Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights – What Our Country Never Was and What Our Human Rights Policy Should Never Be

20180628_Mike_Pompeo_8x10_250_1July 16, 2020 — The penny drops.

Today, Mike Pompeo pompously unveiled a long-awaited report that could sharply limit our country’s advocacy for human rights around the world.

Defying Philadelphia Mayor Kenney’s COVID-related ban on large public gatherings, Pompeo unveiled the report in a speech at that city’s National Constitution Center.  The props of the unveiling were part-tent revival, part-Americana:  a Catholic cardinal’s invocation, a military-sung rendition of the national anthem, and of course the Liberty Bell.

And the trappings were wholly political.

Pompeo voiced his now-typical whine that a so-called “proliferation” of rights “risks trivializing core American values.”  He offered strangely disjointed, State-of-the-Union-like applause for charter school and Chinese human rights advocates.  He exalted American principles, defended the Administration’s support for human rights, chastised China, uplifted Confederate statues, and decried moral equivalency.  And, of course, he criticized those who call for our country to be better than it is – particularly chastising The New York Times’ critical race history project, “The 1619 Project,” as well as American protesters’ removal of slave-holder and slavery advocate statues.

With an overt ode to Trump’s own dark and cynical speech at Mount Rushmore, Pompeo claimed that “today, the very core of what it means to be an American, indeed the American way of life itself, is under attack.”  And he complained that “too many leading voices promulgate hatred of our founding principles . . . . They want you to believe that America’s institutions continue to reflect the country’s acceptance of slavery at our founding.”

But the report he unveiled, by his self-appointed “Unalienable Rights Commission,” is hardly a guide to how to make this Administration’s support for human rights more credible.  Rather, it’s a mishmash of pontifications and sophistry — reflecting perhaps Pompeo’s political aspirations as much as his narrow, hard-right-religious worldview.

The basic message of this report sounds respectful but is deeply concerning as it argues that countries must have “leeway to base their human rights policy on their own distinctive national traditions.”  Claiming that this is a nuanced – not relativistic – approach, it still hands dictators a roadmap to justify abuses based on their culture, religion and national traditions.

The takeaways from the report are neither surprising nor inspiring:

That “…the ambitious human rights project of the past century is in crisis.”

That some rights are universal, while others — commonly known as “positive rights” — are “created by, and can only exist in, civil society.”

That property rights and religious freedom enjoy “…primacy in the American political tradition — as an unalienable right, an enduring limit on state power, and a protector of seedbeds of civic virtues.”

And that “abortion, affirmative action, and same-sex marriage” are “divisive social and political controversies in the United States” — in other words, not really human rights, and certainly not unalienable.

There’s much in the report about America’s uniqueness and greatness — and Pompeo’s remarks were themselves full of Administration self-puffery.  Between the two, the Philadelphia event offered a thinly-disguised, gauzy, puritanical lens on what our country never was, and what our country’s human rights policy never should be:  a monochromatic, Bible-thumping vision of our country, rather than a set of principles around which all countries can find common cause.

We’ve seen this train wreck coming for months, of course.  Stacked with religious academics with little-to-no practical grounding in human rights, the Unalienable Rights Commission seemed ill-equipped from inception to author a serious report on how to strengthen human rights principles.

We’d of course be interested to know whether the Commission talked, behind closed doors, about the Trump Administration’s silence in the face of human rights abuses committed by Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and countless other countries around the globe.  Indeed, both the Commission and its report seem in many ways a smokescreen for Trump and Pompeo’s unwillingness to stand up for human rights, and in so doing stand for not only a decades-long bipartisan consensus on the principles that should undergird our foreign policy, but the 1949 Universal Declaration on Human Rights that the U.S., in fact, helped draft.

Pointing to the inadequacies of this Administration’s human rights embrace, and calling for a renewed U.S. commitment to human rights for all, would have been a far more worthy use of time than this report offers.  And despite the report’s obsession about slavery in its historical context, the commissioners failed to crystallize how, in this moment, the very Administration that requested the report has failed to apply our country’s founding principles equally to black and brown lives, to the LGBT community, and to other minorities at home and abroad.

But that wasn’t the point was it?  In the end, the Commission’s report falls short of any balanced and reasoned mark— and today’s event may have been far more about Pompeo’s political ambitions than anything else.


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