July 11, 2019

Cardin Responds to President Trump’s Attempts to Redefine Human Rights

I fear that this Commission on Unalienable Rights will undermine or curtail State Department advocacy in critical human rights arenas - including women’s health as well as LGBT rights.

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) spoke from the floor of the Senate Thursday to address the newly created Commission on Unalienable Rights.

Mr. President, America’s strength is in our values. In that vein, I rise today to talk about human rights and America’s historical role as a defender of universal human rights for all peoples.

I have been a member of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe for many years. It is also known as the Helsinki Commission. The Helsinki Commission is an independent entity that brings together lawmakers and members of the executive branch to represent the United States at the OSCE – the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It was created to explicitly promote human rights, democracy, and economic, environmental, and military cooperation among its 57 member nations, including the United States and Canada, all of the countries of Europe, and the former Soviet Union countries.

When the Helsinki Final Act was signed in Finland in 1975, it enshrined among its 10 Principles Guiding Relations between participating States (the decalogue), a commitment to "respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion."

Few people could have predicted the sweeping, largely unforeseen consequences of the adoption of this document. From this one provision - among the 10 focusing on human rights and fundamental freedoms - sprung movements that embraced the Helsinki process as a sword and a shield.

Independent civil societies coalesced around this basic principle and used the follow-up process set in motion by the Helsinki Final Act to hold governments’ feet to the fire.

In 1976, Congress established the Helsinki Commission with the mandate to monitor and report on compliance with the Helsinki Final Act and, most importantly, press successive administrations to make human rights and democracy a priority in the conduct of the United States’ foreign policy.

In the subsequent years, Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, Solidarity in Poland, and Watch Groups in Moscow and Kyiv and Vilnius sprang up to push for the release of political prisoners, to defend the rights of those who wanted nothing more than to worship and have freedom, to advocate for refusniks and others who sought to reunite with their families across borders. 

Through what became known as the Helsinki Process, Congress and previous American administration supported the rights of Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Natan Sharansky and countless others who emerged as leaders, supporting the historic transitions to freedom 30 years ago, the fall of the Iron Curtain, the end of communism, the unification of Germany, and, as President Bush proclaimed, a Europe whole and free.

The Helsinki process – monitoring, reporting, advocating, urging, meeting, and witnessing – was a catalyst for these historic changes.

Most importantly, at a time of historic transition, the countries participating in the Helsinki process all acknowledged that democracy is the only form of government that we can accept and that issues related to human rights and democracy are never matters of internal interference but matters of direct and the legitimate concern of all participating States. 

It means, quite frankly Mr. President, we have under the Helsinki Final Accords the legitimate right; I would say the obligation, the challenge, the failure of any one of those 57 states in meeting their Helsinki commitments. And that is why it is right that we, in the United States Senate, will speak out against Russia, or speak out against Turkey, or speak out against any member state in the OSCE when they violate these basic principles.

Over the July 4th work period, I was proud to participate in the largest delegation we ever had to the Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. The Parliamentary Assembly – facilitating lawmaker-to-lawmaker interactions and discussions – had been established to complement the intergovernmental work being done.

One of the strengths of the OSCE is that there is a parliamentary dimension, it is not just government officials, it is also parliamentarians meeting to implement these commitments to human rights and good governance.

The OSCE and its parliamentary assembly has been used to advance U.S. interests, including support for human rights, free elections, combating anti-Semitism and human trafficking, and other initiatives that came from the U.S. Congress and then served as the foundation for U.S. positions, and ultimately agreements adopted by all 57 states participating in the OSCE.

 Mr. President, I remember discussions in the Congress dealing with fighting modern day slavery and trafficking, and fighting anti-Semitism. We initiated in the Congress through the Helsinki Commission, we raised it in the parliamentary assembly, it then got raised in Vienna where the ministers meet, where the ambassadors meet representing all states. Adopted as a policy in all 57 states, we have had a very positive impact. 

During this recent Parliamentary Assembly, I hosted an event called “Countering Hate: Lessons from the Past, Leadership for the Future.”

As I stated during the event and I will underscore now, we’ve observed an uptick in hate-based incidents across the OSCE region and beyond. From Pittsburgh and Poway to Christ Church. We have failed to act, we have endangered not only the most vulnerable within our societies, but the very foundations of our democracies.  

Given how much was accomplished by the U.S. and others through the OSCE over the past 30 years, it is deeply concerning to see our own American president embrace a drawback of universal human rights in our own country and embrace dictators around the world, who rule by promoting fear and hate.

