Dictators are not the new normal, and we shouldn’t treat them as if they are

I don’t want to spoil the party, but there is something disturbing about both the World Cup opening ceremony in Russia and the recent summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un: They both helped convey the idea that dictators are the new normal.

Russia’s autocrat Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s tyrant Kim achieved what they most wanted: They were seen by billions of people around the world as legitimate leaders, with little mention by the media or other world leaders of their systematic violations of basic rights.

I was in Peru when Putin opened the World Cup in Moscow. Flipping channels, all I saw was an exuberant Putin receiving an ovation at the stadium — probably filled with government cronies — as he addressed the inaugural ceremony. Minutes earlier, sports reporters covering the event were lauding the cleanliness of Moscow’s streets and the beauty of the Kremlin. Maybe I missed it, but I heard no criticism of Putin’s dubious elections, his 2014 invasion of Crimea or his support for the butchery taking place in Syria.  Watching the opening game between Russia and Saudi Arabia, which Russia won 5-0, the cameras showed signs around the soccer field promoting Qatar Airways, the airline of the Middle Eastern emirate that will host the next World Cup in 2022.  Granted, it’s not the first time that a World Cup has been played in an authoritarian country. But not since the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, which was played under a right-wing military dictatorship, has the FIFA world soccer tournament taken place in a more repressive country than today’s Russia.

According to Amnesty International, “Human rights have taken a significant nose-dive in Russia in recent years.” And the Human Rights Watch says that, “Today, Russia is more repressive than it has ever been in the post-Soviet era. The state has tightened control over free expression, assembly and speech, aiming to silence independent critics, including online.” 

North Korea’s Kim, who drew admiring headlines worldwide for taking a night tour of downtown Singapore on the eve of his meeting with Trump — as if he were a rock star — may be the world champion of political repression.  According to a 2017 report from the International Bar Association (IBA,) Kim is holding between 80,000 and 130,000 political prisoners. The IBA report says North Korea engages in “systematic murder (including infanticide), torture, persecution of Christians, rape” and several other horrendous crimes. 

What makes this all the more depressing is that the United States, which used to be a voice for human-rights victims around the world under both Democratic and Republican administrations, seems to have switched sides under Trump.  The president seems to have nothing but   praise for Putin and Kim, but criticism for Western democracies such as Canada, Germany and France. 

While Trump cited national-security concerns in slapping tariffs on and starting a trade conflict with Canada, Germany and other Western democracies at the recent G-7 summit in Canada, he asked the group to re-admit Russia, which was expelled after it invaded Crimea.  When asked about North Korea’s human-rights atrocities during his summit with Kim — which ended with a huge diplomatic triumph for North Korea, when Trump promised to reduce military exercises with South Korea without apparently getting anything in return — the U.S. president effectively praised the North Korean mass killer. Asked whether Kim is a killer, Trump told Fox News that the North Korean dictator is “a very smart guy,” and “a great negotiator” and “a tough guy.” When the interviewer insisted that Kim has done some really bad things, Trump shrugged it off saying, “Yes, but so have a lot of other people.”

Trump, who is betraying what America stands for on many fronts, has become a cheerleader for tyrants. Sorry to be a spoiler, but accepting dictatorships will only help make the world a more dangerous place. I, for one, refuse to tolerate tyrants and their human-rights abuses as the new normal.

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