Human rights record of the United States? There is still a lot to improve


The election of Donald Trump has confirmed many people’s fears that Europe and the USA will follow different paths, which could result in a loosening and weakening of transatlantic ties. Besides pragmatic cooperation within NATO, these ties are also based on shared political values, including respect for basic human rights.

Donald Trump represents a radical change over Barack Obama, and this year’s One World festival presents two films that perfectly capture the new era. The first of these, director Greg Barker’s HBO-produced The Final Year, takes us behind the scenes of the team responsible for the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Through speeches, interviews, and footage show “in the field,” the film clearly reveals a world in which idealistic values are promoted primarily through dialogue, compromise, and constant negotiation. In the documentary, saber-rattling is consciously pushed into the background. Obama’s key advisers act like people made of flesh and bone, and are aware of the limits of their endeavors. They certainly do not look like a group of carefully disguised conspirational illuminati.

Since the film was not completed until during the Trump presidency, it lacks a sharper critique and deeper reflection of important subjects such as Obama’s frequent use of drones or his cooperation with regimes known for serious human rights abuses. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that, in terms of basic values, many Europeans identify with Obama’s and his team’s way of thinking. One of the film’s strongest moments is its conclusion, which shows the level of shock and disgust felt by Obama’s advisors at the election of Donald Trump, whose campaign promised to overturn many of the things they had spent eight years working hard to implement.

Donald Trump’s successful election campaign forms the subject for our next film, Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of all Time, which was put together from dozens of hours of footage shot for a more detailed political series aptly titled The Circus. Three prominent commentators who had behind-the-scenes access to both campaign guide us on a summary of Trump’s at first unbelievable journey to the White House, which ended with his shocking victory.

The contrast between Obama and Trump is incredible, and it is clear that Donald Trump’s world has far less room for human rights. If the United States are to continue to act as an inspiration for the transformation of authoritarian regimes, then it is important for the country to fix its own human rights problems. Trump’s lofty slogan – make America great again – should not forget this important aspect, which form one of the main pillars of transatlantic cooperation. If President Trump continues to ignore human rights, many Americans will sharply disagree with him. Fortunately, transatlantic ties in the area of human rights do not stand and fall with the American president.

The position of African-Americans remains a hot topic. The Black Lives Matter movement has called attention to various cases of police brutality in recent years (Whose Streets?, For Akheem). Nor is the issue of policies towards original native inhabitants a thing of the past, as confirmed by the film On a Knife Edge.

The documentaries examine other burning issues of contemporary America, such as the operation of the police (The Force) or the prison system and the problems of ex-cons trying to return to free life (Land of the Free). The diversity of conflicts in this country is shown in films like One of Us, which depicts the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community in New York, and Island Soldier about soldiers from Micronesia who are fighting for the US military, but with none of the rewards or benefits that their American counterparts receive.

Text by Kryštof Kozák, head of the Department of North American Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University, Prague, was originally prepared for the Respekt magazine.

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