U.S. Reactions to Recent Developments in Cameroon

Over the last several years, Cameroon, a country of 15.7 million people on the west coast of Africa, has been engaged in armed conflict between its central government, which is controlled by the population’s 2/3 majority of Francophones (French-speaking people), and the minority Anglophones (English-speaking people).[1]

As covered in a prior post, in a September 10 speech Cameroon President Paul Biya called for a National Dialogue about the conflict between the country’s Anglophones and Francophones. Here we will examine U.S. actions and statements about Cameroon this year, before and after that speech.

State Department Statements About Cameroon [2]

Surprisingly for this blogger, the State Department has not issued any statement, pro or con, on the Biya speech or the National Dialogue. Instead, the Department, before and after the speech, has issued negative comments about the country other than the brief congratulations on its National Day on May 20 while also noting that the U.S. “supports the people of Cameroon, and remains committed to working with Cameroonians to strengthen democracy, governance, human rights, and rule of law.”

On February 6, 2019, the U.S. suspended certain military aid to Cameroon because of alleged human rights abuses by the country’s security forces. The Department said, “The reason for this action was concern over alleged human rights abuses by the country’s security forces. We do not take these measures lightly, but we will not shirk from reducing assistance further if evolving conditions require it. We emphasize that it is in Cameroon’s interest to show greater transparency in investigating credible allegations of gross violations of human rights security forces, particularly in the Northwest, Southwest, and Far North Regions.”

On April 9, 2019, Cameroon was included in a general Department Media Note about Updates to Safety and Security Messaging for U.S. Travelers, which stated that its public Travel Advisories for Cameroon and some other countries had “added a new risk indicator [K] to our public Travel Advisories in order to communicate more clearly to U.S. citizens the risks of kidnapping and hostage taking by criminal and terrorist actors around the world.”

On July 9, 2019, the Department publicly designated Cameroon’s Inspector General of the Cameroonian Gendarmerie, Colonel Jean Claude Ango Ango, due U.S. to his involvement in significant corruption related to wildlife trafficking. Pursuant to a federal statute, the Colonel and his wife were ineligible for entry into the U.S.

And on October 31, President Trump announced that effective January 1, the U.S. would suspend Cameroon’s participation in a U.S. preferential trade program because “the Government of Cameroon currently engages in gross violations of internationally recognized human rights. . . . Despite intensive engagement between the United States and the Government of Cameroon, Cameroon has failed to address concerns regarding persistent human rights violations being committed by Cameroonian security forces.  These violations include extrajudicial killings, arbitrary and unlawful detention, and torture.”

An individual, perhaps with Cameroonian connections (Joel Ademisoye), registered objections to this U.S. suspension of that country’s eligibility for certain trade benefits. He said, “interestingly and unfortunately, President Trump has weaponized and turned the [African Growth and Opportunity Act] AGOA into an economic instrument to intervene, ameliorate and solve a political crisis in Cameroon.” This is “an inappropriate way to address a volatile political issue that centers on historic, cultural and linguistic fault lines in Cameroon. Preventing Cameroon access to the U.S. market would have significant negative effects on the powerless and poor in Cameroon.” Instead, he opines, “Mr. Trump should restrict the supply of military weapons to and ban assistance for police training to the Biya administration because of its effective employment of the country’s security forces to oppress, subjugate and kill the Anglophone people in Cameroon and deny them their human rights.”

 U.S. Embassy in Cameroon [3]

On October 1, the U.S. Embassy issued its only statement regarding the National Dialogue, which was mentioned in President Biya’s speech. It was made to clarify the role of the U.S. in Cameroon’s National Dialogue by saying the U.S. “is a neutral observer of the process and, while we have offered to play a role in identifying an eventual solution, we would need to be asked by both sides before taking on this role. The United States remains a committed partner and friend of Cameroon.  Our desire is for all Cameroonians to live in peace.  The Embassy urges all involved in the conflict in the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest to abjure further violence and enter into an open-ended dialogue.”

The Embassy also has made the following comments on some of the continued unrest in the country.

  • On October 5, the Embassy welcomed Cameroon’s “decision to drop charges against Maurice Kamto and other members and supporters of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC) arrested following election protests earlier this year.  Their release from prison today is a constructive step toward relieving political tensions and affirming the government’s commitment to respect for fundamental freedoms.  We hope further measures will be taken in the wake of the recently concluded National Dialogue, leading to the restoration of peace in the Northwest and Southwest Regions.”
  • On October 11, the Embassy condemned “the horrific late September aggravated assault, murder, and beheading of a female prison official and mother of three in the Northwest Region of Cameroon.  We extend our deepest condolences to her surviving family. We urge the authorities to undertake a thorough and balanced investigation of this and other atrocities and bring the perpetrators to a fair and transparent trial.”“More violence is not the answer.  We call on both sides to the conflict in the Northwest and Southwest to abjure further violence and to enter into an open-ended dialogue without pre-conditions.”
  • On November 12, it was a “Demonstration Alert” about “the potential for demonstrations and unrest related to a reported ban on motorcycle taxis in certain areas within Yaoundé.  There is currently a heightened law enforcement presence at roundabouts and other intersections throughout the city.”
  • On November 20, it was a “Security Alert,” which stated, “S. citizens in the North and Far North Regions of Cameroon should take all necessary precaution to prevent attacks, kidnappings, or other associated actions by terrorist groups seeking to retaliate for the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.   The Embassy reminds U.S. citizens that our April 9, 2019, Travel Advisory for Cameroon advises no travel to these regions due to the threat of crime, kidnapping, and terrorism.”

