U.S. skips human rights meeting on refugees and migrants

Protesters against the Trump administration's controversial travel ban on 6 muslim-majority countries in Washington, D.C. last month. (Ted Eytan/Flickr)

The U.S. government was a no-show at Tuesday’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) meeting in Washington, D.C., which was set to discuss the Trump administration’s travel ban on Muslim-majority countries and other policies affecting some of the world’s most vulnerable refugees and migrants.

Tuesday’s hearing was prompted by the requests from advocacy groups to review what they called “ongoing and deteriorating” conditions faced by asylum-seekers and other migrants seeking to enter the U.S. But in a departure from past protocol, the U.S. government did not send a delegate to represent its position before the human rights accountability body.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said government lawyers felt it would not have been appropriate to discuss the executive orders while some are under review by U.S. courts, according to a Reuters report.

“We did inform the IACHR of our inability to attend these particular hearings because of ongoing litigation around some of these executive orders,” Toner told a conference call with reporters, adding that the Department did not feel they could address concerns in an open hearing, according to Reuters.

Marselha Gonçalves Margerin, advocacy director at Amnesty International USA, said the U.S. has not skipped a meeting with the commission for at least eight years.

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“It is not unprecedented that the U.S. doesn’t attend … but it’s rare,” Gonçalves Margerin said in an interview with Humanosphere. “What shocked many people is that the United States have been one of the largest members of the commission, and has mostly shown respect.”

Other advocacy groups said the government’s decision was concerning in that it mirrors the behavior of authoritarian regimes.

“Today’s no-show is a new low,” Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s human rights program, said at one of the hearings, according to a Huffington Post report. He added that the move was a “worrying sign” that the Trump administration is “trying to undermine international bodies with holding abusive governments accountable.”

The IACHR is an independent body of the Organization of American States, which brings together all 35 independent countries in the Americas. While it has no enforcement mechanisms, the commission’s mandate is to examine violations of human rights, particularly for victims in countries that lack legal accountability.

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In addition to the travel ban, the meeting was set to discuss the government’s immigration enforcement and detention policies, and its approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which land rights activists say endangers the main water source in the area and will damage sacred Native American lands.

If U.S. government representatives had attended the hearing, they would have had a chance to explain official rationale behind the executive orders and policy decisions in question.

Without a U.S. government official, the Huffington Post reported, no one was able to presented counter-arguments to advocates’ arguments that the Trump administration’s policies are discriminatory, dangerous and present a potential for abuse by Customs and Border Protection agents.

 “It’s hard to respect human rights if you do not play by the same rules as everybody else,” Gonçalves Margerin said, “or if you refuse to even… have a dialogue.”
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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com