Archive for March, 2020

State Department Human Rights Reports, Part III: Ghosting Reproductive Rights**

U.S. Department of StateWe can’t leave the subject of this year’s human rights country reports without noting, yet again, the failure of those reports to reference restrictions on reproductive rights practiced in dozens of countries around the world.

As it did last year, the Trump Administration again has chosen to strip out of the annual reports any discussion of sexual and reproductive rights — another instance of human rights cherry-picking that dilutes the value and integrity of American human rights leadership.

We continue to call for this deliberate omission to be reversed.  Women’s health and reproductive rights have been recognized by UN bodies, and this includes access to safe and legal abortion.  The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Torture Convention, both of which the United States has signed and ratified, recognize that access to abortion is a human right.  As such, the U.S. government has legal obligations under both the U.S. Constitution and binding human rights treaties to ensure access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, including abortion, at home and abroad. This is an important part of our country’s obligation to eliminate discrimination against women and to ensure women’s right to health and other fundamental human rights globally.

Attacks on these sexual and reproductive rights are happening worldwide, with alarming frequency.  And our government’s failure to collect and publish information on these attacks amounts to a secret handshake with other governments, signaling that these rights don’t matter – or, worse yet, that they don’t really exist.

We’re equally concerned that several of the commissioners on Secretary Pompeo’s so-called “Commission on Unalienable Rights” have written about, or made a point of speaking to, the rights of the unborn — an ominous signal of where that commission’s recommendations, slated to be released this summer, may be headed.  The purpose of the Commission, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is to identify which internationally recognized human rights are “unalienable” and which are “ad hoc.”  It seems clear that the Commission wants to jettison sexual and reproductive rights to the ad hoc dustbin, in opposition to U.S. treaty and legal obligations and longstanding foreign policy positions.

To block this dangerous effort, the Council is suing Secretary Pompeo to disband the Commission and ensure that it does not undermine our country’s international human rights obligations, including global commitments to sexual and reproductive rights and to the rights of LGBTI and other vulnerable communities.

Trump and Pompeo have made a deliberate choice to place the priorities of the religious right above broad values and human rights commitments that this country has espoused for generations.  The lack of sexual and reproductive rights coverage in these reports, on one hand, and the Commission’s predictable anti-abortion bent, on the other, only feed the impression that this Administration’s go-it-alone “Make America Great Again” approach is dragging America’s championing of human rights into the partisan divide.

** This is part three of a three-part series of blogs analyzing the State Department’s annual human rights reports. While it is a difficult time to be sharing anything that is unrelated to coronavirus, we believe that the strength and accuracy of these reports is vital to a robust human rights policy and to our country’s leadership in the world. Read more here.

State Department Human Rights Reports, Part II: Undermining Trump’s Refugee Policies**

One of the more surprising aspects of this year’s country human rights reports, released in Washington last Wednesday, is that the State Department’s own findings undermine the Trump Administration’s legal efforts to limit refugee protections here in the United States — especially the safe third country agreements that the United States negotiated last year with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Those agreements allow the United States to expel asylum seekers to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.  Yet the human rights reports make abundantly clear that it is manifestly unsafe for LGBTI individuals to seek asylum in that region.

By its own admission, Guatemalan authorities cannot protect asylum seekers.  And the State Department’s report on Guatemala notes that “UNHCR [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] reported that identification and referral mechanisms for potential asylum seekers were inadequate.  Migration authorities lacked adequate training concerning the rules for establishing refugee status.”

In reality, the situation facing LGBTI asylum seekers in Guatemala is far worse than even the report describes.  The State Department’s report admits that “According to LGBTI activists, gay and transgender individuals often experienced police abuse. The local NGO National Network for Sexual Diversity and HIV and the Lambda Association reported that as of October, a total of 20 LGBTI persons had been killed, including several transgender individuals the NGOs believed were targeted due to their sexual orientation. Several were killed in their homes or at LGBTI spaces in Guatemala City. LGBTI groups claimed women experienced specific forms of discrimination, such as forced marriages and forced pregnancies through ‘corrective rape,’ although these incidents were rarely, if ever, reported to authorities. In addition, transgender individuals faced severe discrimination.”

So why is it that the United States is now arguing in court that LGBTI asylum seekers are safe in Guatemala?