In addition, the U.S. Embassy has made the following recent positive comments about the country that say or suggest the U.S. was still supporting the Cameroon government.[5]

  • On September 26, the Embassy published U.S. remarks congratulating Cameroon on “the many successes of the PREDICT 2 project, funded by the United States government.  This project is just one of the many ways that the United States is partnering every day with Cameroon for a healthy, prosperous, and peaceful future for the people of this country.”
  • On October 17, the U.S. Ambassador presented self-help and refugee awards to seven Cameroonians. He emphasized that the U.S. “is a committed partner to all Cameroonians who are striving to improve the governance, prosperity, peace, and health of their fellow citizens. . . . We know that it is Cameroonians who will bring sustainable solutions to the critical problems of their country.”
  • On October 18, the U.S. Ambassador awarded “over 42 million FCFA to seven Cameroonian organizations working for the development, health, and prosperity of their communities” as “an example of the [U.S.] commitment to its partnership with Cameroon.”
  • On October 20, the U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon gave a speech in Yaoundé (the country’s capitol) congratulating Cameroon and certain other African countries for progress in fighting the disease of meningitis.
  • On October 24, the Embassy welcomed the “voluntary return” of groups of refugees to the neighboring country of the Central African Republic (CAR) and congratulated the “governments of Cameroon and [CAR and ] UN High Commissioner of Refugees “for their cooperation and goodwill.” The U.S. “is the largest donor of humanitarian assistance in Cameroon, having contributed over $87 million since 2018 to humanitarian actors to provide food, water, shelter, and other services benefitting refugees and other vulnerable populations.  We encourage other countries to contribute more to the urgent needs of refugees and vulnerable populations in Cameroon in a way that supports progress toward stability, good governance, and self-reliance. We recognize the hospitality of the government of the Republic of Cameroon and of the Cameroonian people in continuing to host more than 400,000 refugees from neighboring countries.  Protecting the rights of refugees and ensuring they have access to jobs and education for their children is fundamental.”
  • On October 30, the Embassy congratulated Cameroon on the first international certification of a blood bank in the country.
  • On October 31, the U.S. Embassy in Cameroon released a statement expressing deep sadness over “the loss of life, destruction of homes, and displacement of people due to floods and landslides in the neighborhood of Gouache near the West Region’s capital city of Bafoussam.  We convey our deepest condolences to the families of those who have died or been injured and to the Government of Cameroon.  The United States expresses its solidarity with the people of the West region and stands ready to work with the regional and national authorities as they respond to the humanitarian needs resulting from this natural disaster.”
  • On November 1, the U.S. Embassy released a statement about the previously mentioned U.S. decision to terminate certain trade benefits for the country as of January 1, 2020. But its headline was “U.S. Commitment to Cameroon Remains Strong Despite Change in AGOA Status.” The statement itself said the U.S. remains “committed to working with Cameroon to [meet the criteria for that trade status]. In 2018, Cameroon exported roughly $220 million in goods and services to the United States; $63 million was exported under AGOA, over 90 percent of which was crude petroleum.  The United States is a committed partner and friend of Cameroon, and we will continue to pursue robust and diverse commercial ties, working with other tools at our disposal toward realizing the enormous potential of this relationship for our mutual prosperity and economic growth.”

Conclusion

The difference in the messaging of the State Department and the Embassy is striking. While it is easy to understand the Embassy’s desire to maintain good relations with the country, this blogger finds it unusual that this messaging was not repeated or endorsed by the Department.

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[1] See generally List of Posts to dwkcommentareis—Topical: CAMEROON.

[2] State Dep’t, Cameroon’s National Days National Day (May 20, 2019); U.S. Announces Suspension of Military Aid to Cameroon, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 7, 2019); U.S. Announces Suspension of Military Aid to Cameroon, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 7, 2019); State Dep’t, U.S. Department of State Announces Updates to Safety and Security Messaging for U.S. Travelers (April 9, 2019); State Dep’t, Public Designation, Due to Involvement in Significant Corruption, of the Republic of Cameroon’s Jean Claude Ango Ango (July 9, 2019); White House, Message to the Congress (Oct. 31, 2019); Paquette, Trump ends trade benefits for Cameroon over ‘persistent human rights violations,’ Wash. Post (Nov. 1, 2019; Letter to Editor from Joel Ademisoye,  Wash. Post (Nov. 6, 2019).

