GENEVA (Reuters) - Donald Trump is one of a new breed of leaders around the world who seek to use their democratic mandate to undermine the rule of law, the head of a legal and human rights watchdog said on Wednesday.
Branding the U.S. president an “authoritarian populist”, Saman Zia-Zarifi, secretary-general of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), compared him to the leaders of Turkey, the Philippines, Hungary and Venezuela.
Zarifi cited as an example Trump’s travel ban on nationals from six Muslim-majority countries, a policy that he called “highly problematic” under the U.S. constitution and international law.
“What is different now is that a certain kind of populism is being used to actually counter the notion of the rule of law,” Zarifi said in an interview at the headquarters of the ICJ, which is composed of 60 eminent judges and lawyers from all regions who seek to protect human rights and the rule of law.
“The new populism has a certain shamelessness about it that is new. It’s not that people are denying that they are violating rights, what they are saying is they can violate rights because somehow they are empowered by the people,” he said.
Zarifi, who took over at the ICJ in April, said the new breed of populists included Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of Poland’s ruling party.
“I would say that in the U.S., Trump is an authoritarian populist. He has authoritarian tendencies but he still is facing checks and balances,” Zarifi said. “So he is not a full-blown authoritarian figure.”
The U.S. Supreme Court revised parts of Trump’s executive order banning travellers from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, a policy Trump says is aimed at tackling terrorism.
“Looking at it again from the point of view of U.S. law - I’m an American lawyer - it seems highly problematic,” said the Iranian-born Zarifi, who moved to the United States as a teenager and holds a law degree from Cornell University.
Supreme Court rulings would be, he said, “a test for the health of the system of checks and balances in the U.S.”
A crackdown by Erdogan’s government has led to the arrest of 50,000 people and the suspension of 150,000 in the year since a failed military coup in Turkey where the judiciary is “now politically compromised”, Zarifi said.
The Turkish government has said the action is justified by the gravity of the threat to the state from the coup attempt.
On Monday, the state prosecutor asked a court to remand the local Amnesty International director and nine other activists in custody pending trial for membership of a terrorist organization.
Erdogan was quoted by Turkish media this month as saying they were detained on the basis of intelligence and that the judiciary would make its own decision.
But Zarifi said the judiciary should have thrown the case out.
“The handling of the case highlights the very serious concerns - and alarm in fact at this point - that we have raised about the independence of the judiciary and the legal system in Turkey over the last few years.”
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Robin Pomeroy