U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Responds to Criticisms

On September 15, 2019, Dr. Peter Berkowitz, the Executive Director of the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, published responses to criticisms that have been leveled against the Commission.[1] Here are those responses followed by this blogger’s reactions to same.                                    

Dr. Berkowtiz’s Responses to Criticisms

“The announcement of the . . . [Commission’s} existence and mandate immediately triggered a barrage of skepticism, indignation, and anger. The misunderstandings that the criticisms embody underscore the urgency of the commission’s work.”

Characterization of the Criticisms

“The very idea of human rights has come under fire from the left and the right for its supposedly sham universality. Hard-core progressives contend that human rights are nothing more than a vehicle for advancing Western imperialism and colonialism. Single-minded conservatives maintain that the essential function of human rights is to erode national sovereignty and promulgate progressive political goals around the world.”

“More measured and compelling objections focus on the excesses to which the human rights project has been exposed. The proliferation of rights claims has obscured the distinction between fundamental rights that are universally applicable and partisan preferences that are properly left to diplomacy and political give-and-take. International institutions charged with monitoring and safeguarding human rights sometimes include in their membership countries that flagrantly violate human rights and which wield international law as a weapon to undermine them. The growth of international institutions, courts, and NGOs dedicated to human rights has created a cadre of bureaucrats, judges, scholars, and activists. Many of these experts and advocates are dedicated to the cause of human rights and serve with distinction, but all face the temptation — typical of any professional community — of succumbing to special interests and self-serving agendas. And an overemphasis on universal rights can distract from other essentials of political life, including the discharge of responsibilities, the cultivation of virtues, and the caring for community.”

U.S. Role in Evaluating These Criticisms

“It’s especially important for the United States to respond thoughtfully to the confusion and controversy swirling around human rights because of our country’s founding convictions. The Declaration of Independence affirms “certain unalienable Rights” — these include “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” — that inhere in all human beings. The Constitution establishes the institutional framework that enables Americans to secure these fundamental rights through democratic self-government.” (Emphasis added.)

Moreover, as a driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1948 — the United States reaffirmed the nation’s founding conviction that all human beings deserve the rights and liberties secured by its Constitution. At the same time, the Constitution leaves to the American people and their elected representatives the discretion to determine the role in the country’s foreign policy played by the universal rights that Americans and non-Americans share.” (Emphasis added.)

Evaluation of Criticisms

Yet an array of scholars, pundits, former political officials, and organizations are up in arms about the commission. Their critiques are illuminating, though not entirely as they intended.”

First, critics charge that the Trump administration’s record advancing human rights renders it unfit to establish a commission to provide advice on human rights. Set aside that the administration has engaged Kim Jong-un in pursuit of peaceful dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program; imposed tough sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s belligerent Russia; supported a democratic transition in Venezuela; opposed Iran’s quest to impose a brutal hegemony throughout the Middle East; and convened in Bahrain an international forum attended by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among others, to discuss the economic reconstruction of the West Bank and Gaza and peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Isn’t the State Department’s determination to improve understanding of the connections between America’s founding principles and the administration’s foreign policy a sign of the enduring significance it attaches to human rights?”

Second, critics detect a sinister ambition in Secretary Pompeo’s “distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights granted by governments.” They worry that authoritarian countries around the world will conclude that the guiding purpose of the Commission on Unalienable Rights is to redefine human rights narrowly. But the American constitutional tradition turns on the difference between universal rights that are essential and unchanging and the contingent rights created by the consent of the governed that serve as a means to protecting citizens’ fundamental freedoms, and which are bound to vary from country to country.” (Emphasis added.)

