. Normally, a president cannot otherwise be sued as a matter of law, except that, impeached or not, if guilty of the crime of torture, he must be convicted and jailed as a matter of overriding national and international human rights law. There is no other option available. 

So, if President Trump authorizes waterboarding or any other form of torture, and if a single act of such torture occurs during his term of office, then he has to be convicted. To paraphrase Trump himself, we won’t be saying “Lock her up,” we’ll be saying “Lock him up.”


Sharon resident Anthony Piel is a former director and general legal counsel of the World Health Organization.