Pompeo's Commission on Unalienable Rights Further Isolates US from Human Rights Community

By TASSC Advocacy Intern Dan Ogden

The Commission on Unalienable Rights, introduced by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in an article for the Wall Street Journal, takes its name from the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The goal of the article, as described briefly by Pompeo, is to reduce the overall definition of human rights to what he believes the Founding Fathers saw as necessary to human existence.

Since the declaration of this committee, hundreds of organizations and individuals, including Amnesty International and National Council for Churches, have signed onto a joint letter to Secretary of State Pompeo to show their distrust of the body and urge the disbanding of the entire commission immediately. The letter focuses on three major fallacies with the creation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights: lack of diversity of opinion on human rights, the opinions of the people chosen to be a member of the panel, and overall mission of the commission. The current panel members all emphasize religious freedom as the sole aspect of their human rights studies, and many of their press releases and outspoken opinions threaten the LGBTQI community and women’s rights. In creating the panel itself, Secretary Pompeo did not discuss the commission with the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL). Authors of the letter caution creating a commission tasked solely with establishing “principles” and not “policy”, seeing as the commission falls under an office detailed with “Policy Planning”.

While this may seem unimportant, the Founding Fathers lived in a much different world than what exists today. Human rights groups, such as TASSC, were not even imagined due to the societal norms of the time. The globalized world of today works due to an international recognition of similar beliefs on human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights instituted a precedent throughout the world that specific rights should always be given to people and followed by the government.Focusing heavily on topics such as the right to life, liberty and security, and the right to seek asylum from persecution, the Declaration helps identify a basic understanding of human rights. Creating our own panel to reimagine the definition shows the world that the US is no longer a leader on human rights and creates a pattern for other nations to follow and further eliminate international support for people suffering under human rights violations.

Major changes to the previous identification of human rights occurred in 1933, when the Great Depression ravaged millions of families in the United States. The New Deal, introduced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, created various programs that began to alter how people imagined human rights. Instead of emphasizing natural law and natural rights, the New Deal began to include ideas of economic and social well-being. Roosevelt also pushed for Congress to support his plan for international protection of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. These new methods of imagining human rights continue today in the United States and throughout the world.

Many of the arguments proposed by Pompeo in his article center around foreign nations participating in draconian acts against people and then claiming to be defenders of human rights due to social welfare programs. In the Wall Street Journal, Pompeo wrote, “Rights claims are often aimed more at rewarding interest groups and dividing humanity into subgroups. Oppressive regimes like Iran and Cuba have taken advantage of this cacophonous call for “rights,” even pretending to be avatars of freedom.” While these accusations are true in many ways, the solution to create a wholly new human rights panel eliminates the ability for the United States to work with other nations completely. We would be trapped into working solely with nations who follow and agree with our imagination of the term, rather than solve human rights violations as predicated by the United Nations.

Another concern many critics have had over the panel was about who Secretary Pompeo would place on the Commission on Human Rights. The proposed head of the panel is Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor and former ambassador to the Vatican. She is a prominent social conservative who has spoken publicly on her beliefs in anti-abortion and religious liberty. Critics of the choice, as reported by Caitlin Oprysko of POLITICO, claim Glendon brings a voice that aims to “undercut LGBTQ and women’s rights under the guise of religious liberty.”

Following the pattern of emphasizing religion, the ten members that make up the council range in their backgrounds. Many of the members have represented the Vatican on social issues in the past, while one member, Hamza Yusuf, helped found one of the first Muslim liberal arts college in America. Each member has a background of some form on ethics but far too few come from organizations or backgrounds emphasizing global human rights. This connects to Pompeo’s ideology on the panel though, trying to reintroduce the concept of basic human rights to the United States. It also follows Trump’s agenda of America First and a pro-nationalist, anti-globalist mindset for American foreign policy. The panel’s mission is to create America’s own idea of human rights that will somehow be a ground-breaking renewal of past moral guidance the Founding Fathers followed.

Unfortunately, the new panel has the ability to become corrupt, representing only a single focus on religious liberties. The lack of any members involved with global human rights currently hints that the organization will emphasize theory over practical involvement. Secretary Pompeo has stated the panel will act as advisors rather than policymakers, but if the administration’s goal is to create a holistic human rights approach, then they immediately limit themselves. Having only religious affiliates and scholars on the panel does not enable the United States to understand the scope of human rights violations in the world, but rather places an emphasis on only a specific human right belief (i.e. religious liberty).

The Commission on Unalienable Rights hopefully will be limited in their power to purely a think-tank-esque role, where they can advocate for specific ideas on the basis of scholarly or theoretical work, but will not be the dominant actor in any foreign policy decision. Creating a new system of defending human rights is dangerous, and Joanne Lin, National Director of Advocacy and Government Affairs at Amnesty International USA, said “This approach only encourages other countries to adopt a disregard for basic human rights standards and risks weakening international, as well as regional frameworks, placing the rights of millions of people around the world in jeopardy.” She also echoed similar sentiments to other human rights organizations in critiquing the panel as a politicization of human rights that would undermine the rights of women and LGBTQ people.

The overall sentiment on the Commission on Unalienable Rights is one of worry, and many organizations feel the panel threatens the international community and globalization of human rights. If the panel has the ability to create a new system for judging human rights, then the United States shows the world countries have the power to pick and choose which topics fall under human rights. TASSC and other human rights organizations would be forced to recognize each nation as different in how they define human rights, rather than following the Universal Declaration followed by the United Nation. The treaties and precedence followed for decades will become irrelevant if each nation determines they have the right perception of human rights, and the people in need will be forced to question their ability to find safety in every nation.

Daniel Ogden is an Advocacy Intern at TASSC in the Summer 2019. He is currently a student at University of Alaska, Anchorage, where he is majoring in Political Science and History with a minor in International Relations.

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