Third, critics express dismay that the commission was charged with examining the reasoning by which claims about human rights are assessed, because they believe that the debate about the foundations and the meaning of human rights has all but ended. It has been asserted, for example, that codification of human rights by widely ratified international treaties (in many cases, though, not ratified by the United States) renders the commission’s work superfluous. This contention illustrates problems that gave rise to the panel. Contrary to the critics’ belief, a right does not become inalienable simply because an international treaty says so. And the refusal of the United States to ratify many such treaties demonstrates the persistence of questions about what counts as a human right and about the status of such rights in international law.” (Emphasis added.)

Fourth, critics have warned that the commission intends to strip members of various groups and communities of their rights. In fact, the commission proceeds from the premise that all persons — regardless of faith, nationality, race, class, and gender — share essential rights grounded in our common humanity.” (Emphasis added.)

Fifth, critics accuse the commission of lacking intellectual and political diversity. In fact, the political diversity and variety of intellectual perspectives represented compares quite favorably with the uniform political and intellectual outlook that informs so many of those who have condemned the commission.

“In one respect, the quick-out-of-the-gate criticisms of the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights have been highly constructive. By throwing into sharp relief the passion and perplexity that surround the discussion of human rights, the critics themselves unwittingly make the case for sober and deliberate reflection about the roots of human rights in the American constitutional tradition, and their reach in the conduct of America’s foreign affairs. That is precisely the task that Secretary Pompeo has directed the Commission on Unalienable Right to undertake, and which its members have proudly embraced.” (Emphasis added.)

This Blogger’s Reactions

Some of the highlighted portions of Berkowitz’s comments correctly observe that some of the criticisms expressed concern that the Commission was designed to reduce the scope of international human rights in accord with the political views of the Trump Administration, but Berkowitz fails to acknowledge statements by Secretary Pompeo that prompted these criticisms.

Berkowitz also acknowledges, as he should, that the U.S. “Constitution establishes the institutional framework that enables Americans to secure these fundamental rights through democratic self-government.” But he fails to note that the U.S. Declaration of Independence itself states, ““to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” immediately following its proclamation, “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.” (Emphasis added.)

In other words, the U.S. Declaration itself implicitly recognizes that it does not secure the rights it proclaims because it does not create binding legal obligations. Instead the Declaration contemplates that the not yet established U.S. government subsequently will enact statutes that protect the unalienable rights, only three of which are specifically mentioned in the Declaration while alluding to a larger category of unalienable rights. These subsequent statutes are not “ad hoc” and lesser rights as Secretary Pompeo likes to say. [2]

Similarly the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) from 1948, which the Commission, in other contexts, properly mentions in the same breath as the U.S. Declaration of Independence, does not create any binding legal obligations. Instead, the UDHR says, “every individual and every organ of society , keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive . . . by progressive measures, national and international, to secure [these rights and freedoms] universal and effective recognition and observance.” In other words, the UDHR itself contemplated that there should be additional measures, including national legislation and international treaties, to secure the rights and freedoms articulated in the UDHR. Again, these are not “ad hoc” and lesser rights.(Emphasis added.)

In addition, the Commission’s Chair Mary Ann Glendon, the author of a leading book about the creation of the UDHR, has said that one of the principles of the UDHR’s framers was “flexible universalism.” The UDHR framers “understood that there would always be different ways of applying human rights to different social and political contexts, and that each country’s circumstances would affect how it would fulfill its requirements.” For example, . . . [UDHR’s] Article 22 provides: ‘Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international cooperation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.’ (Emphasis added.) Another example is Article 14, which states, ‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution,’ but is silent on how that right should be protected. [3]

“Flexible universalism” also exists in human rights treaties that allow for their ratification by nation states with reservations for at least some of the treaty’s provisions. And, of course, a state may chose not to ratify a treaty and thereby not be bound by any of its provisions. Moreover, there are mechanisms for other states and international agencies to address these reservations and non-ratifications. For example, in the U.H. Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process, the Council and other states may, and do, make recommendations for states to withdraw reservations or ratify certain treaties. But these are only recommendations.[4]

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[1] Berkowitz, Criticisms Illustrate Need for State Dept. Human Rights Panel (Sept. 15, 2019). Dr. Berkowitz also serves this year on the Department’s Policy Planning Staff while on leave as Ted and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author of books and articles about constitutional government, conservatism, liberalism and progressivism, liberal education and Israel and the Middle East. He holds degrees from Swarthmore College (B.A.), Hebrew University of Jerusalem (M.A.), and Yale University (PhD and JD). (Com’n Unalienable Rights, Member Bios.) 

