Foreign Policy

Promoting Human Rights is Essential to an ‘America First’ Vision

7 minute read

When President Donald J. Trump gave his first address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York last summer, many pundits correctly identified something different about this Administration. “In Trump’s U.N. speech, emphasis on sovereignty echoes his domestic agenda,” The Washington Post’s headline read. “’Sovereignty’ the key word from Trump’s UN address,” CNBC reported.

Diverse nations coming together to “protect their sovereignty, preserve their security, and promote their prosperity” is indeed how President Trump explained the founding vision of the UN before its General Assembly last September. Naturally, such a vision is in the American national interest, the President said. “Our success depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations.”

But President Trump also made it clear that national sovereignty is a moral imperative in its own right. Sovereignty, after all, is indispensable for true democracy. “Strong, sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny,” the President told U.N. leaders in New York.

As a corollary, governments have a responsibility to their citizens. “We do expect all nations . . . to respect the interests of their own people,” President Trump said.

In other words, legitimate national sovereignty must begin with a respect for human rights.

That principle is echoed in the President’s National Security Strategy (NSS), which he unveiled in December. The NSS explains that a commitment to fundamental human rights is essential to advancing American influence abroad. Respect for human rights and democracy also produces peace, stability, and prosperity—making it an integral component of U.S. national security.

This principled, realistic approach to foreign policy is a fundamental component of “America First.”

To this end, the Trump Administration has consistently used diplomacy, sanctions, and other tools to isolate states and leaders whose actions run contrary to these values. The United States under President Trump will hold perpetrators of genocide and mass atrocities accountable for their crimes.


President Trump believes in sending a clear message to the world’s bad actors—and to their victims—by condemning human rights abuses in no uncertain terms:

  • The President told an audience of Muslim leaders at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that all nations of the world must come together to defeat the wicked ideology that perpetuates terrorism. He said we must help promote the aspirations and dreams of all citizens who seek a better life—including women, children, and followers of all faiths.
  • Speaking before the U.N. General Assembly, President Trump said that America respects the diversity of cultures and traditions among different nations. In turn, we expect all states to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation. “America stands with every person living under a brutal regime. Our respect for sovereignty is also a call for action. All people deserve a government that cares for their safety, their interests, and their wellbeing, including their prosperity,” the President said.
  • To the Korean National Assembly, President Trump did not mince words about Kim Jong Un’s sadistic government: “North Korea is a country ruled as a cult. . . . The more successful South Korea becomes, the more decisively you discredit the dark fantasy at the heart of the Kim regime.” Twelve weeks later, the President invited a heroic North Korean defector, Ji Seong-ho, to his first State of the Union Address in Washington.
  • During popular demonstrations against the brutal theocratic dictatorship in Iran, President Trump stood with the protestors. “Iran, the Number One State of Sponsored Terror with numerous violations of Human Rights occurring on an hourly basis, has now closed down the Internet so that peaceful demonstrators cannot communicate,” the President tweeted on New Year’s Eve.
  • In debuting the Administration’s policy on Cuba, President Trump stated clearly that “America believes that free, independent, and democratic nations are the best vehicle for human happiness, for health, for education, for safety, for everything.’”
  • President Trump’s speech to the people of Poland in Warsaw tied personal liberty to the fate of Western civilization itself. “Above all, we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom. That is who we are,” the President said. “Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty. We must work together to confront forces . . . that threaten over time to undermine these values.”

Through a full range of tools, the Trump Administration has taken action against violators and abusers of human rights:

  • When Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in a reprehensible attack against innocent people in Syria, including women and children, President Trump ordered a military airstrike against the regime’s ability to deliver chemical weapons. We have also called upon Russia to stop supporting Assad’s brutal regime.
  • America’s leadership in the ongoing campaign against ISIS is among the greatest accomplishments for human rights in recent memory. ISIS has killed thousands of innocent civilians, enslaved religious minorities, and propagated the serial abuse of women. The Administration—through Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—stated without qualification during the roll-out of the 2016 International Religious Freedom report that ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims in areas it controls or has controlled. The Administration’s resolve to defeat ISIS is helping to relieve human suffering on a grand scale.
  • In Venezuela, President Trump strongly supported the Venezuelan people against the tyranny of the Maduro dictatorship. The Administration has increased pressure on the government in Caracas through targeted individual and financial sanctions.
  • The Trump Administration reversed the previous U.S. policy toward Cuba that strengthened the grip of the Communist dictatorship while doing nothing to improve the freedom and prosperity of the Cuban people. President Trump’s new policy enhances compliance with U.S. law and holds the regime in Havana accountable for oppression and human rights abuses.
  • In Burma, the Administration has made clear that military forces have conducted ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, and it supports efforts through the U.N. and through U.S. law to demand accountability for these mass atrocities.
  • President Trump used the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to sanction 13 serious human right abusers and corrupt actors, also imposing sanctions on an additional 39 affiliated individuals and entities.
  • The Administration re-designated 11 countries as countries of concern using the International Religious Freedom Act. Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were classified as Countries of Particular Concern, and Pakistan was placed on a Special Watch List for severe violations of religious freedom.
  • President Trump and members of his Administration—most notably Ambassador Nikki Haley—have been persistent in efforts to reform the U.N. Human Rights Council, including a push to remove egregious human rights abusers such as Cuba and Venezuela. The United States also objected to the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s candidacy for the Council.

“If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph,” President Trump told U.N. leaders last year. “When decent people and nations become bystanders to history, the forces of destruction only gather power and strength.”

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