Archive for October, 2019

Pompeo’s Dangerously Misguided Human Rights Commission

Secretary Pompeo’s new “Commission on Unalienable Rights” met for five hours at the State Department yesterday to refocus our nation’s human rights policy on the principles contained in the  country’s founding documents and religious heritage, because Pompeo believes that the world is confused.  According to Pompeo, this confusion stems from the failure to distinguish God-given, “unalienable rights” from simple political claims or mere personal preferences.  The world is clamoring for moral clarity, and Pompeo’s Commission has stepped up to provide pastoral guidance based on our country’s founding texts – never mind that those early texts enshrined slavery and denied rights to all but a limited group of white men.

The Commission, stacked with religiously-focused academics who oppose the rights of LGBTI individuals and the sexual and reproductive rights of women, took a deep dive into the meaning of “unalienable rights” in the context of our founding texts, including the Declaration of Independence, which most famously affirmed the unalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” They didn’t quite get what they wanted.

The Commission’s first witness, Michael McConnel, a Constitutional scholar at Stanford Law School and a former justice on the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, warned that the term “unalienable rights,” which comes to us from our country’s protestant reform traditions, has never had a common or precise definition.  The phrase identifies a philosophical concept, rather than a concrete set of rights.  And while the concept often prioritizes freedom of religion, McConnel cautioned that our founders were ultimately more concerned with freedom of conscience, which includes but is not limited to a narrow understanding of religious freedom.

McConnell also recognized the implicit failures of this philosophical approach.  While the term “unalienable rights” makes for inspirational prose, the philosophical concept behind it embraced our country’s original sin of slavery and denied women full standing in society. Concepts of equal protection could not, and did not, exist at this time, under this philosophical tradition.

This all must have been a blow to the Commissioners, since Pompeo clearly wants them to propose a new hierarchy of unalienable rights — with religious freedom at the pinnacle and the rights of LGBTI and other individuals with specific “preferences” in the alienable category.  Indeed, Pompeo constantly speaks of religious freedom as the “first right” from which other rights flow, proclaiming, often in messianic terms, that human rights “came from our Lord, and when we get this right, we’ll have done something good, not just I think for the United States but for the world.”

While U.S. moral leadership ebbs and flows, and our commitment to human rights institutions has been uneven over the years, it is simply wrong-headed and ultimately self-defeating to create an artificial human rights hierarchy — one that strips away the universality of human rights and puts a limited number of political and religious rights above all others.  Indeed, this enterprise stands to harm religious freedom itself, as it gives philosophical justification to theocratic governments and religious majority populations who are, by far, the leading persecutors of religious minorities around the world. Those same oppressors also happen to be some of the leading persecutors of LGBTI individuals and other marginalized groups.

It is clear that our worst fears have been confirmed and that yesterday’s meeting was the christening of Pompeo’s intensely academic attempt to justify his efforts to elevate religious freedom to a position of dominance in our country’s human rights diplomacy.  This policy shift was already foreshadowed by Pompeo’s announcement in June, marking the release of the State Department’s 2018 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, that he would strip the State Department’s office of religious freedom out of the Department’s human rights bureau, where it long has served to integrate religious liberty concerns with other human rights priorities, to a position of independence and priority in the Department’s organizational hierarchy.

But this project also seems designed to justify America’s loss of moral authority by blaming it on a “crisis” in the modern human rights system, as described by Commission Chair Mary Ann Glendon. Apparently, it has nothing to do with President Trump’s delight in cozying up to the world’s worst human rights abusers, or to his chaotic policies that green-light human rights atrocities, like the current ethnic cleansing of Kurds in Syria.  This Commission is dedicated to the proposition that it’s all a matter of human rights confusion, not a failure of leadership.  Our best hope is that the Commission itself fails in this misguided enterprise.

First Meeting of State Department’s Dangerous Commission on Unalienable Rights

U.S. Department of StateThis week, Secretary Pompeo’s new commission aimed at narrowing our country’s human rights advocacy to fit with the “natural law” and “natural rights” views of social and religious extremists will meet in Washington.  We know that the Commission on Unalienable Rights is stacked with religious activists who oppose the rights of LGBTI individuals, along with the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls, so we can only expect the worst.

The meeting this week will examine the ways in which our country’s founding documents — texts that enshrine slavery and deny rights to all but a limited group of privileged white men — should inform our human rights priorities in the modern age.  That focus hardly allays our concerns.

The formal announcement of the Commission was read awkwardly by Secretary Pompeo at a July press briefing, at which he took no questions.  Pompeo referred without specificity to concern that human rights not be “hijacked” by those who would use the name for their own purposes.  He suggested that the institutions designed to protect human rights had drifted from their mission and claimed that the new commission will offer an “…informed view of the role of human rights in foreign policy….”  Most of the commissioners he named publicly are known for their highly conservative views, often framed with a religious slant.  The Chair of the Commission, Mary Ann Glendon, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, has long opposed sexual and reproductive rights, and, as documented by Equity Forward, has written in the most alarmist of terms about the supposed social harms of marriage equality in our country.

We have written earlier of our suspicions that the so-called “Unalienable Rights Commission” is but a thinly guised mechanism to jettison LGBT populations and reproductive rights from the purview of U.S. human rights policies and protections.  Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have raised questions about the new committee’s purpose and membership.  They also have questioned the way in which the committee was conceived, noting in particular its circumvention of the very bureau (Democracy, Human Rights and Labor) charged with integrating human rights concerns into U.S foreign policy at the State Department.

But our concern goes far deeper.  In an OpEd in the Wall Street Journal, Secretary Pompeo worries that we have lost our focus, and that today “[r]ights claims are often aimed more at rewarding interest groups and dividing humanity into subgroups.”  With language like that, we see this as part of a broader effort to push back against human rights for LGBTI individuals and other “subgroups” by creating a hierarchy of rights — with religious freedom at the pinnacle and the rights of LGBTI and other individuals in the “alienable” category.  We believe it wrong-headed to create an artificial human rights hierarchy — one that strips away the universality of human rights and puts political and religious rights above all others.

This seems all the more concerning in the context of Pompeo’s two high-powered Ministerials to Advance Religious Freedom at the State Department.  And in a speech to Concerned Women for America at the Trump Hotel, Pompeo professed his personal belief, which is quickly becoming State Department policy, that human rights should be grounded in religion: “I know where those rights came from.  They came from our Lord, and when we get this right, we’ll have done something good, not just I think for the United States but for the world.”

We categorically reject these hierarchies and insist on an integrated approach to human rights for all.  Freedom of religion must be integrated within – and reinforcing of – the full range of human rights protections that honor the dignity of all persons in all of our many pursuits.

The Commission on Unalienable Rights Pompeo announced is less a group of thoughtful experts than a narrowly gauged, packed court.  In so blatantly appealing to their political base, Trump, Pence and Pompeo are dimming our country’s beacon of principle and freedom, hobbling U.S. human rights leadership, and thoughtlessly undermining the wider human rights platform on which other strategic U.S. interests rest.

With its embrace of dictators, its walk away from the UN Human Rights Council, which is still the world’s most important human rights mechanism despite its faults, and its diminution of LGBT and gender rights as a legitimate part of policy, this Administration already has done far less to advance the cause of human rights than to harm it.  The new Commission seems designed to continue that retreat from U.S. leadership in forging a better world.  What a disgraceful — and steadily worsening — legacy.


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