Andres Oppenheimer

U.S. shot itself in the foot by skipping hearings at human rights commission

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at the Meeting of the Ministers of the Global Coalition on the Defeat of ISIS, Wednesday, March 22, 2017, at the State Department in Washington.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at the Meeting of the Ministers of the Global Coalition on the Defeat of ISIS, Wednesday, March 22, 2017, at the State Department in Washington. AP

The Trump Administration's highly unusual step of boycotting several sessions of the highly-respected Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC) was a bad mistake that will weaken U.S. efforts to condemn Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and other systematic human rights abusers.

The administration informed the Washington, D.C.-based IAHRC that it would not participate in three hearings about President Trump's executive orders on immigration that were held Tuesday, as part of a review of human rights cases in countries across the hemisphere.

"This is the first time in at least 20 years that the U.S. government doesn't show up," Commission President Francisco Eguiguren told me after the hearings. "And we hold hearings on U.S. issues, like those of many other countries, virtually every year."

The Trump administration's decision to stay out of the hearings put the United States in the odd situation of being in same category as Cuba and other systematic human rights abusers, which often boycott the IAHRC hearings, other commission officials told me.

The IAHRC, an independent agency of the 34-country Organization of American States, has issued strong reports criticizing rights abuses in Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and other leftist and rightist authoritarian regimes.

Several of these countries have accused the commission, as well as the OAS, of being tools of U.S. "imperialism."

Asked about the reasons for the U.S. absence, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. government has "tremendous respect" for the role of the commission, but that "it is not appropriate for the United States to participate in these hearings while litigation on these matters is ongoing in U.S. courts."

That's baloney, say human right advocates. It's true that U.S. courts have suspended President Trump's executive orders dealing with immigration issues, but that's not a valid excuse. In fact, all issues before the IAHRC are being litigated in their respective countries. If they weren't, they wouldn't be brought to the commission, they say.

"It's an absurd pretext," Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas division of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group, told me. He added that the United States, like most other countries, should appear before the commission and make its case, as it has under previous Republican and Democratic administrations.

What's worse, the absence sets a terrible precedent, because it amounts to giving a green light to authoritarian populist regimes to do the same, Vivanco said. The next time a Latin American repressive regime decides to stay out of an IAHRC hearing they consider unfair, they will argue that the United States does the same, he added.

"This reduces a lot the Trump administration's credibility and legitimacy on human rights issues," said Vivanco. "In addition to it being a symbol of arrogance, [the U.S.] risks not being taken seriously when they criticize other countries for not showing up at these hearings."

Many Latin American diplomats are scratching their heads about this incident, because at the same time, Trump has been making calls to the presidents of Brazil and Chile in recent days, in which he reportedly brought up the issue of Venezuela's human rights abuses.

How can he lobby for regional pressure to help bring about free elections in Venezuela while also undermining the IAHRC, giving political ammunition to the Venezuelan regime, they ask.

My opinion: The most likely explanation is the Trump administration's amateurism, chronic state of improvisation and its failure to fill the job of State Department head of Latin American affairs.

Let's face it. Trump's State Department is a drifting boat. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has no previous government experience, is barely visible. He may be spending much of his time fighting to save whatever he can from the near 30 percent cuts in State Department funds requested by Trump.

Tillerson is still lacking a No. 2 — his candidate was rejected by the White House — and has yet to appoint some regional department heads, including the one handling Latin American affairs.

Chaos may be too strong a word to describe what's happening inside the Trump administration's foreign policy team. But there is at the very least an absence of experience at the top levels and a lack of direction at all levels, which is leading to bad decisions like this week’s IAHRC fiasco.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español