[3] U.S. Embassy, PRESS RELEASE: Clarification of U.S. role In Cameroon’s National Dialogue (Oct. 3, 2019); U.S. Embassy, The Charge d’Affairs’ Speech during the Closeout Ceremony of the USAID Predict Project (Sept. 26, 2019); U.S. Embassy, U.S. Embassy, Media Publishers Called to be Good Managers (Oct. 3, 2019); U.S. Embassy, Ambassador PeterBarlerin’s Remarks at the 2018 Ambassador’s Special Self-Help and Julia Taft Refugee Fund Small Grant Presentation Ceremony (Oct. 17, 2019); U.S. Embassy, PRESS RELEASE: Ambassador Awards Grants to Help Local Communities (Oct. 18, 2019);U.S. Embassy, Speech by U.S. Ambassador Peter Henry Barlerin On the occasion of the 16th Annual Meeting on Surveillance, Preparedness and Response to Meningitis (Oct. 23, 2019); U.S. Embassy, PRESS RELEASE: United States Welcomes Voluntary Return of Central African Refugees (Oct.24, 2019); U.S. Embassy, PRESS RELEASE: United States Congratulates Cameroon for Certification of Blood Bank (Oct. 30, 2019); U.S. Embassy, PRESS RELEASE: United States Condolences to Those Affected by Landslide in West Region (Oct. 31, 2019); U.S. Embassy, PRESS RELEASE: U.S. Commitment to Cameroon Remains Strong Despite Change in AGOA Status (Nov. 1, 2019).

 

U.N. Human Rights Council Considers Cameroon’s Human Rights Issues 

In  early 2019, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on behalf of the U.N. Human Rights Council visited Cameroon to assess its human rights record in the Francophone-Anglophone crisis. Afterwards the Council published a press release about the visit.[1] Here is what it said.

The High Commissioner “welcomed the Government’s openness to work with the UN Human Rights Office, and the rest of the UN, to seek effective solutions to the major human rights and humanitarian crises caused by the serious unrest and violence taking place in the west and north of the country.”

She said, ““I believe there is a clear – if possibly short – window of opportunity to arrest the crises that have led to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, as well as the killings and brutal human rights violations and abuses that have affected the northern and western areas of the country,” Bachelet said. “But it will not be easy to turn these situations around. It will take significant actions on the part of the Government, and substantial and sustained support from the international community – including us in the UN.”

She added, ““The challenges are immense, and the situation involving some ten or more separatist movements in the North-West and South-West regions risks spiraling completely out of control, if serious measures are not taken to reduce tensions and restore trust. There is also a general understanding that the root causes and underlying grievances must also be tackled if long-term stability is to return to a country that had, until just a few years ago, been one of the most settled and peaceful in the region.”

These problems coincide with “other major challenges, including cross-border incursions by armed groups and criminal organizations along its eastern border with the Central African Republic. At the same time, in the north of the country, the armed forces are struggling to cope with the depredations and suicide attacks perpetrated by Boko Haram and, in the far north around Lake Chad, the population is being terrorized and  attacked by another extremist organization, the so-called Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA). In addition, Cameroon is hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Central African Republic and Nigeria.”

“In several regions, civilians and soldiers have been killed and mutilated, and entire villages have been burned.  Children have been abducted and forced to join the armed groups, and have even been utilized as unwitting suicide bombers by Boko Haram. In the two western regions, schools, hospitals and other key infrastructure has been targeted and destroyed by the various separatist groups; and government employees, including teachers who have dared to continue teaching, have been targeted and killed or abducted.”

“The security forces have also been accused of committing serious violations, including extra-judicial killings and torture, against civilians and captured fighters in both the north and the west.”

Bachelet said she believed that two new Cameroonian bodies—the National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism and the National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Committee—“can potentially make important contributions over time to better understand and deal with the crisis in the two western regions, and to encourage increasing numbers of fighters to lay down their arms and reintegrate into society in both the north and the west. Nevertheless, one should not underestimate the daunting challenges both bodies are facing, and I offered to share advice and important lessons we have learned from similar efforts in other parts of the world.”

She “also offered to provide advice and assistance to the Government – similar to that being provided to the G5 forces in the Sahel – to help ensure that military operations are in compliance with international human rights standards and violations are prevented, when military forces are engaged in counter-terrorism operations and combat against armed groups.”

Although government troops faced great challenges, “it is essential that members of the security forces who commit serious violations are held accountable.” Indeed, “every violation committed by Government forces is not only unlawful, but also counter-productive as it plays into the hands of the extremist groups, by feeding local resentment and aiding recruitment. The armed forces must win and keep the trust of local populations, and to do that they must keep scrupulously within the framework of international law and standards. If they fail to do that, they will not defeat an enemy that thrives on civilian mistrust of the authorities. In the meantime, the civilians trapped between these two powerful, if asymmetric, opposing forces, are increasingly vulnerable to lethal abuses and violations by both sides.”