Last January, a group of civil rights and refugee organizations brought suit against the United States based on the safe third country agreement with Guatemala.  The suit represents the claims of a group of refugees, including a gay man from El Salvador who sought asylum in the United States but was sent, instead, to Guatemala by U.S. officials to pursue his asylum claim there, despite his strong objections and the country’s horrific record of human rights abuses against LGBTI individuals.

In the lawsuit, the refugee groups argue that: “Because of the Rule, vulnerable asylum seekers are shut out of the United States and left to seek protection in countries with barely functioning asylum systems that cannot adequately protect them. . . . The result is a deadly game of musical chairs that leaves many desperate asylum seekers without a safe haven, in violation of U.S. and international law.” Indeed, after being sent to Guatemala, local officials told the Salvadoran man in this case that they could not protect him — and advised him to flee to Mexico. (See more here.)

Safe indeed.  As the Department’s own human rights reports make clear, the so-called safe third country agreements that the United States is implementing with Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are nothing but a farce, especially for LGBTI asylum seekers.

When asked about this hypocrisy at the reports’ rollout, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) Robert Destro stammered and hedged: “I don’t think there is any inconsistency whatsoever.”  Shame – the inconsistency is obvious.  It’s also deadly.

** This is part two of a three-part series of blogs analyzing the State Department’s annual human rights reports, which were released with little fanfare last week. While it is a difficult time to be sharing anything that is unrelated to coronavirus, we believe that the strength and accuracy of these reports is vital to a robust human rights policy and to our country’s leadership in the world. Read part one here.

State Department Human Rights Reports: Is the Administration Pulling Its Punches?

While the country focuses on the rapid spread of coronavirus, and questions whether the Administration has done enough to slow that spread, another ongoing tragedy is worth both reflection and action.  Released March 11, the latest round of State Department Human Rights Reports reveal an all-too-familiar story of broad societal and government hostility and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people around the globe.

But the reports also leave an unsettling optic:  is the Administration pulling its punches in addressing these abuses, particularly those by governments of Trump’s closest political allies?

Many of Trump’s allies are the world’s leading human rights abusers.  Russia’s Vladimir Putin is far from a good democratic model or human rights spokesman.  Nor are Brazilian President Bolsonaro or Egyptian President el-Sisi considered to be friends of human rights.  And democratic practice in Poland has, under that country’s current government, eroded considerably.

However, these countries are among Trump’s closest allies. Is that perhaps why the State Department’s report on Brazil fails to report on the virulently anti-LGBTI statements that came from various Brazilian officials last year, including Brazilian President Bolsonaro?

Or why the report on Poland makes no explicit mention of the growing number of “LGBT-free zones” that homophobic Polish political leaders have allowed to take hold, without central government intervention or disapproval?

Or why the report on Egypt fails to note that U.S. civil society organizations had to pressure the Administration to suspend financial support to Egypt’s Forensic Medical Authority — identified in the report as being responsible for forced anal exams, which many consider a form of torture?

These omissions are unconscionable.  While the report on Poland notes that dozens of local officials issued anti-LGBTI statements or declarations, why does it fail to note the failure of national authorities to condemn those statements?

Why does the report on Russia fail to drive home the point that the dozens of listed violations against LGBTI people in that country, including Chechnya, can be laid at the door of President Trump’s close confidant, Vladimir Putin?

As for Brazil, many consider the increasingly anti-LGBTI rhetoric from Brazil’s government, including Bolsonaro, as tantamount to an open call to violence.  Indeed, in the three months leading up to Brazil’s presidential election, in which Bolsonaro explicitly campaigned on an anti-LGBTI platform, the Washington Post (citing Folha de Sao Paulo) reported a 75 percent increase in homophobic hate crimes in Sao Paulo alone, with levels remaining extremely high post-election as well.

Why the silence on Bolsonaro’s statements?  Where, indeed, is the outrage?

Once considered the gold standard for reporting on human rights, the State Department’s annual country human rights reports have become, under Secretary Pompeo’s stewardship, an increasingly perfunctory exercise of sterile prose — with no political analysis and little apparent diplomatic impact.

They’re also a blight on the State Department’s leadership and integrity.

Mr. Pompeo’s Fraud

U.S. Department of StateOne of the Trump Administration’s most damnable traits has been its blatant disregard for human rights norms.  The President’s embrace of the world’s worst dictators….withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council….cherry-picking of rights deemed worthy of inclusion in the annual human rights reports….antipathy toward transgender rights and efforts to strip out use of the word “gender” in multilateral fora.

