The Question Looming Over Trump Nominee Robert Destro

To the Council for Global Equality, the protection of human rights globally is hardly a luxury.  It’s integral to democratic values, to humanitarian values, and to the genuine rule of law – and it’s a critical component of America’s strategic interests in reducing the causes of instability, conflict, and emigration.

So we take seriously nominations to government positions intended to safeguard human rights.  For that reason, we are deeply concerned at the background and philosophy of President Trump’s nominee for Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL).

Robert Destro is known as a religious freedom academic, not a human rights expert.  His focus and credentials suggest, indeed, that if confirmed, his service in this position might duplicate that of the Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom position that Sam Brownback now encumbers.

Viewed in the broader human rights perspective of the DRL Assistant Secretary job, there’s a serious question of whether Destro is the right person for these duties.  The top DRL job, after all, is an advocacy position, not just for religious freedom but for all human rights.  And at the core of human rights advocacy is the belief that all individuals deserve equal respect, equal dignity, and equal protection under the law.

Robert Destro has denigrated the legitimacy and equality of LGBT persons.  Destro argues that Christians who oppose homosexuality, on the basis of religious belief, should be permitted to deny equal treatment and services to LGBT individuals. He questions whether a transgender person must be accepted as such by someone who doesn’t accept the basis of gender identity.  And he opposes the Equality Act – legislation re-introduced less than a week ago – that focuses on the need for protections against LGBT-focused discrimination in employment and housing and opportunity.  If these precepts are fundamental to a fair and equal society, how can DRL’s Assistant Secretary find himself so far from the mark?

At a bare baseline, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has an obligation to ask whether Destro would speak clearly in favor of the human rights of LGBT people in every country in which the Department’s own human rights reports have signaled problems.  The Committee needs to ask, too, whether Destro would ensure that DRL programs are used to address, in every country, structural challenges to LGBT fairness and equal treatment under the law.  And it needs to probe deeply into how Destro’s support for religious exemptions might negatively impact the use of taxpayer funds to promote the equal treatment of LGBT people abroad.

We easily can imagine that Destro will offer carefully parsed pablum in response to these points.  But one question he should be made to answer meaningfully is this:  how can Destro be credible, to any foreign official or public, in demanding that LGBT citizens be treated fairly and respectfully, given what he has written and said on these matters?

That question is critically important to Destro’s effectiveness, which should be paramount in the minds of those reviewing his qualifications for the job.  How incisively Senate Foreign Relations Committee members question Destro will tell us whether they are committed to truly inclusive human rights – and whether he, or they, should be out of a job.

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