The High Commissioner urged the government “to be fully transparent about such cases. It is essential that crimes are punished, and are seen to be punished. If there is impunity, then there is an assumption of immunity – and this will lead to more crimes being committed, and a further decline in trust in the armed forces, which will only compound the challenges they face. The maintenance of morale is important, but deterring unlawful actions by members of the security forces is imperative. This particular issue is damaging Cameroon’s international standing, and undermining international support for efforts to combat the armed groups operating on its territory.”

Another condemnation was leveled by the High Commissioner at “the targeting of civilians by all armed groups, as well as the torching of schools and medical facilities by the separatist groups in the North-West and South-West regions. “There is no logic to their behavior,” she said. “If they are arguing for more autonomy, why seek to deprive their own children of education, why kill the teachers, and destroy the health facilities? This is not idealistic, it is nihilistic. The only way to solve the issues in the two western regions is through dialogue, including in-depth analysis of the root causes of the unrest, and I urge all sides including the Government to make a strenuous effort to end the fighting and begin peace talks.”

Bachelet “also raised the issue of lack of access for both international and national human rights workers – including the National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms – and the humanitarian agencies, to the affected regions. The lack of access is feeding international and local mistrust: including mistrust of the casualty figures; suspicions and competing narratives about who is responsible for which violations and abuses; and reluctance to give full support to the Government’s efforts to deal with these crises, for fear that the lack of access and lack of clarity is masking something untoward. Limited access is also hampering the efforts of the humanitarian agencies to reach victims, and this in turn may fuel further population movements. So, as much access as possible – within the limits of what is safe – would be an important positive step forward in terms of building confidence, and I appreciate the attention the Government has given to this particular request.”

Yet another concern was “the shrinking of civic space in Cameroon, noting that some of the civil society organizations, religious leaders, opposition politicians and diplomats she met with described how certain rights and freedoms, especially those of peaceful association and assembly, had been eroded in recent months. Human rights defenders described how they have been facing harassment by the police, and many of the High Commissioner’s interlocutors raised the issue of the arrest of leading opposition politician Maurice Kamto and more than 150 of his supporters.”

A specific criticism was raised about the “practice of charging civilians before military courts.”

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[1] UN Office of High Commissioner, Bachelet welcomes Cameroon’s willingness to cooperate to tackle human rights crises (May 6, 2019). Also relevant are previous posts about Cameroon.

 

U.S. Responds to Cuba’s Allegations about U.S. and José Daniel Ferrer

As discussed in a prior post, on November 20, Cuba alleged that Cuban activist, José Daniel Ferrer, was in detention because he was acting as a salaried agent of the U.S. to foment dissent on the island.

The U.S. State Department responded to these claims on November 22. Here is what the U.S. said. [1]

“The U.S. government strongly condemns the Castro regime’s accusations against our Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Mara Tekach.  The regime has launched these baseless allegations against her in an attempt to distract the international community from its abysmal treatment of the Cuban people, especially the ongoing arbitrary detention of dissident Jose Daniel Ferrer.  Nevertheless, our Chargé d’Affaires and her team at the U.S. Embassy in Havana remain steadfast as they carry out the President’s mission to defend human rights and advance the cause of democracy in Cuba.”

“A key part of this work is to call out the Castro regime’s reprehensible human rights violations and abuses.  The dedicated U.S. diplomats at Embassy Havana also meet with human rights defenders in Cuba, as U.S. diplomats do throughout the world.”

“Cuba’s Ambassador in Washington enjoys freedom of expression here in the United States and uses it to publicly criticize our government.  We only wish other Cuban citizens, including the over 100 other political prisoners currently incarcerated by the Cuban regime and the hundreds of other dissidents subject to official harassment, could enjoy that same right to freedom of expression and the ability to criticize their own government in Cuba, as they could if Cuba honored its international human rights commitments.”

“Instead, the Castro regime’s first recourse is to dust off obsolete talking points from what should be a bygone era and describe any independent voices as mercenaries, subversives, and spies.  The reality is that it is the repression of the Cuban people, the stifling of their dreams, and the denial of their dignity that discredit the communist regime and their revolution.”

“The United States has, and will continue to, openly and transparently express our grave concerns about the treatment and condition of human rights defenders in Cuba.  The United States stands for the fundamental freedoms of expression, religion, association, and assembly – and we will stand by those in Cuba who desire the same.”

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[1] State Dep’t, Cuban Government Allegations of Political Interference Against U.S. Chargé d’Affaires (Nov. 22, 2019).