What else can this venal and short-sighted Administration do to sever further our country from the human rights leadership it has held since World War Two?

Enter Mike Pompeo.

Last Friday, March 6, the Council for Global Equality and four other non-profit organizations filed suit against the State Department to block the continuation of Secretary Pompeo’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights” — a body aimed at constricting U.S. human rights advocacy to align with the “natural law” and “natural rights” vision of religious and social extremists.

Filed in federal court in the Southern District of New York, the lawsuit challenges the legitimacy of the Commission’s role, its lack of membership balance, and the lack of transparency in its operation — all violations of Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) requirements, under which the Commission must operate:

  • The Pompeo-appointed Commission members are narrowly based academics, known for their religious rights views but with little broader human rights expertise; many of their statements and writings show clear bias against LGBTI rights, reproductive rights, and gender equality.
  • The Commission’s membership fully excludes participation by human rights experts with on-the-ground programmatic or advocacy experience.
  • The Commission has failed to provide the public with documents on which it is basing its final report, or indeed access to working group deliberations that are shaping the contours of that report.
  • And as the Secretary receives in-house advice and expertise on human rights policy from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the need for the Commission is dubious at best.

Secretary Pompeo has argued that claims of what constitutes “human rights” have proliferated, leading to a cheapening of the coin of human rights acceptance.  He appears to consider the rights of marginalized communities, such as those that filed this lawsuit, as little more than political pandering.

But these claims are a fraud on the American people, and indeed on the world.  The simple truth is that this Secretary views human rights through a distorted lens of religious freedom — and his appointments to this Commission share his lens.  From day one, the Commission’s purpose has been to reframe human rights from that narrow religious perspective, rather than building acceptance of universal rights that are nurtured and grounded in international law.  While that may serve Pompeo’s political purposes, it’s disastrous for our country’s leadership and moral sway.

The Council hardly is alone in its concern about this bad-to-the-bone Commission.  Our partners in this lawsuit — Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the Center for Health and Gender Equity, CHANGE, and Global Justice Center and Democracy Forward — are but the tip of the iceberg of civil society organizations that view Pompeo’s efforts with dismay.  Last summer, hundreds of human rights advocates and organizations wrote to Pompeo to oppose the Commission.  A growing number of Congressional voices, too, have weighed in against Pompeo’s misguided mission, even seeking to defund it.

We cannot allow this Secretary to drag America down a rabbit hole of social and religious extremism — a direction that’s out of keeping with the principles of our country.  All of us who care genuinely about human rights, and who believe that human rights should be the province of all, have a responsibility to take a stand.

Please join us in that effort by calling your state representatives in Congress and asking them to demand that the Commission be disbanded now.


Read more about Secretary Pompeo’s description of the Commission, and his claim that our country’s human rights practice should be grounded in religion, in his speech to Concerned Women for America at the Trump Hotel. 


Human Rights Orgs Sue Sec. Pompeo for Unlawful Commission Designed to Redefine Human Rights, Undercut Universal Protections for Women, LGBTQI Individuals and Others

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Friday, March 6, 2020
Unalienable Rights Commission Intent on Privileging Religious Freedom Over Other Rights, Appears Set to Provide Trump Administration Roadmap to Deny Equal Rights for All
Slanted Membership, Withheld Records and Closed Door Meetings Violate Federal Law

New York, NY — Today, a coalition of international human rights organizations sued the Trump administration for creating and operating the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unlawfully created the Commission in July 2019. Since then it has been working behind closed doors to articulate a definition of human rights that is grounded in certain religious traditions and that will eliminate rights for LGBTQI individuals, restrict sexual and reproductive health and rights and remove protections for other marginalized communities across the globe. The Commission’s establishment — and its mandate to fundamentally reconsider the U.S.’s commitment to human rights — represents yet another way in which the Trump administration has eroded U.S. human rights commitments and practices, both domestically and abroad.

Democracy Forward filed today’s lawsuit on behalf of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), the Council for Global Equality, and Global Justice Center.

“The Trump administration’s agenda is on display at the Supreme Court this week for all to see,” said Kerry Kennedy, President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “Our lawsuit is bringing light to their attempts to export their misogynistic and homophobic policies around the world—policies which would deny women basic reproductive health rights like access to contraceptives, would deny LGBTQI people recognition as rights holders, and would hand over who gets rights and who doesn’t to religious sects and autocrats.”

