Trump’s border wall is another dangerous distraction

The US border wall debate is diverting attention away from grave human rights abuses and criminalisation of aid work.

Desert deaths
It is estimated that some 21,000 border crossers have died in desert areas near the US-Mexico border since the 1990s [File: AP/David Maung]

On February 15, US President Donald Trump declared a national emergency at the US-Mexico border in order to access funding for the construction of what he calls an “absolutely critical” border wall. Although he has repeatedly described the situation as a “growing security crisis”, research shows that the number of undocumented individuals crossing from Mexico into the United States has been steadily decreasing in recent years.

Trump has relentlessly demonised border crossers, calling them “criminal illegal aliens” who have created “the lawless state of our southern border”. 

There is indeed lawlessness at the US-Mexico border, but some of the most egregious criminal acts are being carried out by the US border patrol and have been validated and perpetuated by US courts.

Human rights are being systematically violated so extensively that we can certainly acknowledge an “emergency” at the border. The separation of families and horrendous mistreatment of children in detention centres has attracted some public attention, but other abuses remain unaddressed. 

Border patrol agents have been violating the rights to water and food of border crossers for years. Now they are also targeting the very people who are documenting these violations and attempting to provide essential water and food aid.

The weaponisation of water

In the 1990s, the Clinton administration adopted a “prevention through deterrence” strategy which effectively sealed off entry points near urban areas at the US-Mexico border, forcing border crossers to take risky routes through desert areas.

Since then, over 7,000 bodies have been found near the border, with estimates putting the real number of deaths caused by dehydration, heat stroke, hypothermia, etc at 21,000. Distressed by these tragic deaths, local people have sought to help prevent further loss of life by leaving water and food along desert routes.

But these humanitarian initiatives have not been welcomed by the border patrol.

In January 2018, a humanitarian group called No More Deaths published a report detailing how between 2012 and 2015 border patrol agents destroyed 3,586 gallon jugs of water left behind for border crossers in the Sonoran desert of Arizona. They also released footage of border guards kicking and pouring out water containers.

As the report points out: “Hundreds of vandalism acts cannot be dismissed as the misguided behaviour of a few bad apples. Rather, after extensive statistical analysis, we conclude that the culture and policies of the US Border Patrol as a law-enforcement agency both authorize and normalize acts of cruelty against border crossers.”

The US border patrol has adopted a practice as part of its policing activities that clearly violates human rights.

The right to water is also recognised under international law in UN Resolution 64/292, which acknowledges that “the right to safe and clean drinking water … as a human right … is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” The right to food is recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Impeding humanitarian relief violates customary international humanitarian law, which includes an “obligation to allow the free passage of relief supplies”.

Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the ICC includes “… deprivation of access to food and medicine, calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population …” in the definition of extermination, a crime against humanity. It also identifies “wilfully impeding relief supplies as provided for under the Geneva Conventions” as a war crime. 

Border crossers are not the only ones whose right to water and food is violated within the borders of the US. Communities across the country, including in Flint, Michigan and Dimock, Pennsylvania, know what violations of the human right to water mean all too well.

The weaponisation of water is also not a practice exclusive to the US border patrol. Israel uses it regularly against the Palestinian population. It is easy to recognise Palestinian homes in occupied Palestine by checking the roofs for black water tanks, which Palestinians have to keep because they are regularly denied access to water and must perpetually store emergency supplies.

Unsurprisingly, Trump has expressed affection for Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing government, applauding his militarised security policies, while coveting his wall and citing it as a model for the US

While cruel “deterrence” practices that violate human rights along the US-Mexico border long predate Trump’s election, under his administration, the “bad apples” of border protection are overwhelmingly calling the shots, and the courts are now unprecedentedly validating their actions.

Criminalising humanitarian work

The criminalisation of humanitarian work is evidenced by the recent targeting of No More Deaths volunteers. 

On Friday, a federal court in the state of Arizona sentenced four American women – Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse, and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick – on misdemeanour charges for having left water and food in the desert back in summer 2017.

Officially, the women – all No More Deaths volunteers – were convicted for entering Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge without a permit and leaving behind supplies, but the activists suspect that the charges were politically motivated.

Hours after the January 2018 report was released, another No More Deaths volunteer, Scott Warren, was arrested and charged with harbouring undocumented immigrants.

The four women now have criminal records, which could greatly affect their personal and professional lives, while Warren faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

These convictions set a dangerous precedent that strengthens and normalises the campaign to criminalise humanitarian work in the US. International law regarding basic rights faces daunting enforceability challenges, but Trump’s systematic attacks on human rights must be documented, resisted, and demolished.

Given that international humanitarian law applies only during armed conflict, we must also ask: Is the US not at war at the border, given the thousands of lives lost? The status of border-crossers and terminology used to describe them – refugees, economic migrants, asylum-seekers, illegal aliens, victims of violence -are irrelevant. They are indisputably entitled to rights to water and food.

In this context, Trump’s border wall project and the debate over funding it has provoked constitute yet another dangerous distraction. The Trump administration has repeatedly demonstrated that it seeks not only to erode human rights in the US, but also to dismantle human rights protections internationally.

The urgency of the situation cannot be overstated. As one border crosser told No More Deaths, “We would die without water, and they [the border patrol] don’t want us to live.”

So stay tuned – the US government is targeting humanitarian workers who provide water and food to people on the brink of death. Have you done any volunteer work for the starving or water deprived lately? You could be next. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.