President Trump has called Turkish President Erdogan “a friend” and shared love letters with the very brutal Kim Jong-un after calling him “very talented.”

Turkey, which has been a member of the OSCE since its inception and is a member of NATO, has witnessed a dramatic acceleration in President Erdogan’s efforts to consolidate power and hobble his political opposition.

His unrelenting pressure on the judiciary and purges of its ranks of judges and prosecutors has left respect for the rule of law and due process in crisis.

Tens of thousands have been detained in the sweeping dragnet following the failed coup, including independent voices from virtually every sector of society: opposition politicians, civil society activists, journalists, academics, and many more.

Sadly, criminal indictments in these cases alleging involvement in terrorism and espionage are frequently based on circumstantial evidence, guilt by association, and dubious witness testimony.

These vast purges have had a chilling effect on the free press and freedom of expression. The Committee to Protect Journalists considers Turkey the world’s worst jailer of journalists with 68 documented cases, although a local Turkish press freedom organization lists more than 130 detained. Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey 157th out of 180 countries for a free press – its lowest ranking ever. Under emergency powers assumed by Erdogan after the coup attempt, the Turkish government closed around 200 media outlets.

As for North Korea, Kim Jong Un has one of the most deplorable human rights records in the world. According to Human Rights Watch:

“… Kim Jong-un—who serves as chairman of the States Affairs Commission and head of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea—continues to exercise almost total political control. The government restricts all civil and political liberties, including freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion. It also prohibits all organized political opposition, independent media, civil society, and trade unions.”

President Trump repeatedly has been willing to take the word of former KGB agent Vladmir Putin, over his own intelligence services.

March 3, 2018—Speaking about Chinese President Xi during a private fundraising speech at Mar-a-Lago, he said: “Xi is a great gentleman. He’s now president for life. President for life. No, he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”

That is not the President the United States should be embracing.

He repeatedly has praised Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. This is the same leader that independent press, civil society groups, foreign governments and international organizations have all confirmed is engaged in the extrajudicial killing of his own citizens – work that President Trump praised as doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”

Mr. Duterte himself has admitted to murdering people as a former mayor. That Mr. Trump would laud Mr. Duterte for his barbaric atrocities is outrageous and another indication that instead of standing up for American values, President Trump continues to endorse leaders around the world who violate the very principles that the American founding fathers enshrined in our Constitution.

I mention our founding fathers not in passing, but, as we recently celebrated our Independence Day on July 4, I want to quote from the Declaration of Independence, which set our nation on a path with the ideal that

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

So I was particularly troubled that within days of July 4, the Trump Administration, through Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, unveiled what he referred to as a Commission on Unalienable Rights. In his announcement, Secretary Pompeo called this new commission “one of the most profound re-examinations of inalienable rights in the world since the 1948 Universal Declaration.”

I, along with many colleagues in the United States Congress, fear that this Commission, whose purpose is to advise the Secretary of State based upon the principles of “natural law and natural rights,” will undermine or curtail State Department advocacy in critical human rights arenas– including women’s health as well as LGBT rights.

For 243 years, with all her imperfections, America has been a beacon for peoples around the world. Those who have embraced “natural law,” however, have not been as welcoming. They peddle in hate and division.

The ACLU notes that references to “natural law and natural rights” are code words often used to undermine the rights of women and the LGBT community. This is just the latest in a string of attacks on women and the LGBT community by this administration.

 If the President and the Secretary of State want to build on protecting human rights, they would work within the framework that the U.S. helped establish – not question the definition or universality of human rights.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that the very administration – the very president – that embraces international dictators and gross violators of human rights would go down this path of redefining human rights with such gusto.

On immigration, during his first days in office the President began his Administration by signing an executive order which attempts to impose a travel ban on Muslims and banned refugees. 

He signed an executive order greatly expanding the number of people subject to detention and deportation, and practically speaking eliminating the focus on the most dangerous, violent criminals in our communities. 

The President has tried to deny sanctuary and asylum to those refugees legally seeking protection in our country, as they flee violence and persecution in the homeland.  He rescinding protections for the Dreamers and those with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), casting a cloud of uncertainty over the future of these individuals and their families, and basically putting an expiration date on their backs.

I think we all know in our community that Dreamers and the TPS who know fear as to whether their future is here in the United States. And they have been here for a long time, they are part of our community as we all know.

The American values of empathy and compassion seemingly no longer find a champion in the White House.

