WASHINGTON — Human Rights Watch on Thursday released its annual report on threats to human rights around the world, and for the first time in the 27 years it has done these surveys, the United States is one of the biggest. The reason: the rise of Donald J. Trump.
Eight days before Mr. Trump is to be sworn in as president, the human-rights advocacy group declared that his path to power, in a campaign marked by “misogynistic, xenophobic and racist rhetoric,” could “cause tremendous harm to vulnerable communities, contravene the United States’ core human rights obligations, or both.”
This is not the first time Human Rights Watch has cast the United States as a bad actor. After the terrorist attacks in September 2001, it took the administration of President George W. Bush to task for waterboarding and other interrogation techniques widely considered to be torture.
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But Kenneth Roth, the organization’s executive director, said in an interview: “This is a more fundamental threat to human rights than George Bush after 9/11. I see Trump treating human rights as a constraint on the will of the majority in a way that Bush never did.”
Mr. Roth cited a familiar list of policies Mr. Trump embraced during the campaign: mass deportations of unauthorized immigrants, a ban on Muslims’ entering the United States, and an openness to reintroducing techniques like waterboarding. Mr. Trump has since expressed second thoughts about torture, after a meeting with Gen. James N. Mattis, his nominee for defense secretary, who told him it was ineffective.
Mr. Trump’s seeming change of heart did not console Mr. Roth, because the president-elect said he would still consider ordering the use of these techniques “if that’s what the American people want.” Mr. Roth said this suggested to him that Mr. Trump would place himself, and his interpretation of the public will, above laws or treaties forbidding torture.
Human Rights Watch places Mr. Trump’s rise in the context of a populist movement sweeping the Western world, most notably in the British vote to leave the European Union. Beyond the West, the report explores the rise of authoritarian leaders in Turkey and Egypt and the growing appeal of strongmen in Russia and China.
“I wouldn’t say Trump is a trendsetter as much as riding the populist wave,” Mr. Roth said.
Populist leaders are less susceptible to “naming and shaming,” the traditional way human rights groups pressure countries engaged in abuses, he said. Some leaders — like the new Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, who has ordered the execution of thousands of suspected drug dealers — revel in their flouting of rules and norms.
Mr. Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, said during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday that human rights should remain a priority for the United States. But he declined to condemn President Duterte’s drug war in the Philippines.
“America and the people of the Philippines have a longstanding friendship,” he said. “And I think it’s important that we keep that in perspective in engaging with the government of the Philippines, and they have been an ally, and we need to ensure they stay an ally.”
Mr. Trump’s rise poses another problem for Human Rights Watch. Much of its advocacy has focused on pressing the United States to use its influence to curb human-rights abuses abroad. If the Trump administration is not receptive to these efforts, Mr. Roth said, the United States will cease to play that role.
Even now, Human Rights Watch regularly faults the Obama administration. The report notes that the United States lifted a ban on the sale of lethal arms to Vietnam even though the country had made little progress in protecting human rights and that it continued to give military aid to Egypt’s authoritarian government.
As it confronts the populist wave in the United States and Europe, Mr. Roth said, Human Rights Watch is shifting its emphasis from the White House and foreign governments to the public. In Washington, officials said, it also planned to lobby Congress more aggressively.
“Our recommendations are not so much to governments as to people,” Mr. Roth said. “We’re trying to issue a wake-up call to Western publics to stand up.”