Champions of human rights around the world are reacting with understandable suspicion to Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo's announcement that he is creating a "Commission on Unalienable Rights" that will "ground our discussion of human rights in America's founding principles."
The first reason for concern is that Pompeo is part of an administration that has winked at gross human-rights violations by allies -- such as the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an atrocity the CIA concluded "with a high degree of confidence" had been ordered Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. President Trump famously said of allegations that the crown prince knew of the plot to kill Khashoggi that "maybe he did and maybe he didn't!"
But that's not the only reason for concern. Rob Berschinski, a State Department official in the Obama administration who is now with the group Human Rights First, noted that the new commission was conceived "without the input or awareness of the State Department's human rights experts or members of Congress." Moreover, Pompeo's own description of the commission's aims hints at an attempt to narrow the definition of the rights for which the United States will hold other countries, including American allies, accountable.
In an article in the Wall Street Journal, the secretary of State warned darkly that after the Cold War ended, "many human-rights advocates turned their energy to new categories of rights" beyond the "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" mentioned in the U.S. Declaration of Independence and beyond the rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. In the same article he spoke of "contrived rights."
Human rights activists are concerned that the commission might give short shrift to rights recognized long after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Joanne Lin, national director of advocacy and government affairs at Amnesty International USA, said the creation of the commission "appears to be an attempt to further hateful policies aimed at women and LGBTQ people."
Critics also have pointed to language in the Federal Register announcing the formation of the commission. It said that the panel would offer "fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation's founding principles of natural law and natural rights." The term "natural law" has several connotations, but it has been invoked by religious opponents of same-sex marriage and contraception. (For example: "Contraception violates the natural law because contraception acts against the natural end, or goal, of sexual intercourse, which is the coming to be of new human life," says an article on the website of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.)
Pompeo said the commission -- which will be headed by Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon, who served as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican during the George W. Bush administration -- wouldn't opine on policy. Rather, he said, it would revisit basic questions including: "What does it mean to say or claim that something is, in fact, a human right?" and "Is it, in fact, true, as our Declaration of Independence asserts, that as human beings, we -- all of us, every member of our human family -- are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights?"
Those are tantalizing topics for a college seminar or a dormitory bull session. The problem is that the State Department already has a workable definition of human rights that it employs every year to report on other countries' compliance with "internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements."
The elevation of human rights in recent decades to a more central place in American foreign policy has been an important and positive step forward. While it is no doubt true that the realities of diplomacy, military force and great-power politics sometimes require the U.S. to tread carefully on these issues, there is no justification for a significant retreat. The United States should be in the forefront of the fight for civil, political and human rights, and the defense of freedom and democratic institutions.
If Pompeo's goal is to unnecessarily narrow the scope of what the U.S. regards as human rights worthy of protection, shame on him.
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