 

Another Speech About Unalienable Rights by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo

On September 6, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo returned to his home state of Kansas to deliver the Landon Lecture at Kansas State University, entitled, “In Defense of the American Rights Tradition.” Here are highlights of what he had to say followed by this blogger’s reactions. [1]

Pompeo’s Lecture

“Our glorious history . . . should be revered.  And the truest expression of that reverence is to safeguard and live by the principles by which this country was founded, and those people who forged this unique place.”

“That . . . American tradition, begins with a set of unalienable rights.  Our nation’s founding created them.  They’re the beating heart of who we are as an American body today, and as Americans.  The Declaration of Independence laid it out pretty clearly. . . . It says:  ‘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,’ and, ‘That among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,’ and, ‘That to secure these rights, Governments [were] instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.’”

“In other words, these are rights that were endowed upon us by our creator.  They’re part of our nation . . . and they’re part of who we are as Americans, as human beings.  They are independent of anything our government does, and the purpose of government indeed is to protect those unalienable rights.  And I must say, as I travel the world, there can be no nobler cause.”

“Just as profoundly, that declaration says that all men – and it meant all human beings – are created equal.  These rights weren’t unique to us as Americans.  We were simply the first nation with the vision to organize around them, with a national mission that was to honor those very rights, these fundamental rights.”

“In 1858, George Washington Brown, an abolitionist newspaper editor from Lawrence [Kansas], said ‘…no party…of men can be guilty of greater inconsistency or absurdity than those who deny the axiomatic truths asserted in the equality and inalienable rights of all men.’”

“John Speer, a bit later, the abolitionist editor of the Kansas Pioneer, said that, ‘The American Government was originally based upon the principle of the universality of freedom, and the Declaration of Independence was an emphatic [and] succinct declaration that all men [are indeed] created equal, and entitled to certain unalienable rights,’ as a result of their human dignity.”

“And then in commenting on the Declaration’s affirmation of unalienable rights, [President Abraham] Lincoln said that the Founders, ‘meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all.’”

“Unalienable rights are at the core of who we are as Americans.  We abhor violations of these rights, whenever and wherever they are encountered.”

“American diplomats have always had this as one of their core causes. . . .  After World War II, the world looked to America to take the tradition of unalienable rights – which came to be called human rights – beyond our shores.”

“In 1948, thanks to our leadership, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a document inspired by our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.”

“And we need to remember this was the first time ever . . . that America led nations to set a standard for how governments should treat their people.  We even fought to protect unalienable rights of the people inhabiting nations we had just defeated.  We’ve done this repeatedly.  This wasn’t American imperialism, but rather it was American mercy and grace.  We knew it was right for them as well, and right for us.”

The State Department’s mission “is to promote and foster these unalienable rights so that they will abound, that they’ll be everywhere.  We have an entire bureau devoted to no task other than that one. . . . Every year, . . . [the Department’s diplomats] produce an exhaustive report of every human rights violation around the world.  It becomes the encyclopedia for all other governments to see, and you should know we spare no one.  We call them like we see them.  No other country does that.”

“We owe it to all Americans to uphold this noble tradition of American leadership to secure rights here at home and abroad.”

“We owe it to all Americans to uphold this noble tradition of American leadership to secure rights here at home and abroad.”

“Today, frankly, our children aren’t taught about the central role of unalienable rights in our schools in the way that they must be.”

“I’ve seen the media try and rewrite our history as an unrelenting tale of racism and misogyny, not as a bold but imperfect nation, an experiment in freedom.  We need to do that.”

“Our politicians too, from time to time, have framed pet causes as ‘rights’ to bypass the normal process by which political ends are achieved.  And we’ve blurred the distinction between and mere political preferences or priorities.” (Emphasis added.)

“International institutions have moved away from these core tenets as well. . . . One research group found that between the United Nations and the Council of Europe, there are a combined 64 human rights-related agreements and 1,377 provisions.” (Emphasis added.)

“And with respect to unalienable rights, we need to know that more, per se, is not always better.  We have to protect those things that are at the core, at the center, that are foundational.  Because when rights proliferate, we risk losing focus on those core unalienable rights, the ones that we would give everything for.” (Emphasis added.)

Now “there is far too little agreement anymore on what an unalienable right truly is.  Just because a treaty or a law or some writing says it’s a right, it doesn’t make it an unalienable right. Remember where these rights came from.” (Emphasis added.)

Last year “the UN Human Rights Council, at . . . [China’s] urging, adopted a resolution that called for nations ‘to work together to promote mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights.’ It emphasized ‘genuine dialogue and cooperation…based on…mutual respect.’ This was, sadly, coded language for repressive regimes to establish a code of silence about their massive human rights violations, those that rival the worst human rights violations from our past century.” Only one country on the Council—the U.S.–voted against this resolution.

