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A Mason professor explains the link between the United States' 'zero tolerance' border policy and its withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council

June 25, 2018

Jo-Marie Burt

The United States is moving away from concerns for the defense and promotion of fundamental human rights and is giving cover to authoritarian leaders to pursue an antidemocratic, antihuman rights agenda, a George Mason University professor said.

Jo-Marie Burt, an associate professor of political science and Latin American studies in Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government, said her view is in response to the United States’ withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council and “zero tolerance” border policy.

“The move to withdraw the U.S. from the Human Rights Council abdicates our leadership role on a global scale,” Burt said. “And this ‘zero tolerance’ policy [of] treating illegal border crossings as punishable crimes, which has resulted in the forced separation of more than 2,000 children from their families with no plan for reunification, is just a dramatic disregard for human rights. That’s the thread I see linking the two.”

Burt, co-chair of the Human Rights Subcommission of the Latin American Studies Association, said she sees several causes for such policies, the most obvious being that President Trump is playing to his base.

“But in a larger sense it seems clear to me that Trump has an affinity for what we would call authoritarian leaders,” Burt said. “So, it’s not just the optics. It’s not just playing to the base. It represents a broader orientation away from the traditional liberal democratic values that have been at the center of the post-[World War II] order.

The danger, she said, is that this gives a “green light” to authoritarian regimes around the world to pursue antidemocratic and antihuman rights agendas.

“We’re expanding the space around the globe for authoritarians to draw comfort from the United States, which has historically been a leading advocate of liberal democracy and human rights,” Burt said. “That’s not to say the U.S. has not engaged in activities that have veered from those principles, because it certainly has. Yet, the U.S. always aspired to be a leader of the democratic free world and a defender and promoter of human rights. I see this administration fundamentally backing away from that traditional leadership role, and that is deeply concerning to me.”

Jo-Marie Burt can be reached at 703-993-1413 or

For more information, contact Damian Cristodero at 703-993-9118 or

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George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls more than 36,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.