A Trump administration appointee to the State Department tore into standard UN documents that condemn racism as a threat to democracy.
The deputy assistant secretary for refugees and migration, a foreign service officer promoted by the White House to an unusually senior position for his rank, disputed the idea that leaders have a “duty” to condemn hate speech and incitement, and repeatedly rejected use of the words nationalism, populism, and xenophobia.
“The drafters say ‘populism and nationalism’ as if these are dirty words,” wrote Andrew Veprek, the deputy assistant secretary for refugees and migration, in documents obtained exclusively by CNN. “There are millions of Americans who likely would describe themselves as adhering to these concepts. (Maybe even the President.). So are we looking to here condemn our fellow-citizens, those who pay our salaries?”
President Donald Trump has described himself as a nationalist.
Veprek also pushed to soften language about fighting racism and about racism in politics in his proposed amendments to a UN Human Rights Council resolution titled “The Incompatibility between Democracy and Racism” that is adopted without a vote, with much of the same language, every few years.
In response to one section that says national leaders have a responsibility to condemn hate speech, Veprek writes, “’[d]uty to condemn’ goes too far. Our public figures can’t be obliged to police every intolerant thought out their [sic] at the risk of being condemned for intolerance themselves.”
Fear of foreigners
And he repeatedly argues against using the word “xenophobia,” or the fear of foreigners, writing in side notes that he has concerns over “the malleability of the term now and in the future.”
“[W]hat real or perceived offense is next to be considered ‘xenophobic?’” he writes. “How does that square with our historic respect for the right of free expression? The drafters need to focus on behavior and actions - which states can control - rather than attitudes and states of mind.”
The internal administration documents show suggested edits Veprek apparently made, marked by his electronic State Department identifier on notes in the margins, according to a source familiar with the documents.
It’s unclear if Veprek has the authority within the State Department to make changes to the documents, which are full of crossed out sentences and other comments vigorously contesting the UN statements.
Shortly after the edits were suggested, the US announced it was leaving the Geneva based Human Rights Council.
A State Department spokesperson said the agency does not comment on “leaked, alleged documents or internal deliberative material,” but the agency did not deny the existence of the documents.
Rob Berschinski, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights and member of the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, called Veprek’s changes to the documents “explosive.”
“It seems clear (Veprek) feels the UN language is targeted at the Trump administration, when it mentions racism in political circles,” Berschinski told CNN. “Clearly, he is making these edits to reduce the power of the resolution, as relates to racism in politics.”
Veprek appears to have struck out an entire section that links fighting racism with building a diverse democracy, crossing out the language, “acknowledging the linkage and complementarity of the combat against racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia with the long-term construction of a democratic, non-discriminatory and multicultural society, based on the recognition, respect and promotion of cultural, ethnic and religious diversity.”
Veprek instead makes a case against multiculturalism in his comments. “What’s the evidence for such ‘complementarity?’ Some commentators assert that a unifying culture (as opposed to multiculturalism) is the best way to promote social trust and combat racism.”
The edits take issue with a passage that calls out racism in politics, crossing out language expressing concern over “the rise of extremist political parties, movements and groups that seek to normalize racism,” as well as “xenophobia” and incitement of hatred and violence.
The phrase “normalize racism,” the internal edits state, “is vague and has no legal definition.”
Democrats see appointment as ‘troubling sign’
The appointment of Veprek, a career foreign service officer, to the deputy assistant position in April raised eyebrows because of his relatively low rank. Senate Democrats wrote Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on May 1 to say the appointment was “the equivalent of placing a lieutenant colonel into a one-star general position.”
At the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, where Veprek is based, he is one of three deputy assistant secretaries. While there is a principal deputy assistant secretary, the more senior assistant secretary position remains unfilled, giving the deputies latitude and power they might not otherwise have.
Veprek started out as a consular officer in 2002, according to Congress.gov, and worked for the House Foreign Affairs Committee before becoming an immigration adviser at the White House Domestic Policy Council, where he was close to senior policy advisor Stephen Miller. Miller has advocated a hardline immigration stance, including the policy shift that resulted in the separation of thousands of migrant children and parents at the southern border.
The Democrats expressed concern that Veprek’s appointment was “another troubling sign that this administration intends to continue dismantling our nation’s already crippled refugee program.”
Veprek is just the latest Trump administration appointee to espouse hardline immigration views that seem to be shared by the President, who last week said Democrats want immigrants to “infest” the US.
During his campaign, Trump associated Mexicans with rapists and his candidacy was embraced by right-wing and white supremacist groups. The issue of racism has resurfaced during Trump’s presidency, particularly in the wake of a white supremacist rally last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, that led to the death of a counter-protestor. In the immediate aftermath, Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the confrontation.
Veprek questions evidence of rise in racism
The resolution and other documents issued by the Human Rights Commission are meant to “constitute early warning tools that can enable States to prevent genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing both nationally and internationally,” according to the statement.
The resolution breaks from its usual formula this year to introduce language expressing concern that “we have witnessed a discouraging trend of populism and nationalism.” It goes on to note longer-standing concerns about “rising signs of xenophobia and incitement to violence based on identity.”
Veprek attacks the statements throughout, questioning many of their premises, and objecting in particular to language that says the UN remains “alarmed at the rise of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in political circles.”
“To refer to the ‘rise’ of racism resumes [sic] (1) there was some more innocent time when racism didn’t exist in the world; or (2) racism is increasing over some unspecified previous time,” Veprek writes. “Is there evidence for either of these assertions?”
Berschinski, now senior vice president for policy with Human Rights First, said that by eliminating references to terms like “populism and nationalism,” “xenophobia” and “the rise in racism,” the edits seem to suggest an administration that feels targeted by what are otherwise fairly anodyne diplomatic documents.
“Not being able to support this kind of language is indicative of an administration that has to defend a President who has said that Mexicans are rapists, white nationalists are ‘fine people,’ and that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to travel to America,” Berschinksi said.
Veprek takes issue with a section that blasts public officials who engage in hate speech, which reads: “acts of racial violence, hate speech and incitement to hatred do not constitute legitimate expressions of opinion, but rather unlawful acts or offenses which incite violence, and that when government officials and public authorities (who) have a duty to condemn and where applicable prosecute such offenses engage in hate speech, they undermine the right to non-discrimination and endanger democracy.”
The language referring to hate speech and incitement is crossed out, as is the section about leaders who engage in hate speech.
“The new language is not true,” the edits state, “and is inconsistent with freedom of expression and the US Constitution.”
Also crossed out in one section: “freedom of expression should not be detrimental to the rights and freedoms of others, including the right to equality and non-discrimination.”
And Veprek argues that the US shouldn’t endorse any praise for the UN’s high commissioner on human rights, providing several links to articles that document the commissioner’s condemnation of Trump’s attacks on the media.
Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein had been outspoken in his criticism of Trump after the violence in Charlottesville. Afterward, the President attacked news outlets and their coverage of the event and his remarks, condemning “crooked media deceptions” at a rally of his own in Arizona.
“To call these news organizations fake does tremendous damage,” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said at an August news conference in Geneva, Switzerland. “I believe it could amount to incitement,” al-Hussein said. “At an enormous rally, referring to journalists as very, very bad people – you don’t have to stretch the imagination to see then what could happen to journalists.”
CNN’s Nicole Gaouette and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report