No Pride at State: 26 Human Rights and LGBTI Advocacy Groups Urge State Department to Clarify Policy Around Embassies and Dismantle ‘Natural Rights’ Commission

The Trump/Pence Administration’s exceptionally weak commitment to human rights and LGBTI rights just got a lot weaker.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has green-lighted a new “Commission on Unalienable Rights” to provide, according to the Federal Register, “fresh thinking” on “…human rights discourse where it has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights….”  Those are code words for an effort that seems intended to deny equal rights to LGBTI individuals.  The commission — which we believe may be announced formally at the Secretary’s second ministerial-level meeting on religious freedom, scheduled for mid-July — will provide policy recommendations directly to the Secretary, not to the bureau in charge of human rights policy.

What possibly could go wrong?

On one level, the new commission is not much of a surprise.  Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is no friend of human rights — nor has he ever tolerated, let alone embraced, the LGBTI community. His refusal to back away, at his confirmation hearing, from previous suggestions that same-sex relationships are a perversion was an early indication of potentially discriminatory attitudes by the Secretary toward the Department’s LGBT employees.  And his refusal this month to issue, as Secretary, statements honoring the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOTB) and Pride only underscores the narrow constituency he serves in his official role.

But in forming the new commission, Pompeo has crossed a bridge too far — deliberately putting his personal and political anti-LGBTI bias ahead of clear national interest:

  • By design, the Commission on Unalienable Rights walks away from the broad and principled embrace of universal human rights that previous administrations, Republican and Democrat alike, have shared. It seeks, instead, to create a new hierarchy of rights, with the intention of “alienating” LGBTI citizens and perhaps others from that framework.
  • International religious freedom is unquestionably a worthy human rights priority for the United States, but it is not the only—or the supreme—human rights concern for our nation or the world, despite the personal religious commitment of Secretary Pompeo and others in this Administration.
  • It snubs a clear and growing consensus in this country that no individual characteristic — be it racial, ethnic, gender, or sexual orientation/identity — should be an impediment to full equality.
  • And it betrays to the world that America’s human rights policies are based less in fairness, justice, and equal opportunity than in narrow-minded religious exceptionalism — coincidentally a contributor to the instability seen in many foreign countries.

We’re under no illusion that the commission will be fair or balanced, or that it will do anything other than narrow the understanding of human rights that has guided American foreign policy for most of this century.  The “natural law” and “natural rights” terminology used in the Commission’s framing is code language that social extremists have used to bring God and religion into the legal realm, as a higher authority than the state. It’s been used primarily to oppose marriage equality and reproductive health services in recent years. And the two prospective commissioner names that have surfaced to date — Mary Ann Glendon and Robert George — are known as opponents of reproductive rights and equality for LGBTI citizens.

But we’re deeply saddened that anyone at the level of Secretary of State would allow personal bias and base (in both senses of the word) politics to deface America’s aspirational commitment to human rights leadership.  Fairer and more inclusive societies, after all, are at the very foundation of stable and secure countries, and of the health, development and judicial assistance goals our country has embraced. And Pompeo seems willfully ignorant that genuine support for human rights, in all of its manifestations, is a critical component not only of American leadership abroad, but of efforts to create a better and more just world.

We’ve written to Pompeo on these matters (see attached), as much in sadness as in outrage.  The United States has fallen short of its aspirational human rights goals, of course, on many occasions.  But both Republican and Democratic administrations have been right to see our leadership in the human rights struggle as critical to the values our country has embraced and projected in the post-war world.

Simply put, we’ve long been ashamed to see how far this Administration has fallen in ignoring the importance of human rights. Sadly, the new commission only lowers the bar.

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