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).

 

Senators Express Deep Concern Over Commission on Unalienable Rights

On July 23, 2019, a group of 22 Senators told Secretary of State Pompeo of their “deep concern” over the new U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights. [1]

The Senators said they “vehemently disagree” with the Secretary’s assertion that there was “confusion” over what human rights are. “The 1948 UN declaration of Human Rights begins by declaring that the recognition of the equal and inalienable rights ‘of all members of the human family is the foundation of the freedom, justice and peace.’ Moreover, widely ratified international treaties codify ‘inalienable’ rights.”

The letter continued, “it seems the administration is reluctant—or even hostile—to protected established internationally recognized definitions of human rights, particularly those requiring it to uphold protections for reproductive rights and the rights of marginalized communities, including LGBT persons. The [Secretary’s] assertion that decades of well-defined agreement on human rights has sown confusion over what rights are is simply an Orwellian twist to defend the indefensible.” In short, the Commission is “absurd, particularly from an administration that has taken a wrecking ball to America’s global leadership on protecting human rights across the world” by supporting “despotic governments abroad,” by “ignoring the devastating abuses and rights of children and families on our border” and by President Trump’s fawning “ over current abusers of human rights such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The senators also were concerned that the Commission’s membership was not fairly balanced, in accordance with federal law (41 C.F.R. Section 102-3.30). “The Commission’s chair and members are overwhelmingly clergy or scholars known to support discriminatory policies toward LGBT persons, hold views hostile to women’s rights and reproductive freedom, and/or support positions at odds with U.S. treaty obligations.”

Finally the letter protested the Secretary’s failure to consult or obtain input from the Department’s career human rights experts.

This letter to Pompeo was organized by Senator Bob Menendez (NJ), the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The letter was signed by the following Democratic presidential candidates: Kamala Harris (CA), Michael Bennet (CO), Elizabeth Warren (MA), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Cory Booker (NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) and Bernie Sanders (IN, VT). Other Democratic Senator signatories were Tammy Baldwin (WI), Richard Blumenthal (CT), Benjamin L. Cardin (MD), Christopher Coons (DE), Tammy Duckworth (IL), Patrick Leahy (VT), Edward J. Markey (MA), Jeffrey A. Merkley (OR), Patty Murray (WA ), Jack Reed (RI), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Tina Smith (MN), Chris Van Hollen (MD), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) and Ben Wyden (OR).

Conclusion

This blog, which is sceptical about the true purpose of this Commission, has published many posts about this Commission.

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[1] Letter, U.S. Senators to Secretary Pompeo (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).