U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Is Denounced by Large Group of Human Rights Organizations and Activists

On July 23, the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights was denounced in a letter from 179 organizations representing a broad range of American and international civil society along with 251 former senior government officials, faith-based leaders, scholars, educators and advocates.[1]

The Letter

The letter began by expressing their “deep concern” with the Commission and by objecting to its “stated purpose, which we find harmful to the global effort to protect the rights of all people and a waste of resources; the Commission’s make-up, which lacks ideological diversity and appears to reflect a clear interest in limiting human rights, including the rights of women and LGBTQI; and the process by which the Commission came into being and is being administered, which has sidelined human rights experts in the State Department’s own Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.”

These concerns, the letter said, were inconsistent with the Secretary’s own affirmance “of the importance of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights . . . . [and by his saying] the language of human rights has become the common vernacular for discussions of human freedom and dignity all around the world, and these are truly great achievements.” Indeed, the letter commented, “the story of the international human rights movement is one of the deepened recognition and protective reach of rights based on the painstaking work of social movements, scholars, and diplomats, through international agreements and law.”

“Given this history, we view with great misgiving . . .[the Commission] aimed expressly at circumscribing rights through an artificial sorting of those that are ‘unalienable’ and those to be now deemed ‘ad hoc.’ These terms simply have no place in human rights discourse. It is a fundamental tenet of human rights that all rights are universal and equal. Governments cannot take or discard them as they choose. Like other governments, the U.S. government is bound to certain obligations codified in widely ratified international treaties. . . . [The Commission] is a waste of time and energy better spent on actual human rights issues. More ominously, the reference to ‘ad hoc’ rights resembles language used by autocratic and dictatorial governments, which frequently speak in terms of a hierarchy of rights.”

The letter’s signatories also are “dismayed by the well-documented views of a significant majority of the Commission’s 10 members. . . . Almost all of . . . [its] members have focused their professional lives and scholarship on questions of religious freedom, and some have sought to elevate it above other fundamental rights. . . . No Commissioner focuses nearly as exclusively on any other issue of pressing concern. . . .”

“Moreover, the commission’s chair and members are overwhelmingly clergy or scholars known for extreme positions opposing LGBTQI and reproductive rights, and some have taken public stances in support of indefensible human rights violations. . . .”

Therefore, this letter urged the Secretary “to immediately disband this body, and to focus your personal attention on the significant challenges facing the protection of human rights globally.”

Comments by Letter’s Organizer

Upon the release of this letter, its organizer, Rob Berschinski, the Senior Vice President, Policy of Human Rights First, stated:

  • “There’s a reason that Secretary Pompeo purposefully avoided engaging the State Department’s human rights experts in establishing the Commission on Unalienable Rights and selecting its members. There is no world in which the Commission benefits the cause of human rights, though in all likelihood it will provide ample fodder for bigotry. Given the views of the majority of the commissioners, the Commission should be seen for what it is: an attempt to rationalize a caste system of rights to exclude LGBTQ people and those in need of family planning.”
  • “For decades, dictators have spoken about ‘clarifying’ and ‘prioritizing’ certain rights in order to justify their actions. In order to defend this highly misguided effort, the Secretary of State is adopting similar rhetoric. His aims may be different, but the effect will be the same on marginalized people. If Secretary Pompeo really wanted to support human rights, he’d have a hard talk with President Trump and stop defending autocrats from Saudi Arabia to Hungary. Instead, he’s wasting staff time and taxpayer dollars in an attempt to generate intellectual cover for his ideologically regressive agenda.”

Conclusion

This blog shares many of the concerns in this letter as set forth in many previous posts about this Commission.

However, this letter’s allegations about the opinions and positions of some of the Commission’s members are not documented and, therefore, cannot be accepted at face value. In addition, the letter’s call for an immediate disbanding of this body is totally unrealistic.

Nevertheless, given the large number of prominent human rights organizations and individuals who are signatories to this letter, it is an important development on a serious, important issue involving the U.S. Therefore, it is shocking that research has not disclosed any discussions of this letter by prominent U.S. news media.

