ATLANTA (AP) — As the Trump administration signals a de-emphasis of human rights in U.S. foreign policy decisions, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said Tuesday that he’s concerned America’s approach will erode support for such rights in other countries.
The 92-year-old Carter spoke with The Associated Press amid a two-day meeting of dozens of human rights activists at The Carter Center in Atlanta.
Carter cited a portion of President Donald Trump’s inaugural address promising that his administration does “not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expanded on that slightly last week when he told State Department employees that some national security efforts can’t always be conditioned on “our values.”
“The president made this clear in his inaugural address — I was there — when he said that no longer would we try to force American standards on other countries,” Carter said. “And I assumed that meant the standards of peace and human rights and freedom and justice and that sort of thing. Our standards that we’ve always claimed to be American standards are really the implementation of a universal declaration of human rights, plus peace.”
Carter also challenged the idea that a commitment to human rights can’t coexist with national security, calling it a “false premise.”
“The best way for a nation to guarantee security, absence from fear and absence from violence, is to promote human rights and freedom,” he said.
Carter has worked on various human rights issues, from fair elections to health care, since leaving the White House and forming the nonprofit. This year’s forum on human rights is the 10th held since 2003, bringing together activists from around the globe.
“They come to tell their stories collectively and also to form an alliance with people around the world who are joined with them in a collective effort to promote the standards of human rights,” Carter said. “And to make sure the world doesn’t forget that the basic moral values and ethical standards of human beings are being abandoned or ignored in many societies.”
The participants share strategies and stories with one another, interspersed with spirited musical performances or videos featuring participants’ work. The event also gives The Carter Center and other organizations “a fairly good picture of what’s going on in the entire world,” Carter said.
Maryam Al-Khawaja, a Bahraini activist who has been imprisoned for her work, said repressive governments learn from each other, and activists need to make connections and work across borders. If there’s muted international backlash to a policy in one country limiting human rights work, others will adopt it without fear of consequences, she said.
“We need to put up a challenge and do the same,” she said.
Beyond the opportunity to share ideas and make connections, the event provides emotional support for people whose work puts them in constant danger, said Rubina Bhatti, an activist focused on the rights of women and religious minorities in Pakistan. Her organization was shut down by authorities last year.
“When we come to these points, we find a lot of struggle but also strength, solidarity, passion, compassion, love,” Bhatti said. “I am not alone in this ocean; we all are trying to swim.”
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