LONDON -- The protests against the death of George Floyd have taken a decidedly international dimension this past week, with demonstrations taking place across Europe and in Canada, Brazil and Australia. They are not only in solidarity with the protests in the United States but they're also raising concerns about racial injustice in their respective countries.
While Iran and China are busy criticizing the U.S, both of those countries have been accused of major human rights violations. The foreign minister of Iran, where hundreds of anti-government protesters were killed in a crackdown last year, has tweeted about the “abase[ment] of African Americans” and scenes in American cities of “brutality against protesters & press.” The protests have been given extensive coverage on Chinese state media, and Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, said there were “double standards” over the riots in the U.S., given foreign governments' criticism of the police response in Hong Kong.
While this is not the first time the U.S. has been accused of hypocrisy internationally, the country is “unusually vulnerable to critique today,” Dr. Leslie Vinjamuri, the leader of the U.S. & Americas program at Chatham House, a think tank based in London, told ABC News.
“In recent history, America's leaders have tried to send a unifying message both at home and also to the world, but President Trump has abandoned any normative restraints, calling up the military, using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse peaceful protesters, and tweeting inflammatory messages that stoke division and inflame the situation,” she told ABC News. “The riots have also unfolded after nearly four years of a president that has chipped away, but with a sledgehammer, at America's moral authority.”
Criticism of how Iran and China have dealt with their own protests has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy over the past year. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked Iranian protesters to “send us their videos, photos, and information documenting the regime’s crackdown on protestors” in November 2019. In August, Trump urged President Xi of China to meet with Hong Kong’s protesters to bring about a “happy and enlightened ending to the Hong Kong problem.”
Yet the images and videos emanating from the U.S., which spread quickly and internationally on social media, mean that countries the U.S. has been critical of can quickly accuse the U.S. of hypocrisy, according to Vinjamuri.
But Trump's envoy to the United Nations Kelly Craft rejected that, telling reporters Friday, "There is no moral equivalence between our free society, which works through tough problems like racism, and other societies, which do not allow anything to be discussed because they are authoritative regimes."
Craft accused foreign adversaries using state media to report on U.S. unrest of trying "to hide what they're doing" in their own countries, like the detention of over a million Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in western China.
"We work through racism. We work through all problems, and we always prevail. Goodness prevails in the United States because we're a country of democracy," the ambassador added.
Chatham House's Vinjamuri has a different take. “It doesn't matter if the situations are or are not morally equivalent, authoritarian leaders have plenty of fuel for calling out America's double standards," she said. “President Trump created a made-for-TV moment, with armed police pushing back protesters on live television. Those images are bound to have been replayed across Iran and China.”
U.S. criticism of China and Iran focussed on support for anti-government protests throughout 2019, as well as criticism of those regimes' clampdowns on free assembly.
The U.S. is facing not only condemnation from foreign governments but also from human rights organizations for its handling of the protests. Nicole Austin-Hillery, the U.S. program executive director of Human Rights Watch, said this week, “It is unacceptable to meet protests against police violence and for racial equality with more police violence.”
Impact on human rights organizations
With scenes of looting and police crackdowns taking place in the world’s most powerful democracy, what kind of impact does that have on how human rights organizations conduct their work around the world?
Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch, told ABC News that the organization's work internationally deals with “binding international commitments,” rather than looking for “moral leadership” from individual countries.
"The Chinese government has had a field day covering and talking about the protests that are happening in the U.S. . . . to suggest that the U.S. doesn't have a leg to stand on when criticizing how other governments handle protests,” she told ABC News. It's "very clear," she added, that China's condemnation of the protests have "absolutely nothing to do with the Chinese government's purported commitments to the freedom of assembly and expression."
Authoritarian regimes criticizing their democratic counterparts can be a favored tool to deflect scrutiny, she said, but that doesn't change their legal obligations, or how in substance human rights advocates conduct themselves.
"The work we do, is maybe not to say, 'This government is better than that one,'” she said. “But rather say, 'Here are your clear obligations under international law, are you conforming with them or not?'"
It's not the first time the work of human rights' groups has been made more difficult by Trump-era policies. The administration’s withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, and other bodies such as the WHO, has "clearly created more space for the Chinese government," said Richardson.
Joanne Lin, national director of advocacy and government affairs at Amnesty International USA, told ABC News, "2020 is not a good time for human rights in the U.S. or on the world stage." She added, "President Trump has openly disavowed human rights and has repeatedly stoked leaders connected to human rights abuses including Mohammed bin Salman, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi. The good news is that what is lacking in moral leadership is counterbalanced by what we’re seeing in protest movements around the world."
Despite criticism from Chinese state media over the U.S. protests continuing, as well as allegations of hypocrisy leveled at both Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over their previous comments on the Hong Kong protests, Vinjamuri says she is a “medium term optimist” when it comes to the issue of repairing the U.S.’s reputation abroad.
“There is no doubt that the next U.S. president has a big job to do, repairing and restoring America's social divisions and its moral authority both at home and abroad,” she said. “But even this week we have seen extraordinary images of peaceful protests, of police forces kneeling with protesters, of multiracial communities walking arm in arm, protesting peacefully."
"There is a deep reservoir of civil liberty, liberalism and democratic practice to draw on," she added.