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[1] Letter, human rights first to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo (July 23, 2019); Human Rights First Press Release, Diverse Coalition Calls for Disbanding State Department Commission on Unalienable Human Rights (July 23, 2019); Lederman & Lee, human rights groups lead chorus of alarm over new Trump administration commission, NBC News (July 23, 2019); Budryk, Democrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new ‘unalienable rights’ commission, The Hill (July 24, 2019).

 

Additional Discussion About the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights

The July 8 launch of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights continues to draw comments, pro and con.[1]

On July 17, 2019, Secretary Pompeo was interviewed by Hugh Hewitt, primarily about the Second U.S. Ministerial on International Religious Freedom.[2] In addition, the Secretary made the following comments related to the new U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights:

  • “No previous administration has prepared to defend this most basic freedom – you talked about that, Hugh – absent having the capacity to believe what you want, and to act in accordance with your own conscience. All of the other things that we talk about as freedoms or rights are subservient to . . . [the freedom of religion and belief]. So very important that we advocate on behalf on this. Some 80 percent of the people in the world today live in religiously restricted environments.”
  • “[N]ations become stronger when they permit their citizens to exercise their core beliefs about who they really are. . . .[This is good for other countries] in terms of their capacity to build out their country, to grow the economy in their nation, to keep their country secure and safe. This central premise of religious freedom makes countries stronger. It doesn’t create risk. . . . [It’s in the best interest of every country] to increase the religious freedom in their country.”
  • “President Trump and the administration take this central core idea of religious liberty as a very important priority for the State Department, and indeed all of our government.”
  • “[T]he mission that I have given Professor Glendon and her colleagues [on the Unalienable rights Commission] . . . is to go back to the fundamental grounding of human rights that the founders have set forth for us, to evaluate the various components of those human rights. Which ones are central? Which of this set of rights are core to America’s success, and indeed, more broadly, the success in the world?”
  • “[W]hen everything is a right, these most fundamental, foundational rights are neglected . . . and will misdirect American policy. We won’t be focused on those things that are most central to American security around the world.”
  • The Commission has been asked “to go back and reground. . . . [The] State Department hasn’t done this in decades and decades, and I’m optimistic that they’ll come to a conclusion that will be important for the United States as we move forward, thinking about how to frame how the United States speaks about human rights and fundamental rights all around the world.”
  • “[T]he fear in many of these countries is if they grant these set of rights, that they will lose political control. But in fact, the opposite is true. Leadership that takes these rights seriously becomes stronger, their people become more capable of helping in the governance of their nation. You get good economic benefits too, but you get enormous social good that comes from the guarantee of this set of rights.”
  • “We’re very focused on our mission. The fact that some on the left have become sort of crazed by the fact that we’re . . . trying to create this religious freedom around the world, or define the central rights for every American, I find confusing, befuddling, and perhaps suggestive that they know they have the wrong end of the stick, and we are going to ground America in our constitutional understandings in ways that some . . .wish wouldn’t happen.”

After this interview, Hewitt published a laudatory account of this Commission.[3]“Pompeo is echoing Jefferson and Madison when he said there is ‘a central premise’ that ‘religious freedom makes countries stronger’ — that it produces security and safety as well as economic growth. Religious liberty is a building block of political stability; religious pluralism the cement of sturdy, long-lived states. . . . [T]he understanding is ascendant rising that only genuine tolerance of competing religious belief systems — wide-open but noncoercive invitations to preach and proselytize any faith claim — is the building block of political stability.”

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s Chair, Tony Perkins, unsurprisingly applauded “the creation of this Commission as another way of ensuring that the protection of these fundamental rights – the most foundational of which is freedom of religion or belief – is a core element of strategic policy discussions.”  The Vice Chair, Gayle Manchin, agreed: “To the degree that this new Commission within the State Department can help further communicate from Washington to the Department’s farthest outposts the importance and urgency of religious freedom concerns as a fundamental human right, we believe this will lead to higher impact negotiations on behalf of the more than 70% of the world’s population that is currently suffering persecution or abuse.”[4]

Also supportive was Gary Bauer, a prominent Christian conservative activist, who said, “This administration has reached new levels of commitment on the fundamental right of freedom of religion that’s unprecedented historically, and I hope it will continue for decades ahead.”[5]

Skepticism about the Commission, however, continues to be voiced.