On voting rights, the Trump Administration has rolled back the clock by creating a so-called Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which was designed to suppress the vote, all under the guise of trying to prove the problem of non-existent voter fraud. 

The Justice Department changed its position and supported the use of voter ID laws, backtracking from its earlier positions that such laws are intentionally racially discriminatory and designed to suppress minority voters. 

One of the principles of a Democratic state is to get the maximum participation in elections.

DOJ has tried to make it easier for states to purge voters from their rolls, as well as make it easier for states to make voting changes that could disenfranchise minority voters without proper federal review and oversight.

On criminal justice, DOJ has aggressively rolled back its use of consent decrees, like the one put in place in Baltimore under the Obama Administration after Freddie Gray died in police custody. 

Mr. President it is interesting here during that episode, we had the members of Congress asking the federal government, along with city officials, to do a pattern or practice investigation, which lead to the consent order because we knew we had a problem in Baltimore’s policing.

The Baltimore consent decree is a perfect example of a joint local-federal partnership which will help overhaul the police department and provide long-overdue constitutional policing to the citizens of Baltimore. 

This federal civil rights role is critically important, especially after a series of officer-involved shootings of African-American residents, as we try to rebuild trust between the police and the communities they serve, as move from a warrior to guardian model.

In terms of the free press, President Trump has consistently attacked the free press, notwithstanding the First Amendment’s protections, and particularly has labeled critical news stories as “fake news” in an effort to undermine any critical coverage of his Administration. 

He has shown a callous disregard for protecting journalists and the free press both at home and abroad.  As Thomas Jefferson famously wrote: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” 

In terms of LGBTQ rights, the Trump Administration has consistently argued that businesses and government contractors have a right to discriminate against customers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

He has nominated judges who want to turn back the clock on equality and forced transgender individuals from the ranks of our military.

Our nation and form of government are founded on “We the People of the United States.” Yet this president is doing all he can to lessen the power and squelch the voices of perceived opposition.

As we approach the 2nd anniversary of the deadly protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, I will never forget how President Trump used his bully pulpit to further divide our nation by equating those who espoused white supremacy with those who were protesting against such white supremacist views.

Let us remember the great civil rights leaders in our history who have struggled to help our nation form a more perfect union, establish justice, and secure the blessings of liberty as promised by our Constitution.  The deadly violence that occurred nearly two years ago must never be permitted to happen again.

I strongly condemn all acts of intolerance and remain certain that the moral arc of history, although long, bends towards justice. What is good and just in America is stronger than hate and will prevail.

The Trump Administration attacks on women’s health care is unconscionable. Women’s rights are human rights.

The president has taken actions to undermine the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), finalized administrative rules that allow discriminatory practices to domestic and global family planning providers, as well as women seeking reproductive health care.

One of the first actions President Trump took in office was to impose an expansion of the Global Gag Rule, which forces global health providers eligible for U.S. assistance to choose between receiving U.S. funding or providing comprehensive health care and family planning services to their patients.

What a horrible choice. You need the money, but you have to provide the services.

Trump’s Global Gag Rule restricts virtually all global health assistance provided by the U.S. federal government, including from the Department of State, USAID, and the Department of Defense, impacting $8.8 billion in financial support for global health program.

Where is the U.S. leadership on global health?

The Rule has eliminated access to contraceptive services and supplies for almost 26 million women and girls around the world. This hurts women in conflict zones and rural areas as well as refugees, women with disabilities, and indigenous women. 

President Trump has also imposed a Domestic Gag Rule, which restricts physicians from providing complete information to patients about all of their healthcare options and providing appropriate referrals for care.

The new rule guts Title X, the nation’s only federal grant program dedicated solely to providing individuals with comprehensive family planning and related preventive health services. 

Women make up more than half of the population in this nation. It is outrageous that President Trump continually implements policies that discriminate against women’s health care.

We cannot allow women to be treated this way here in the United States or anywhere around the world.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Yes, this has been the American ideal and a guiding principal for our nation since our founding. All men – and women – are created equal. Each one of us on this Earth deserves freedom, respect and dignity.

For generations, the United States has stood as a sentinel, defending these universal rights. I would think Republicans and Democrats alike agree with that statement.

The outlier is President Trump.

This president has done everything in his power, within the borders of our nation and overseas, to diminish human rights and disregard for the rule of law.

He continues to embrace dictators; opening the doors of the Oval Office to men who deserve prosecution more than a welcome embrace from the leader of the free world. 

I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to uphold their oath to defend and protect the Constitution of the United States and work together to restore America’s role as a defender of universal human rights.