“We must reclaim the tradition of unalienable rights from deliberate misunderstanding and, indeed, from cynical abuse. [That was why I created the Commission on Unalienable Rights.] We know that if we don’t get the understanding of rights, as our founders understood them, correct – these set of inviolable freedoms, rooted in our nature, given by God, for all people, at all times – we will wander away from them.  And American security, and America’s place in the world will be diminished. So the commission’s mission is to help uphold America’s noble tradition of unalienable rights in this world that often violates them.” (Emphasis added.)[2]

But this Commission is not “our nation’s authoritative voice on human rights. Remember, too, the [U.N.’s] Universal Declaration [of Human Rights] was spearheaded by an American woman, Eleanor Roosevelt.  She once said, “Where, after all, do…human rights begin?  They begin in small places, [places] close to home.”

After the speech, in response to a question from the audience, Pompeo said the Trump Administration believes “that every human being should be protected from conception through end of life, natural end of life. . . . We’ve done our level best to prevent . . .taxpayer dollars [are not going to organizations that were promoting abortion.] It’s called the Mexico City Policy. . . . [W]e still want to support women’s health issues all around the world. . . .But we’ve been diligent in trying to protect the unborn in every dimension of American foreign policy, and we’ll continue to be.”

Reactions

There was a lot to like in this speech. The U.S. Declaration of Independence of 1776 is indeed very important for U.S. and world history, as is its assertion that certain rights come from God.  Also positive was his emphasizing the importance of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

On the other hand, Pompeo made assertions that do not sit well with this blogger. He reiterated his argument that now there are too many “pet causes” and “mere political preferences or priorities” being disguised as “rights” and that instead we need to eliminate such notions (especially the right to abortion) and return to “fundamental, universal rights.” In so doing, he again failed to recognize that immediately after the Declaration of Independence’s recitation of certain “unalienable rights,” it states, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, this Declaration recognized that legislation would be necessary to secure or protect the unalienable rights and that in so doing the Declaration of 1776 could not anticipate everything that would happen in the future and prompt the people to ask their legislatures to  would provide additional rights.

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[1] State Dep’t, Pompeo Landon Lecture: In Defense of the American Rights Tradition (Sept. 6, 2019).

[2] This blog has published many posts about the Commission on Unalienable Rights.

 

Washington Post Criticizes Commission on Unalienable Rights

An August 23, editorial in the Washington Post criticized the recently established U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights.[1] It thereby joins this blog and many other voices in finding this Commission unnecessary and misguided.

According to the Post, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has lamented so called “ad hoc rights” and “the proliferation of rights claims” and called for a return to fundamentals or “unalienable rights.” Yet to date the Secretary has not “spelled out what he means” or offered “a single concrete example of what rights he wants to curtail.” This has prompted many human rights advocates to complain that the true purpose of the Commission is to exclude women’s reproductive rights or LGBT rights.

President Trump, however, “does not adhere to principle on human rights.” Instead, these two leaders “have singled out abuses when it suits their purpose” while turning “a blind eye toward the unsavory activities of regimes they favor.”

Therefore, “rather than. . . [tweaking] definitions [of human rights], Mr. Pompeo should start honestly speaking the truth about the world’s most frequent and serious rights violators.” [2]

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[1]  Editorial, Why redefine U.S. policy on human rights?, Wash. Post (Aug. 23, 2019).

[2] A recent article about  Pompeo reports that as an unsuccessful Kansas businessman he had the financial backing of the Koch brothers; that this Koch support continued while Pompeo was a Congressman and fierce critic of President Obama’s foreign policy; that Pompeo in 2016 was determined to stop Trump from getting the GOP’s presidential nomination, but at the party’s National Convention that year had switched to supporting Trump; that Trump’s November 16, 2016, interview of Pompeo was the first time they had met; that Pompeo as director of the CIA held daily briefings with Trump and waged what a former White House official described as a “concerted campaign” to replace Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State; that the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, banning the gay-pride flag at U.S. diplomatic posts and scepticism about climate change are parts of “Pompeo’s own ideological agenda;” and that Pompeo is approaching the Secretary’s job “like a future Presidential candidate.” (Glasser, The Secretary of Trump, The New Yorker (Aug. 26, 2019).)

 

Realpolitik Analysis of U.S. Ministerial To Advance Religious Liberty and U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights       

Walter Russell Mead, the Wall Street Journal’s Global View columnist, sees a realpolitik rationale for the Trump Administration’s embrace of its concept of human rights in the U.S. Second Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom, the U.S.  International Religious Freedom Alliance and the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights.[1]

According to Mead, the Administration believes, these human rights initiatives, help “to unify its populist and conservative supporters in the U.S. even as it builds a coalition against Chinese overreach in Asia and beyond.”

“The fight for religious freedom integrates foreign and domestic concerns for many of Mr. Trump’s Christian supporters, who face aggressive secularism in the U.S. and follow closely the persecution of Christians abroad. Even American Christians concerned about [alleged] “creeping Shariah” and other alleged consequences of Muslim immigration to Western countries rally to the cause of religious liberty as a global value.”