“The Trump administration is continuing its pattern of illegally outsourcing policymaking to hand-picked groups to reach pre-determined outcomes,” said Democracy Forward Executive Director Anne Harkavy. “This time, Secretary Pompeo seeks to use an unlawful advisory committee to redefine human rights and undercut protections for women and the LGBTQI community across the globe, so we are suing to stop him.”

“The State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights is just another stepping stone in the White House’s agenda to roll back well-established human rights for women and the LGBTQIA+ community. Disturbingly, this Commission includes members who have loudly opposed women’s rights and sexual and reproductive rights, but excludes the voices of those who would forcefully advocate for these rights,” said Serra Sippel, President of the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE). “CHANGE objects to this unlawfully biased Commission, and is proud to join this lawsuit to hold the U.S. accountable to its commitments to human rights and sexual and reproductive health and rights.”

“Secretary Pompeo often argues that the modern proliferation of human rights claims cheapens the currency of human rights,” noted Mark Bromley, Chair of the Council for Global Equality. “But it is this illegal Commission, with its warped use of religious freedom and natural law to deny rights, that cheapens the very notion of religious freedom and our country’s proud tradition of standing up for the rights of those who are most vulnerable.”

“Secretary Pompeo’s illegal Commission is part of the Trump administration’s wider attack on a human rights system that has firmly established access to safe abortion as a protected right under international law,” said Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Center.

Secretary Pompeo established the Commission with the predetermined goal of recasting human rights based on what the State Dept. called the “founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” This terminology has previously been employed to justify curtailing human rights and, in particular, restricting reproductive freedom and rejecting equal treatment for LGBTQI individuals. Proponents of this view, like Secretary Pompeo, assert that historically marginalized communities’ successes in claiming their rights have led to a “rights proliferation,” which they claim has diluted the very meaning of rights and caused unworkable tension and chaos within the international legal system. Secretary Pompeo has crudely dismissed the rights of historically marginalized groups as rewards for political “pet causes.”

The Federal Advisory Committee Act requires any outside advisory group that provides recommendations or advice to a federal agency maintain a balanced membership, fulfill a public interest need and operate transparently. The Commission is violating all these requirements. It is unlawfully:

  • Stacked with members who have staked out positions hostile to LGBTQI and reproductive rights, such as the belief that marriage equality is “nonsensical,” homosexuality is “one of the signs of the End Times,” and that women should not be given contraceptives to prevent transferring the Zika virus to newborns
  • Sidelining mainstream human rights groups, as well as career diplomats within the State Department, who have advised administrations of both political parties about U.S. human rights commitments and the role they should play in foreign policy
  • Holding closed door meetings to conduct significant Commission business outside of the public’s view and scrutiny, including efforts to redefine human rights terminology and commitments
  • Failing to provide adequate notice of meetings and to release key documents to the public

Since assuming office, the Trump administration has made clear its intention to reduce the United States’ role in human rights protection overseas. The establishment of the Commission is yet another means of achieving this retreat from global human rights leadership.

This is all the more concerning in the context of Secretary of State Pompeo’s speech to Concerned Women for America at the Trump Hotel, where Pompeo professed his personal belief that human rights should be grounded in religion rather than law: “I know where those [human] 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.”

The Commission has also spurred both concern and action from Congress. In response to the administration’s May 2019 announcement of its intent to establish the Commission, five members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations raised alarms about the Commission’s membership. The next month, more than 20 U.S. Senators wrote to Secretary Pompeo in July 2019 seeking information “as part of Congress’ role in ensuring compliance with FACA.” That same month, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel and more than 50 other Members of Congress wrote to Secretary Pompeo questioning why the Commission, which has a mission duplicative of the State Department’s own human rights office, is even necessary. Last summer, the House of Representatives passed an amendment sponsored by Rep. David Cicilline that would block the State Department from expending funds on this Commission.

The Trump administration has a record of illegally outsourcing federal policymaking. Democracy Forward obtained a court order that prevents the Department of the Interior from relying on recommendations provided by a committee — stacked with oil and gas industry insiders — that was established in violation of FACA. Similarly, Interior disbanded the International Wildlife Conservation Committee — a deceptively named trophy hunting council stacked with trophy hunters, donors to the Trump administration, and firearms manufacturer — after Democracy Forward challenged the unlawfully established advisory panel.

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