Hu­man rights, when con­ve­nient

For Mr. Trump, ‘uni­ver­sal’ has be­come ‘sit­u­a­tional.’

The Washington Post - - POWER POST -

IT IS not true that Pres­i­dent Trump and mem­bers of his ad­min­is­tra­tion never speak of the hor­ror of hu­man rights abuses and au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. Just the other day, in his ad­dress to the South Korean Na­tional As­sem­bly, Mr. Trump vividly de­picted the con­se­quences of the “cruel dic­ta­tor­ship” of North Korea: the gu­lags, forced la­bor, tor­ture, star­va­tion, pro­pa­ganda and sur­veil­lance of a peo­ple largely de­nied con­tact with the out­side world.

But on the same trip to Asia, which ended Tues­day with Mr. Trump’s re­turn to Hawaii, the pres­i­dent went to China and ex­pressed ad­mi­ra­tion for “a very special man,” Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, who has just el­e­vated his in­tol­er­ant and iron-fisted rule to a cult of per­son­al­ity not seen since Mao. Mr. Xi suf­fo­cates free­dom and throws dis­si­dents into prison; China has erected the world’s largest dig­i­tal fire­wall to blind cit­i­zens to the out­side world. Mr. Trump may have no­ticed that, af­ter their meet­ing, Mr. Xi did not bother to take ques­tions from the press. Mr. Trump ut­tered not a word of protest.

What this trip showed — and Mr. Trump’s over­all for­eign pol­icy re­flects — is that hu­man rights and democ­racy are seen by the pres­i­dent not as uni­ver­sal prin­ci­ples de­mand­ing at­ten­tion ev­ery­where, but as cud­gels to be rolled out se­lec­tively, to crit­i­cize tyrants and rights abusers when con­ve­nient, and to be eas­ily ig­nored else­where. There al­ways has been ten­sion in U.S. for­eign pol­icy be­tween hu­man rights and other pri­or­i­ties; Mr. Trump is not the first pres­i­dent to have to bal­ance com­pet­ing pri­or­i­ties. He is the first in mem­ory, though, to show so lit­tle de­vo­tion to democ­racy and hu­man rights as val­ues — and such en­thu­si­asm for lead­ers who are con­temp­tu­ous of those val­ues. His ea­ger­ness to cast aside any con­cern for lib­erty when it comes to his au­to­cratic friends in China, Rus­sia, Saudi Ara­bia and the Philip­pines un­der­mines the hu­man rights rhetoric he em­ploys, no mat­ter how force­fully, with re­gard to regimes he dis­likes, such as North Korea’s.

In a tough speech on Nov. 1, U.S. Am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions Nikki Ha­ley called out Raúl Cas­tro’s regime in Cuba for “fail­ure to meet even the min­i­mum re­quire­ments of a free and just so­ci­ety.” On Nov. 7, the State Depart­ment is­sued a strong state­ment de­nounc­ing Venezuela’s Ni­colás Maduro for suf­fo­cat­ing democ­racy. But Mr. Trump sailed through Asia with hardly a pub­lic word about the per­se­cuted Ro­hingya Mus­lims in Burma, where hun­dreds of thou­sands have fled bru­tal eth­nic cleans­ing. (He men­tioned it only be­hind closed doors in his fi­nal talk with re­gional lead­ers.) Mr. Trump did not call out Viet­nam’s lead­ers for egre­gious re­pres­sion of free ex­pres­sion. In the Philip­pines, he did not ex­press dis­com­fort at the thou­sands of ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings by po­lice and vig­i­lantes of drug sus­pects un­der Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte, and he laughed as Mr. Duterte at­tacked jour­nal­ists as “spies.”

It should not be dif­fi­cult for an Amer­i­can pres­i­dent to speak out on any of these. By giv­ing so many free passes to au­thor­i­tar­i­ans, while treat­ing hu­man rights as an ex­pe­di­ency, Mr. Trump em­bold­ens those who would crush dis­sent and sti­fle lib­erty.

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