By “highlighting China’s increasingly totalitarian policies, . . . the U.S. [shows that it] is doing more than Iran, Turkey or Pakistan to support oppressed Muslims in China [and that] does not go unnoticed in the Muslim world.”

In addition to his role as the Journal’s Global Views columnist, Mead is the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities at Bard College and a Distinguished Fellow in American Strategy and Statesmanship at the Hudson Institute.

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[1]  Mead, Trump’s Hesitant Embrace of Human Rights, W.S.J. (July 22, 2109). This blog recently has published many posts about the Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom and the Commission on Unalienable Rights.

 

Criticism of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights

On July 8, 2019, the U.S. State Department launched the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights.[1] This new Commission deserves both commendation and criticism. Its positive points were discussed in a prior post. Now we look at the many legitimate criticisms of this new institution.

Erroneous Premise

The basic premise for the Commission was stated by Secretary Pompeo In his remarks at its launching, when he alleged, without proof, that “international institutions designed and built to protect human rights have drifted from their original mission” and that they and nation-states “remain confused about their respective responsibilities concerning human rights.” Therefore, the Secretary asserted that “the time is right for an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy” and that the Commission was charged with straightening all of this out.

This premise, however, is erroneous. The body of human rights law today is very extensive as developed by U.S. and other national and international courts and institutions. For example, an edition of a major U.S. book on the subject, primarily for law students, has 1,259 well-documented pages plus a 737 page collection of selected human rights instruments and bibliography.[2] Like any large body of law developed by different courts and institutions over time, there will be an ongoing effort to eliminate or minimize inconsistencies. But an informed knowledge of this body of law and institutions would show that these international institutions have not “drifted from their original mission.” Nor are nation states confused about their responsibilities in this area.

Secretary Pompeo’s pious assertions of the need to ascertain what human rights mean were castigated by Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist. “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.”[3]

Pompeo also has claimed that the continued violations of human rights shows that there is confusion about the law. That is also false. Yes, there continue to be violations, showing the inherent weaknesses of human beings and institutions, but not confusion about the law. If this were a valid argument, then would ridiculously claim that the laws against murder and other forms of homicide were confusing because such horrible acts still occur.

Erroneous Reference to Natural Law

The U.S. Declaration of Independence refers generally to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” and states that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is the purported basis for the Commission’s Charter saying it will provide the Secretary with “fresh thinking about human rights and . . . reforms of human rights discourse where it has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” (Para. 3) (emphasis added).

Secretary Pompeo made this same argument in his July 7 article in the Wall Street Journal, where he said, “When politicians and bureaucrats create new rights, they blur the distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights created by governments.”

Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, criticized this reference to the concept of natural law and natural rights, circa 1776, by reminding us that ”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].”

Moreover, Secretary Pompeo and others at the State Department apparently forgot to read the very next sentence of the U.S. Declaration: “That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, the U.S. government subsequently was established by the U.S. Constitution “to secure these rights [mentioned in the Declaration of Indepence]” and its later enactment of human rights statutes and regulations are based upon “the consent of the governed.” These are not “ad hoc” laws (a legal category not known to this attorney-blogger) as Secretary Pompeo dismissively calls them.

Similar language occurs in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “[H]uman rights should be protected by the rule of law” (Preamble); “Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” (Preamble).[4] In other words, there will need to be additional treaties and laws to protect and secure these rights. This point was emphasized by the Commission’s Chair, Mary Ann Glendon in her book about the Universal Declaration: “The Declaration’s principles, moreover, have inccreasingly acquired legal force, mainly through incorporation into national legal systems.”

Indeed, the New York Times contemporaneously reported with the adoption of the UDHR in December 1948, “The United Nations now will begin drafting a convention that will be a treaty embodying in specific detail and in legally binding form the principles proclaimed in the declaration.” One such treaty was the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which entered into force on March 23, 1976, which was “three months after the date of the deposit with the Secretary-General of the United Nations of the 35th instrument of ratification or instrument of accession.” (Art. 49(1)) The U.S., however, did not ratify this treaty until April 2, 1992, when the U.S. Senate granted its “advice and consent” to same with certain “understandings” and reservations, and this treaty did not enter into force for the U.S. until September 8, 1992.[5]

The U.N. system has created many other multilateral human rights treaties and other international institutions to interpret those rights, resolve conflicts among them and disputes about compliance with them.[6]

Possible Invalid Objectives

Actions and words of the current U.S. Administration have led some critics of this Commission to speculate that the Commission is a ruse to conceal the Administration’s true objectives: eliminate legal rights to abortions and other reproductive procedures and to LGBBTQI individuals. If that is the case, then the Commission is a fraud.

The Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (Dem., NY) says, “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. . . . [and 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.”

The American Jewish World Service through its Its director of government affairs, Rori Kramer, denounced the creation of the commission because of what it said was a religious bent to the panel. “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.”

