America and human rights post-2016 elections: A view from the South post-2016 elections: A view from the South

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This article reflects on the recently concluded presidential election in the United States and its potential implications for the promotion of democracy and human rights across the world, particularly in Africa. It suggests that the election provides an opportunity for the US to deepen rather than reduce its engagement.

The 2016 US presidential election was always going to produce an unprecedented outcome. Had she won, Hillary Clinton would have become the first woman to be elected US president. Going by many pre-election polls, that was the outcome most Americans preferred. But the polls were wrong. Donald Trump won. He is the first to win without any prior political or military experience. In a sense, that takes the limits off certain preconceptions about the presidency of the United States. It also sets a precedent, one that is not as pleasant – that one could become president of the “free world” with a lot of baggage, from racism to sexism.

Perhaps, the big question now is – will Donald Trump go ahead with some of his more dangerous election pledges? The jury is still out on this. There is no known template by which to speculate but there is a sense in which one can argue that the institutions of democracy might be able to constrain him. The only problem is that the Republican Party to which he belongs is effectively in control of Congress and, although there are certain elements within the party that do not subscribe to some of his ideas, there is a sense in which one might argue that the party will support its own. Related, a single appointment to fill the vacancy created by Justice Scalia’s passage could tilt the Supreme Court a little more to the right thereby aligning with Mr. Trump’s predominant disposition.

Several reasons have been advanced for Trump’s victory. The one that appears to resonate with most people is that majority of Americans revolted against the status quo. They felt left out of the policies and programmes of Washington and therefore decided to use the power of the ballot to express their disappointment. This may be true on paper. However, the voting pattern does not necessarily support it. The two candidates had fairly even popular votes although Trump had over 30% more in Electoral College votes. To get a clearer sense of what happened before and on November 8, we probably need more scientific studies. What is important at this point is to reflect a bit on the likely implications of a Trump presidency for different interests, including human rights.

While Stephen Hudgood essentially worries about the future of human rights under Donald Trump, particularly his idea of “America first,” I think it sounds like a good idea for a country whose people appear to be disconnected from its leadership. However, it could potentially have far reaching negative implications for the rest of the world, particularly Africa. If “America first” includes the notion of de-prioritizing promotion of human rights and democracy abroad, it would surely hurt the world in a profound way.

Just think about the advance of democracy since Samuel Huntington’s “third wave” began in 1974 and the possibilities that has created for many people across the world. Although there appears to be a growing tendency towards deconsolidation with recent events in Turkey and elsewhere, democracy is still the surest guarantee for the advancement of human rights around the world. If America therefore turns its back to the promotion of democracy and human rights, we are likely to have a swifter slide down the spiral of deconsolidation and that will certainly hurt its interests too. In a way America matters to the world as much as the world matters to America.

This is why I disagree with Stephen’s proposition that to fight Trumpism, we need to “stop this fetishistic pursuit of failing global norms and institutions and go where the struggle really is, on the ground, in national legislatures, in national courts…” That appears to fall squarely within the “American first” ideology, which might work well for states with strong institutions but not as well for others. The majority of states around the world fall into the category of “others”, so we might as well re-think this proposition.

International norms and institutions are not designed to solve every domestic problem. Domestic problems ought to be addressed primarily at the domestic level. The international only intervenes where the domestic is “unwilling or unable,” to use the language of the Charter of the International Criminal Court. Therefore, to stop the pursuit of international norms and institutions is to shut down the possibility of recourse to another institution or norm in the event that the domestic fails. That will surely be disastrous for our world.

To be perfectly clear, I do not argue against focusing on domestic institutions and norms. I argue for melding the domestic and the international because they are equally important. To take one example from Stephen’s piece on ways in which he thinks Trump will undermine human rights, possible mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, it seems to me that providing a remedy at the domestic level ensures that affected individuals can challenge the president’s proposition in the domestic arena if he goes ahead to implement it. If domestic institutions are unable to restrain him, then perhaps a recourse to the international might be contemplated although that will depend to a large extent on how seriously the state takes its commitment to international norms and standards on human rights.

The conversation about domestic versus international norms takes me back to a human rights crisis of incredible proportions. Illicit financial flows and growing kleptocracy in the developing world. Africa receives significant development assistance from the US. The Brookings Institution reports that bilateral development assistance from USAID and State Department to Africa quadrupled from $1.94 billion to $7.08 billion in a ten-year period (2002-2012). Recent estimates suggest that the continent receives $30 billion in development aid every year. However, it loses $35 billion to illicit financial flows to the Global North every year. An interesting irony. Containing kleptocracy, which is at the heart of illicit financial flows from Africa and elsewhere, is a human rights issue. Grand theft of commonwealth means that the most vulnerable do not have access to life’s most basic needs.

The law of demand and supply spins the wheel of kleptocracy. Until Europe and the US take the necessary steps to close yawning gaps in their financial systems and punish individuals and institutions that facilitate these crimes against the poor and powerless, kleptocrats will continue to exploit the system. Trump’s America can lead this campaign, among western governments, but would it? It is difficult to say at this point. One can only hope (and hope isn’t in good supply these days) that it would, not just because it is the right thing to do but also because to do otherwise could potentially have dire consequences for all sides.

The world will be watching as America advances under Trump. People will be looking to see if shared values still matter and indeed, if values are still shared. This could well be a defining movement in the history of America and its global leadership in different fields, including human rights.

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