By JORGE G. CASTAÑEDA
APRIL 26, 2017
MEXICO CITY — Last month, the United States declined to appear before the InterAmerican Human Rights Commission in Washington, for the first time in decades.
It is a member and participates regularly in the commission’s meetings. But this time, it was the United States delegation that faced questioning — about President Trump’s executive orders to bar travelers from six Muslim majority countries, to accelerate deportation of undocumented migrants and to weaken environmental regulations.
The refusal to appear placed Washington in the dubious company of Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba on accountability for human rights compliance.
Congratulations, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson.
Granted, the United States has never been totally consistent in championing human rights abroad, nor perfect in achieving those ideals at home. It also is not a party to the 1968 American Convention on Human Rights. But in openly retreating from its selfappointed role as a defender of the ideals that underpin the compact, it is showing cynical contempt for human rights even as a goal. This practically guarantees a result we are beginning to see: Dictators and other bullies are emboldened to trample rights and liberties with impunity.
Already, in the Western Hemisphere and the Middle East, there is grim confirmation that steadfast support from Washington is essential if the rest of the world is to take human rights seriously.
Mr. Trump has grown cozy with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, an egregious rights violator whom he recently celebrated at the White House as a “fantastic guy.” He stopped openly expressing admiration for Vladimir V. Putin of Russia only after he backed up the Syrian dictator Bashar alAssad’s patently false denial that sarin gas was used to kill Syrian civilians — an atrocity that even Mr. Trump had to acknowledge was the work of an “animal.”
And in recent weeks, Secretary Tillerson chose not to promulgate his department’s annual Human Rights Report, while proposals to chop American assistance for international organizations contributed to fears within the United Nations that the United States might withdraw from the Human Rights Council.
Recently, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico put the issue of impunity front and center when he sent a bill to Mexico’s Congress that would weaken many judicial reforms adopted in the last decade. The fairtrial standards that could be gutted include the presumption of innocence, the inadmissibility of hearsay and testimony obtained under torture, and a prohibition on holding suspects for a long time without trial.
The reforms being overturned had been undertaken after Washington pressed for them. In 2007, Mr. Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón, sought American aid for his reckless, bloody and exorbitant war on drugs. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama foolishly acquiesced, in exchange demanding changes in Mexico’s justice system and providing funds for the changes.
Mr. Peña Nieto’s backtracking also includes seeking passage — long delayed by Congress — of an internal security law. In principle, it creates a legal framework for the military’s role in law enforcement, emphasizing drug trafficking and organized crime. But it also would allow a near state of siege in locales where the police have proved incapable of guaranteeing order. Many Mexican legal analysts say this could offer the military a blanket amnesty for human rights violations.
Under other circumstances, the United States could be a force for the rule of law, human rights and civilian control over the military in Mexico — for example, by rescinding a shameful decision last year, by President Obama’s State Department, to certify that Mexico had made enough progress in human rights to receive new funding.
But what case could the Trump administration make to deter Mr. Peña Nieto from suppressing the judicial reforms? Many Mexicans would protest: Who are they, in Washington, to lecture us about due process or the presumption of innocence? Those people drafted the Homeland Security Department’s new guidelines on “expanded expedited removal” and “chargeable acts,” with the explicit purpose of speeding up and increasing deportations of Mexicans.
This is the key issue. By recommending that expedited removal be extended to migrants detained anywhere in the United States (rather than just within 100 miles of the border) and to all who have been in the United States for up to two years (rather than two weeks), John F. Kelly, the Homeland Security secretary, proposes to eliminate due process for many undocumented migrants. Now the matter is in the courts, and it could take years for a definitive decision by the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2001 that individuals without papers were entitled to due process.
In the meantime, how can Washington press Mexico to maintain its reforms on due process, when the administration is fighting for the right to deport tens or hundreds of thousands of Mexicans without their day in court?
The same logic applies to the presumption of innocence. Washington’s new guidelines put at risk of immediate deportation any person whom a customs or border agent believes may have committed a “chargeable” act. The deportee need not have been charged, tried and sentenced, and the nature of the act would be irrelevant. Just being in the United States without authorization could provoke arrest, and in the absence of priorities for deportation, it is the easiest offense to invoke.
Mexico is not the hemisphere’s only skeptic about Mr. Trump’s policies. Fearing that democracy itself is in jeopardy in Latin America, the Organization of American States is about to embark on a complex route to suspending Venezuela from its ranks. By invoking the InterAmerican Democratic Charter, a group of those nations hopes to force the government of the quasi dictator Nicolás Maduro to call elections and free political prisoners, or face suspension.
The group of countries includes the United States and Mexico, leaving Mr. Maduro a virtual invitation to fire back: “Who are Trump and Peña Nieto to give Venezuela lessons on democracy and human rights, when one would return to letting a court accept confessions obtained under torture, and the other threatens to deport hundreds of thousands of people without a hearing?”
Indeed, Washington has anything but a sterling record on human rights issues in Latin America, where it has supported or tolerated countless dictatorships. But at the end of the Reagan administration and the Cold War, a distinct new appreciation of the benefits of democratic governance and human rights became a canon, at least verbally, in every president’s policies. Certainly Mr. Obama had more achievement to flaunt in encouraging reconciliation in Cuba and Colombia, and much less to regret elsewhere, than his predecessors.
And that is all the more reason that regression is so perilous.
Even when the United States puts its full efforts behind human rights and democracy, the results can be disappointing. Countries like Mexico will ultimately be obliged to fix their justice and law enforcement systems on their own.
Still, it is better to have the United States, with all its power, on the right side of the equation, rather than on the wrong side, where President Trump is increasingly placing it.