As University of Chicago Law Professor Eric Posner observed, the Commission’s “plainly stated goal is not just to wipe away the baleful foreign influences of human rights ‘discourse’ but to revive [conservative] 18th century natural law . . . . [and] an indirect endorsement of contemporary [Roman] Catholic conservative intellectuals.”

Another professor, Clifford Rob of Duquesne University, believes the Commission is “ likely to champion the ‘natural family’ and ‘traditional values,’ to claim that individual self-defense is another natural and unalienable right and to express hostility to economic and cultural rights.

Rebecca Hamilton, an Assistant Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law and a former prosecutor for the International Criminal Court and a former employee of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia,warned that the “’natural law’ language was code for religiously-infused opposition to reproductive rights and to protections for members of the LGBTQ community.” She points out that the concept for this Commission was proposed by Professor Robert George, a “staunch opponent of same-sex marriage and co-founder of the anti-gay rights group, National Organization for Marriage.”[7]

Other Legitimate Sources of Human Rights Were Ignored

The Trump Administration’s statements about the Commission seem to be saying that only the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Independence are the only ones that count and that studying them will yield only one set of answers on the many issues of human rights. That is clearly erroneous, in this blogger’s opinion.

The Declaration of Independence, in addition to talking about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” says that they are “among” the category of “certain unalienable rights.” Thus, there are other rights in that category. In addition, there undoubtedly are times when there are conflicts among “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” and the other such rights that will need to be resolved.

Most importantly, the U.S. Declaration says “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, governments need to enact statutes and rules to protect and secure these rights, and the need for “consent of the governed” inevitably leads to arguments and disputes about the content of such statutes and rules and to the need, from time to time, to amend those statutes and rules and adopt new ones, as circumstances change as they certainly have in the 243 years since the adoption of the U.S. Declaration.

Indeed, the U.S. federal and state governments have enacted many statutes and rules to protect and secure human rights. And they should not be ignored or dismissed as “ad hoc” measures as Secretary Pompeo did in his article in the Wall Street Journal.

The Universal Declaration is subject to the same qualifications. It identifies more rights than the four specifically mentioned in the U.S. Declaration, but there undoubtedly will be conflicts among those rights that will need resolution.

Moreover, the Preamble of the Universal Declaration says that “human rights should be protected by the rule of law [outside that document itself]” and that “Member States have pledged to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” This U.N. document also proclaims “that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive . . . by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.” In other words, there will need to be additional treaties and laws to protect and secure these rights.

The Commission’s Membership May Not Comply with Federal Law

 Under the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972 (Pub. L. 92-463), “the function [of such] advisory committees [or commissions] shall be advisory only, and that all matters under their consideration should be determined in accordance with law, by the official, agency, or office involved.”[8]

Moreover, under this federal statute, the committee or commission members must be “drawn from nearly every occupational and industry group and geographical section of the United States and its territories”  and must be “fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented and the functions to be performed.” (Emphasis added.)

Although as noted in a prior post, the resumes of this Commission’s members are impressive, some critics have questioned the balance of their views on the central issues facing the Commission..

Another federal law that may have been violated in the establishment of this Commission is the failure to seek and obtain the counsel of the Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, which is charged with championing “American values, including the rule of law and individual rights, that promote strong, stable, prosperous, and sovereign states. We advance American security in the struggle against authoritarianism and terrorism when we stand for the freedoms of religion, speech, and the press, and the rights of people to assemble peaceably and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.”

Conclusion

Therefore, contemporary advocates of international human rights need vigilantly to observe the work of the Commission, applaud its work when appropriate and critique that work on other occasions.

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[1] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com, which contain citations to many of the references in this post: Is Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights? (June 16, 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); U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Is Launched (July 8, 2019); More Comments on Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 9, 2019);; The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (July 11, 2019); Additional Discussion About the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 18, 2019); The U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Partial Commendation (July 19, 2019).

[2] See Weissbrodt, Ní Aoláin, Fitzpatrick & Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process (4th ed. 2009); Weissbrodt, Ní Aoláin, Rumsey, Hoffman & Fitzpatrick, Selected International Human Rights Instruments and Bibliography for Research on International Human Rights Law (4th ed. 2009). Professor Weissbrodt also has published an online “Supplementary Materials” for the casebook.

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

[4] See The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (July 11, 2019).

[5] U.S. Ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 5, 2013).

[6] See the posts listed in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law (TREATIES), including those that identify the treaties ratified by the U.S.; those signed, but not so ratified; and those not signed and ratified by the U.S.

[7] Hamilton, EXCLUSIVE: Draft Charter of Pompeo’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights” Hides Anti-Human Rights Agenda, Just Security June 5, 2019). Just Security publishes “crisp explanatory and analytic pieces geared toward a broad policy, national/international security, and legal audience; and (2) deep dives that examine the nuances of a particular legal issue.”

[8] Federal Advisory Committee Act, secs. 2(b)(6), 5(b)(2);  Gen. Services Admin., The Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).