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By Jason Michael
INTERNATIONAL LAW and human rights in particular have force only when the most powerful states honour them. In recent months we have witnessed the rapid corrosion of international treaty law and the stripping of long established norms in human rights; with the United States reneging on the Paris Agreement, leaving the United Nations Human Rights Council, and implementing a punitive policy of separating children from their parents in internment centres for refugees and so-called “illegal” immigrants. People around the world are right to be concerned about these disturbing developments. If the US – the world’s leading superpower – no longer feels bound by the obligations of international treaty and human rights law, the pressure on other states to honour their obligations is weakened considerably.
When the Trump administration gave the green light to the separation of children from their parents the world was outraged. Newborn babies, infants, toddlers, children, and children with special needs were taken from their parents by immigration officers under orders not to console or speak to the children. Chillingly reminiscent of the cynical language used at the Nazi extermination centres, their parents were informed the children were being taken to be washed, when in fact they were being taken – often on domestic flights – to “tender age shelters” without their parents.
At the internment centres – the “Trump concentration camps” – the indifference to the needs of these children by the US authorities was so extreme older children were left to change the nappies of younger children. Children were given barcodes to ensure they were fed and to make sure they could not get more food. “Care givers” were under instruction not to pay the children attention, ignore their cries, and take everything they said as lies. The treatment of these defenceless children was so bad that aircrew attendants began describing their shock and upset at it on social media, with many taking sick leave rather than be on the flights.
MSNBC news anchor Rachael Maddow, an outspoken critic of Trump, broke down in tears as she attempted to describe the treatment of families and children on the US-Mexican border. She apologised later on Twitter, saying: “I’m sorry. If nothing else, it is my job to actually be able to speak while I’m on TV.” But this is where we are.
In attempting to describe this paradigm; this new normal, “a hostile environment” appears to be the only fitting term. But the deliberate creation of hostile environments for racialised outgroups is not limited to the United Sates, and it certainly did not begin with Donald Trump. If anything – and to paraphrase the answer given by Adolf Hitler to the German churchmen – Trump is merely putting into action what the United Kingdom and the European Union have been preaching for at least a decade.
Trumpism is only the latest phase in a global shift to the right; a shift that has seen public opinion manipulated by a right-wing corporate press, and governments across the world use this manufactured consent to impose ever more draconian measures on people fleeing from poverty and conflicts invariably caused by the developed world’s liberal interventionalism. In many respects this shift has been progressing much like the proverbial boiling frog. Provided the temperature is rising slowly enough, the unfortunate amphibian is never aware that it is being cooked alive.
Banging on the drum of patriotism, the mainstream media and the right-wing tabloid press – especially in the UK – have built and propagated a xenophobic narrative in support of aggressive foreign policy adventures and an increasingly more extreme anti-immigration agenda that has stoked up popular hostility towards the “dangerous foreigner.” Legacy political consensus in the West, stemming from the Civil Rights era, has held much of this in check, but – as this has been challenged by the right as “political correctness” and “cultural Marxism” – this societal bulwark has broken down, leading to an outpouring of racist and right-wing sentiment encouraged and emboldened by a renaissance in the political right. In Eastern Europe and in southern Europe, where Nazism and ethno-nationalism were never entirely exorcised after the defeat of Hitler, and where these pernicious ideologies became a focus for anti-Communist resistance, the influx of migrants and refugees from Africa and the Middle East has only reignited old passions.
The internet and the proliferation of social media have made it easier for these groups to communicate, spreading ideas and tactics from one side of the Atlantic to the other – interconnecting these groups and political parties in a way we cannot but find troubling. Poverty and social inequality, exacerbated by government austerity, have been exploited by right-wing parties in order to win support. Politicians like Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Matteo Salvini, Heinz-Christian Strache, Tamás Sneider, and Donald Trump are successfully dragging political discourse to the right, in turn pulling with them the centre right and centre left mainstream in search of votes. In a word, the right – even the extreme far-right – is becoming acceptable.
We may baulk at what has been happening on the US-Mexican border, but the signs of this shift have been there to see for some time. At the height of the Syrian refugee crisis – even in light of the image of a dead three-year-old boy, Alan Kurdî, on a Turkish beach – the European Union paid Turkey to take refugees and asylum seekers who had made it to Europe, and it did this in full knowledge of Turkey’s dismal human rights record. We watched in horror as Petra Laszlo, a Hungarian journalist, kicked Syrian refugee children and tripped a father holding his child as they attempted to cross over into Hungary from Serbia.
Over the whole of northern Europe, as hundreds of bodies were being washed ashore over the central and eastern Mediterranean, the narrative of “Muslim rape gangs” was constructed from the crimes of a tiny minority of asylum seekers, all reinforcing the politically expedient belief that black and brown skinned immigrants were dangerous. Years before Trump began using the language of infestation, European politicians, even many in the centre, were deploying dehumanising epithets to describe human beings they deemed worthless and genetically dangerous. The same disgusting ideology that inspired Theresa May as Home Secretary in Britain to put billboard vans on the streets of London telling undocumented immigrants to “go home or face arrest” was at work in Italy, France, Greece, Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere in the EU.
Nothing of this has gone away, and as we condemn Donald Trump for his recent actions towards children we must take stock of what is happening here. In Ireland, while politicians fashionably show their contempt for this US policy, refugees and asylum seekers are kept in atrocious conditions in isolated detention centres under “Direct Provision.” We have all given up the moral high ground, making it impossible for us to call this out when we see it in the US.
Thankfully the outcry against the Trump administration was so great it has forced Mr Trump to rescind the policy, but we are in no doubt now of his intentions and what he is prepared to do if he can get away with it. That the United States – the de facto policeman of the world – is behaving no better than Turkey and other serial human rights violators, we can be sure other “civilised” governments will follow its lead. When the most powerful states give up on the ideals of international law and human rights the scaffolding that underpins these values begins to deteriorate – rapidly. It is fair to say that we have now unarguably entered into a dark period of history.
Rachel Maddow breaks down during report on ‘tender age’ shelters