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Opinion | John Shattuck and Kathryn Sikkink

The US turns its back on human rights

Rwandan Hutu children watch Burundian soldiers at Gashoho, about 40 miles from Burundi’s border with Tanzania, in April 1995.ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images

Twenty years ago, the US State Department opened an office charged with seeking justice for victims of human rights atrocities like the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. This week the State Department says they might shut it down.

Human rights violations are raging around the world — in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, South Sudan, Burma, and many other countries. Shuttering the State Department Office of Global Criminal Justice would send a signal to repressive governments everywhere that the US government is no longer concerned about deterring mass atrocity. A State Department spokeswoman said the decision to close the office is part of a “restructuring,” but the symbolism of the move, in conjunction with other recent Trump administration policy, is exactly the wrong message to send at this moment.


Authoritarian regimes around the world believe the Trump administration will ignore their human rights violations. Leaders responsible for massacres of their own citizens, like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi or President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, receive coveted invitations to the Oval Office. Rex Tillerson’s speech in early May arguing for a separation of US values from its foreign policy was widely interpreted as signaling a desertion of long standing US human rights policies.

Autocrats listened and acted. President Erdogan of Turkey has ramped up his arrests of people working on human rights. Not content with the more than 50,000 people arrested since an attempted coup last July, Turkish authorities last week detained Amnesty International’s director of operations in Turkey, nine other human rights advocates attending a workshop, and academics from prestigious universities who research human rights. In the past, the US government would have spoken out strongly against such detentions. Now, it is sending signals that the government will no longer support accountability for even the most serious human rights violations: war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.


For more than two decades, we have followed US human rights policy generally, and the work of the Global Criminal Justice office specifically. Through long experience, both of us believe that securing justice for victims of war crimes is not only ethically the right policy, but leads to safer societies and a safer world.

The assertion by Tillerson that US policy should promote US interests — not US values — flies in the face of experience and research showing that supporting democracy, human rights, and accountability sustains long-term US interests. Authoritarian leaders who believe that they have impunity will continue to commit crimes against their own citizens and against other countries. North Korea is only the most prominent example of how complete power and impunity embolden dangerous leaders. During WWII, and in the genocides in Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda, we learned that ignoring mass atrocity only incites perpetrators, aggrieves victims, and leads to continuing cycles of violence. Since that time, countries have created domestic and international institutions to seek accountability for atrocity. Since 1997, the Office of Global Criminal Justice has provided US support for these institutions and the victims they have served, demonstrating the linkage between US and global values and interests.

President Trump’s recent performance at the G-20 summit was widely viewed as evidence that the United States no longer has the desire or capacity to lead other countries in pursuing global values and interests. Leadership means more than simply promoting US economic and business interests, the main goal that Tillerson has set for the downsized State Department. International leaders establish a following among individuals and countries by working toward common goals. What more common goal do we share than the prevention of war crimes and genocide?


John Shattuck, former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, is senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and professor of practice in diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Kathryn Sikkink is the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights at the Harvard Kennedy School and Pforzheimer Professor at Radcliffe.