Rebecca Hamilton of Just Security warned that “the ‘natural law’ language was code for religiously-infused opposition both to reproductive rights and to protections for members of the LGBTQ community. . . . Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, expressed concern about the administration’s distinction between ‘unalienable rights’ and ‘ad-hoc rights,’ as well as its ‘seemingly permissive stance on a variety of human-rights abuses’ around the world. The head of Human Rights Watch was even more dismissive: “We don’t need a commission to figure out that the Trump administration will have little credibility promoting human rights so long as the president continues to embrace autocrats.” According to Amnesty International, “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.”[6]

Rob Bereschinski, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor and now the Senior Vice President, Policy for Human Rights First, a U.S. nonprofit, stated, “Given the way in which the Commission was conceived, without the input or awareness of the State Department’s human rights experts or members of Congress, many in the human rights community are skeptical of its motives. Secretary Pompeo has asserted that the body is meant to focus on ‘principles’ rather than ‘policy,’ but that’s a blurry distinction at best. The principles under which the United States advances human rights are well-established, and much of the criticism from human rights advocates concerning this administration centers on its violations of those rules. Each time the president attacks America’s free press as an ‘enemy of the people,’ or the administration obscures its role in separating children from their parents, or selectively highlights Iran’s poor human rights record while downplaying that of Saudi Arabia, U.S. credibility is undermined.”[7]

Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, castigated Secretary Pompeo for his pious assertions of the need to ascertain what human rights mean. “There is no need to reinvent the wheel, Mr. Secretary. A lot of bipartisan and international consensus, consolidated over the postwar decades, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and other horrors, exists as to what human rights are and what America’s role in defending them should be.”[8]

Therefore, said Cohen, “there is no need to reinvent the wheel, Mr. Secretary. A lot of bipartisan and international consensus, consolidated over the postwar decades, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and other horrors, exists as to what human rights are and what America’s role in defending them should be.”

“Modern human rights are grounded on the dignity inherent in every human being. They are not God-given rights, or Trump-given rights, and they apply to people of all faiths and to those who have none. They include freedom of speech, the press, assembly and religion, and the “right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law,” as the Universal Declaration puts it. They involve combating discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, disability, gender or sexual orientation.”

Pompeo has talked about the need to go back to concepts of natural law and natural rights at the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. But, Cohen continued, ”these ‘natural rights’ at the time, of course, included chattel slavery and the dehumanization of black people, as well as the disenfranchisement of women.” In short, “the ‘natural’ rights of 1776 are not the human rights the [U.S.] helped codify in 1948 [in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights].”

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[1] This Commission has been discussed in the following posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Is Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights? (June 15, 2019); Other Reactions to State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 17, 2019); More Thoughts on Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 18, 2019); U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Developments (July 4, 2019); More Comments About the Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 9, 2019); The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (July 11, 2019).

[2] State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo With Hugh Hewitt of the Hugh Hewitt Show (July 17, 2019).

[3] Hewitt, The forces against religious freedom are ascendant. The Trump administration mounts a defense, Wash. Post (July  20, 2019).

 [4] U.S. Comm’n on Int’l Relig. Freedom, USCIRF Statement on State Department’s Creation of “Commission on Unalienable Rights” (July 8, 2019).

[5]  Toosi, Trump’s religious freedom conference creates awkward alliance, Politico (July 14, 2019).

[6] Drezner, Can any good come out of the Commission on Unalienable Rights? Wash. Post (July 10, 2019).

[7] Human Rts. First, State Commission on Unalienable Rights Must Focus on Reversing Harm Done by Administration (July 8, 2019).

[8] Cohen, Trump’s Ominous Attempt to Redefine Human Rights, N.Y. Times (July 12, 2019).

