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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

America First and the Human Rights Regime

Last week, Journal of Human Rights published online my new article coauthored with Kurt Mills, "America First and the Human Rights Regime." This week, it already appeared in print! 

This is the citation:

Kurt Mills & Rodger A. Payne (2020) America First and the human rights regime, Journal of Human Rights, 19:4, 399-424, DOI: 10.1080/14754835.2020.1809362 

And this is the Abstract

Donald Trump’s populist, nationalist “America First” agenda advocates a transactional, zero-sum, hypercompetitive, and sovereigntist view of US foreign policy, which many scholars and policymakers conclude poses a considerable challenge to multilateralism. We explore the threat America First presents to the international human rights regime as reflected in important institutions and norms. We survey America First policies regarding immigration and refugee norms as well as norms prohibiting torture and war crimes. We examine its position on the UN Human Rights Commission and the International Criminal Court, consider Trump’s sympathies for autocratic governments, and explore the development of the Commission on Unalienable Rights. Finally, we explain why the America First norm transgressions pose a novel threat to the human rights regime, potentially more worrisome than prior US norm violations. America First’s performative element risks reconstituting US identity as an outsider state, if not an outlaw, vis-à-vis the international community.

Regular readers may recall that this piece was tied to my Global Scholar appointment at University of Dundee in May-June 2019, when I was on sabbatical. 

If you want to read it and don't have access, let me know. I have a pdf and I have a link for up to 50 readers online. 

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Saturday, September 12, 2020


In early August, I noticed that our Sprint mobile service phone bill was about three times its normal amount. Obviously, I was shocked by the total when I saw it online. You don't often see a monthly phone bill for over $750 these days. Needless to say, I immediately started investigating. 

It turns out that we had over $500 in unexpected international calls on the bill.

Let me start by saying my family is global and it is not unusual for us to have to pay for some international calls. My field is global politics and I traveled to Canada, Belgium, Ireland, and the UK in the recent past for various academic gigs -- or vacations. Altogether, I spent about 6 months of my recent sabbatical outside the US.

Moreover, my wife's father was a US Foreign Service office, which makes her side of the family even more globally-oriented. Her sister has lived in the UK for most of the time I've known my wife. 

When we travel abroad, we typically set up our mobile phones for international calling and texting. We've also paid for a similar service when calling abroad from the US. Sprint has a reasonably priced plan that customers (at least in the past) can change month-to-month. It is one of the reasons we have remained as Sprint customers for about 15 years. I think my spouse got the first Sprint mobile phone in our family back in 2005 when I had a sabbatical at Harvard.

However, I'd probably leave today but for three lease contracts we currently carry on various phones.

In this case, it turned out that one of my daughters had to cancel a European flight on one of those discount Euro airlines. Before the pandemic, she had planned to visit her aunt and family in the UK, then fly from there to Spain. The discount airline didn't have a US 800 number and my daughter didn't realize we currently didn't have international calling on our phones.

Worse, she didn't realize that Sprint was charging $3 per minute for the 3 hours she was on hold to that discount airline. 

The phone bill MASSIVELY exceeded the price of the flight tickets she was trying to cancel and/or change. 

If we were paying the modest sum for international calling, the cost would have been 25 cents per minute (still ridiculous these days) and would have been less than $100 even with the exorbitant taxes and fees mobile phone companies charge their customers. The precise cost would have depended if the monthly fee would have been applied to only one line, or if we would have had to pay for 4 lines of international calling.

If we only had to pay for one line for one month, the total cost would have been something like $65.  That's about 13% of what they actually charged, so it is obvious that the $500 charge was simply profiteering from the situation.

I called Sprint when I saw the bill and asked for some relief since we had been longtime good customers and this was an honest mistake. Indeed, more than that, I argued, Sprint had failed in a number of ways here.

As it happens, my daughter split the calls over two days. She was on hold for over an hour on July 21, gave up, and called that airline back on July 22 -- only to be on hold for even longer, resulting in a call that lasted just over two hours.

I argued to Sprint that my credit card company, (let that sink in) -- my CREDIT CARD FROM A BANK -- would have alerted me to unusual activity on my account after the first incident, which was billed at about $180. They likely would have frozen my account. For god's sake, Sprint itself could have sent an email advising me to buy the international plan if we intended to continue making such expensive calls.

But nothing. Total silence from Sprint in July. I only learned of the cost when I checked the bill online before it was due.

My persistence on the phone on August 9 resulted in slow incremental credits to our account as I was passed from one associate to a supervisor to a manager to a customer service specialist, etc. 

In the end these representatives credited a flat $200. 

That means Sprint still billed $300 for 180 minutes, which works out to about $1.67 per minute. In 2020! Ridiculous.

My wife called her sister this morning for an hour using the free Duo app on her phone, got to talk to the niece and nephews with video, and was billed NOTHING extra as the call simply used the internet. 

If you are not familiar, there are "dial around" services that consumers can buy that reduce the costs of international long distance to pennies per minute. This article recommends AGAINST dial around because it costs nearly a dime per minute (a DIME!) and that cost is significantly more than it would cost simply to use Voip

During the negotiations with various reps, I asked if Sprint would retroactively bill us for international calling and charge the full amount for the 3 hours of calling. It would have been $100 maximum. Maybe only $65 if the fee was applied to merely one line.

Sprint refused.

Then, I explained to the various Sprint representatives that I thought a minimum fair outcome would be for us to pay the costs for the first hour and for the company to credit the costs for the final two hours the following day since it had made no effort to warn customers about the ridiculous prices it was charging for international calling.

I still would have been unhappy paying an extra $180, but it would have been better than paying another $120 on top of that. 

Sprint refused to budge from the $200 credit.

And so we paid, but I am now unhappy about our phone service, and I've actively looked at switching providers. When those phone contracts are finished, Sprint is likely to lose the 4 customers on our family plan. My daughters are in their 20s, so this might mean decades of lost revenue over somewhere between $120 and $335 in remaining disputed charges.

So much for the old maxim, "the customer is always right."

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