On International Human Rights Day, a Lesson for Trump

Eleanor Roosevelt holds the Spanish-language version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Saturday is International Human Rights Day, commemorating the day in 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The significance of the day and its history is something that President-elect Donald Trump should reckon with after running a campaign that demonstrated outright contempt for human rights, particularly his “love” of waterboarding.

Right now, we don’t yet know what Donald Trump will try in office. But to fight against any policies embodying the islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, or misogyny that were embraced during his campaign, we know that we have decades of international human rights law on our side. And no president can undo that because ratified treaties are not just lofty aspirations — under the Constitution they’re “the supreme law of the land.”

In the aftermath of the horrors of World War II, the international community resolved to establish a robust international framework to maintain peace and security and promote human rights. It created the United Nations and the modern human rights system.

Since then, the United States has played a critical role in creating global and regional human rights institutions based on treaties and international conventions that protect a whole host of human rights. Among the ratified agreements are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Form of Racial Discrimination.

With American leadership, the global community established standards for the treatment of prisoners of war and prosecuted war crimes and crimes against humanity at Nuremberg. Today, the Geneva Conventions are binding on every country and are among the universally accepted laws of war, categorically prohibiting acts of torture and cruelty.

In 1951, the international community was faced with the daunting task of establishing international cooperation in resettling vulnerable refugees following the war and protecting their most basic human rights. The U.S. led the global effort to establish the Refugee Convention, which now forms the international standards for refugee protection and resettlement. Under it, countries may not discriminate against refugees on the basis of “race, religion, or country of origin.” Our country is a nation of immigrants and must continue to be seen as a safe haven to refugees from around the world. It’s the right and moral thing to do.

Despite our all-too-often shortcomings in practicing at home what we preach abroad, more often than not, the U.S. has helped make these global commitments stronger. However, we've also benefitted tremendously from our investment and engagement with international law and institutions. Though its universality may make it seem abstract, international law has a tremendous impact in nearly all facets of our daily lives, from environmental well-being and public health to high-stakes governmental questions of public safety and armed conflict.

These international agreements are still binding on us today, and they will continue to be under a President Trump. No matter how hard he tries to establish mass deportations, it’ll still constitute a flagrant violation of international law. No matter how hard he tries to bring back “waterboarding, or a hell of a lot worse,” torture will remain illegal under both the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture (in addition to U.S. law). No matter how hard he pursues a total or even partial ban on entry for Muslim refugees and immigrants or tries to re-enact Bush’s failed NSEER discriminatory registry program, international law still forbids them.

Hopefully, Trump will realize that even if he decides to flout international human rights law, he would only be undermining our country’s interests. When the U.S. commits human rights abuses, other countries follow. It sets off a domino effect causing further instability, conflicts, and violence. And we lose the moral authority to do anything about it. We would also alienate allies on a whole host of issues pertaining to our national interest, including trade and sharing intelligence to fight real threats abroad.

Trump campaigned on his ability to make a deal. But human dignity and fundamental human rights are off-limits for bargaining. Protecting them and living up to our international obligations are the best deal for the American people and the rest of the world.

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Agree. But, the list of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, etc is tired and doesn't convince anyone of anything. Better to go straight to the facts without that boilerplate.


Well put! No aspect of American exceptionalist thinking strikes me as uglier or more sinister than the view that we can flout international laws against torture.

Vicki Bee

I wonder how Eric factored into human rights? He's the one who was burned alive just after begging for help to arrive that never could get there in time to save him. Then was pummeled into bone fragments that continued to burn for 12 days after the initial explosion that killed him, making DNA identification not possible right now. According to the Coroner's Office of New York City.
His human rights almost nobody cares about except his family and friends, they're all more interested in the rights of the "people" who advocated and/or paid to have him murdered on September 11, 2001. Khalid Sheik Mohammed & Qahtani, for two. If their goddam rights are so important so the hell were his. One doesn't get to pick and choose which people one finds more worthy of human rights.
But I've never heard anyone beyond family and friends say Eric and the 1000's of others' rights were important. They never sounded even half as outraged that his rights were annihilated by the very people for which they carry around tons of sympathy since finding out they were tortured. IMO it's obscene to feel the weight of the world for people who would happily slit your throat if you turned your back on them after giving them a knife.
Sorry but that's how I feel. It makes no sense to me. Other people might find it totally sensible but not me.


I can't speak for everyone, but I'm interested in preserving the basic human rights of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others not only because they are human (evil though I believe they are) but also because violating their human rights undermines the trial process that is designed to hold them accountable for the atrocities they have committed. That we are putting them through this process IS, legally-speaking, how we recognize and respect the human rights of those they have harmed. To blatantly disregard that and treat them as subhuman is to take several steps away from actual justice.


Great article, important read.

Mark Strickland

As a happy monthly donor to the ACLU I am excited they can fight for things where I have limits and I can do things locally where I can have an impact.

The world in general is in a very sad state. The ego's of our leaders at state and national levels (well at least the ones that we seemed to have voted into power by the minority that voted) are taking us farther into fear of the future. This manifests itself in lack of empathy for other humans and lack of empathy for the planet itself.

Ultimately, unless we get these ego's in check, they will destroy the planet and eventually all of humanity.

A few thousand years ago a human could express their ego by using a club on their fellow humans. Not good but it did have some limits. Today the push of a button can annihilate millions. Hummmmm .... progress? A better definition would be insanity. Maybe not the criminal definition but still insanity. If you doubt this is insanity go total up the number of humans killed in the 20th Century by other humans in wars and other actions that were not accidental. I suggest you will be shocked. Boil it down to an hourly number for each hour of the century and you will be horrified.

What humans do to other humans for the claim of good .... ????

The ultimate solution is to get people in power with less ego and more empathy. GO VOTE EVERY TIME YOU HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY! Human life has had this problem forever but the solution is getting people in power with some sense of empathy.

Thank you ACLU for being "Ready To Rumble". We need you more than ever.


Pat Witt

Unfortunately, Donald Trump would not be the first president to flout international laws. Since George W. Bush and Barack Obama has to a lesser extent have already been doing this, it is now more or less settled policy. Therefore, Donald Trump needs to do no more than to point to previous policy precedent. I hope the ACLU and other organization that I have supported will do all they can, but I am concerned that the boat has already left. Facism may already be underway.

ronald bryant

I am a proud member of ACLU and I want to join and work with this organization. I am the proud recipient of this organizations services when I was represented by the Supreme Court of the United States when I filed suit against the state of Ohio and the Dept of Criminal Justice as a worker who was wrongfully discriminated against as a native American. I was told to cut my hair or be fired, I resisted and won thanks to the work of Ted Kennedy and my attorneys. I am now concerned about the opresions of Donald Trump. I will actively engage and protest his presidency every step of the way, join me in this effort to protect our liberty.

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