 

More Comments on Commission on Unalienable Rights

Yesterday’s post covered the formal launch of the Commission on Unalienable Rights. Here are additional reactions to the Commission. [1]

Negative Reactions

 Senator Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that Mr. Pompeo’s argument for a new human rights panel was “absurd” and that the Trump administration “has taken a wrecking ball to America’s global leadership on promoting fundamental rights across the world.” Instead, “we need this President and this Secretary to actually champion human rights by standing up for America’s values and by using the framework that is already in place and which has been championed by prior administrations for decades, regardless of party.”

Representative Eliot Engel (Dem., NY). the Chair of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, stated, “This commission risks undermining many international human-rights norms that the United States helped establish, including LGBTQI rights and other critical human-rights protections around the world. Decades ago, Congress created an entire bureau in the State Department dedicated to defending and reporting on human rights and advising the Secretary and senior diplomats on human rights and democratic development. Now the Secretary wants to make an end run around established structures, expertise, and the law to give preference to discriminatory ideologies that would narrow protections for women, including on reproductive rights; for members of the LGBTQI community; and for other minority groups.” Engel also noted that he had cosponsored a measure to prohibit funding for this new body that recently had been passed by the House.

The American Jewish World Service denounced the creation of the commission because of what it said was a religious bent to the panel. Its director of government affairs, Rori Kramer, said, “As a Jewish organization, we are deeply skeptical of a government commission using a narrow view of religion as a means to undermine the ecumenical belief of respecting the dignity of every person, as well as the fundamental human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We fear this commission will use a very particular view of religion to further diminish U.S. leadership on human rights.”

Rob Berschinski, the Senior Vice President for policy at Human Rights First and a former  deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor during the Obama administration, said well-established principles for advancing human rights already existed and did not need to be revamped. He added that most of the 10 people named to the new commission viewed human rights largely through the lens of religious freedom. “At first blush,” he said, “the commission certainly seems to reinforce the perception that the administration and State Department under Secretary Pompeo uniquely emphasize religious freedom amongst universal rights.”

Another observer also voiced negative views of the Commission. “We don’t need this commission,” said Michael Posner, the State Department’s assistant secretary for DRL from 2009 to 2013. “What we need is for the U.S. government, the secretary of state and the president to abide by and uphold international human rights standards we already have adopted.”

Joanne Lin of Amnesty International said, “”If this administration truly wanted to support people’s rights, it would use the global framework that’s already in place. Instead, it wants to undermine rights for individuals, as well as the responsibilities of governments. 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.”

Positive Reactions

Daniel Philpott, a University of Notre Dame professor who was initially mentioned as a potential commission member, said that natural law reflects a concern that human rights have gone off the rails, in part because of abortion and claims about marriage rights. “The idea is these claims of human rights are not based upon natural law or the truth of the human person. In a sense, these are false claims to human rights. It brings down the cause of human rights in general. Why should we pursue other human rights if human rights can be anything one faction or party advocates them to be?”

The Wall Street Journal notes that the Chair of the new Commission, Mary Ann Glendon, opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. And Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative Family Research Council, endorsed the Commission as an effort to “help further the protection of religious freedom, which is the foundation for all other human rights.”

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[1] Press Release: Menendez Questions Intent and Impact of Trump Admin’s New Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 8, 2019); Press Release, Engel Statement on State Department “Unalienable Rights” Commission (July 8, 2019); Wong & Sullivan, New Human Rights Panel Raises fears of a Narrowing U.S. Advocacy, N.Y. Times (July 8, 2019); Morello, State Department launches panel focused on human rights and natural law, Wash. Post (July 8, 2019); Visser, Mike Pompeo Unveils New Panel To Refocus U.S. Human Rights Priorities, Huffington Post (July 8, 2019); Oprysko, Mike Pompeo unveils panel to examine ‘unalienable rights,’ Politico (July 8, 2019); McBride, Pompeo Creates Commission on Human Rights, W.S.J. (July 8, 2019).