Elliott School Professor Rollie Lal: Trump Is Undoing Human Rights Policy

Dr. Lal discussed how the administration’s handling of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter protests impacts the nation’s credibility in foreign and counterterrorism policy.

July 24, 2020

By Tatyana Hopkins

The Trump administration’s lack of regard for human rights in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests has undermined the nation’s foreign policy as well as endangered human rights in counterterrorism policy around the world, said Rollie Lal, associate professor at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.

“There is the rise of a conspiracy theory in China that we don’t actually care about human rights but are only criticizing China’s human rights [violations] as a political move,” Dr. Lal said. “We’re being levied a very strong charge by China— that we’re trying to suppress Chinese companies [and] dominate China, and [we are] clearly not doing it because we care about human rights, because if we did, we would be caring about our own human rights.”

She noted that Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying has shot back at recent U.S. attempts to call out China’s human rights violations.

Shortly after President Donald Trump signed a bill imposing sanctions against China for its mass detention of Uighur Muslims, Ms. Hua tweeted: “The U.S. should enact an African American Human Rights Policy Act instead.” And in response to a U.S. State Department tweet in support of Hong Kong protestors, she replied: “I can’t breathe.” 

“[She is] basically saying, how dare you criticize Hong Kong when you just kneel on people and kill them,” Dr. Lal said.

Dr. Lal, whose research focuses on organized crime, terrorism, religious extremism and other areas, spoke Thursday at a virtual event about the effect of Trump’s pandemic and protest response on human rights in counterterrorism policy globally. The discussion was moderated by Graham Cornwell, Elliott School assistant dean of research.

Dr. Lal said Mr. Trump’s pandemic and protest responses raised a number of human rights concerns.

On the COVID-19 front, she noted Mr. Trump rolled back labor protections for workers in unsafe meat processing plants while protecting their employers from legal action, ignored disparities in health outcomes for Black and minority patients and provided misinformation about masks and social distancing to gain favor with his voter base.

Regarding protests, she pointed out that the president attempted to designate Antifa as a domestic terrorist organization to squash political opposition, deployed militarized police against journalists and peaceful protestors and sent uniformed federal agents in unmarked cars to seize protestors in cities against the will of local governments.

“The very immediate response of the Trump administration [to protests was], ‘when the looting starts the shooting starts,’” Dr. Lal said. “And then he says that they’re terrorists. So, the discussion really kind of got hijacked onto this issue of whether they are terrorists… without ever dealing with the fundamental social issues.”

She said Mr. Trump’s actions may signal authoritarian governments around the world to lower their standards for human rights to make it easier to cast their enemies as terrorists. 

However, she said even Russia, which initially framed the protests as chaotic to make a case for strong government crackdowns and use of militarized police against dissenting citizens, has criticized the United States Russian journalists were assaulted and had their equipment destroyed by police while covering protests in Portland. 

“It's very absurd, as you can imagine, to be receiving this criticism from Russia,” Dr. Lal said.

However, she said that the Trump administration is likely not concerned with how criticizing government crackdowns abroad, while doing the same thing domestically, can damage the country’s reputation abroad. 

“If they were thinking in terms of being consistent, then we wouldn't be at this place in history right now,” Dr. Lal said. “I think that's a dangerous ground to be on for a country that claims to be both a democracy and a leader in human rights.”

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