[2] E.g., Another Speech About Unalienable Rights by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, dwkcommentareies.com (Sept. 7, 2019); Criticism of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (July 20, 2019).

[3] Human Rights Commentaries by Mary Ann Glendon, Chair of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 2, 2019). 

[4] E.g., U.N.’s Human Rights Council’s Final Consideration of Cameroon’s Universal Periodic Review, dwkcommentaries/com (Sept. 20, 2018); U.S. Ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, dwkcommentareis.com. (Feb. 5, 2013) (U.S. ratification had five reservations, understandings, four declarations and a proviso).

Secretary Pompeo: The Imperfect Christian Leader

On October 11, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo delivered a speech at the 2019 American Association of Christian Counselors World Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. He titled his remarks, “Being a Christian Leader.” [1] Below are the key parts of that speech followed by comments on ways in which he has not been such a leader.

Pompeo’s Speech

“We [all] talk to people through hard times.  We find ourselves in the middle of disputes and we seek to mediate them and try and identify their root causes.  We try to keep conflict minimized, at bay. . .  [T]he missions that you all have, it sounds a lot like the diplomacy that we at the    State Department and my team engage in every day.  .  . we’re both appealing to the hearts and minds to change behaviors.  As believers, we draw on the wisdom of God to help us get it right, to be a force for good in the life of human beings.” (Emphasis added.)

“ I want to . . . [talk] about what it means to be . . . a Christian leader in three areas.” (Emphasis added.)

“Disposition. [W]hat’s the attitude with which we approach each of these challenges? . . . How you carry yourself is the first area of Christian leadership.” Scripture calls us to be ‘transformed by the renewing of [our] minds.’  . . . I try every morning to try and get in a little bit of time with the [Bible].  I need my mind renewed with truth each day.  And part of that truth . . . is to be humble.  Proverbs says, ‘With the humble is wisdom.’” [Prov. 11:2.] (Emphasis added.)

“Every day, as Secretary of State, I get a real chance to be humble, because I get to see the great work that my team is doing . . . [and] am also confronted with highly complex problem sets, and I need wisdom to try and make the right calls.  I need to admit what I don’t know and try to learn it, to ask the questions that others might find obvious and be unembarrassed, and to accept conclusions when the facts are presented that might go against whatever preconceived notion that I might have had. Every day, as Secretary of State, I get a real chance to be humble, because I get to see the great work that my team is doing. . . [and] am also confronted with highly complex problem sets, and I need wisdom to try and make the right calls.  I need to admit what I don’t know and try to learn it, to ask the questions that others might find obvious and be unembarrassed, and to accept conclusions when the facts are presented that might go against whatever preconceived notion that I might have had. . . . wisdom comes from a humble disposition.” (Emphases added.)

Forgiveness is also important facet of disposition. We should all remember that we are imperfect servants serving a perfect God who constantly forgives us each and every day.  He keeps using us . . . to do a higher work.  And my work at the State Department, as it is for those who work alongside of me, is to serve America each and every day.” (Emphasis added.)

“Dialogue—how we speak with others– is also an important part of being a Christian leader. As the Book of James says: “’Everyone should be quick to listen, and slow to speak.’”

Speaking with foreign leaders reminds me “that sound relationships absolutely depend on open ears.  Good listening means more than just hearing; it means not rushing to judgment before you hear every side of a particular fact set.  This comes through so clearly in Proverbs, which say, ‘The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.’  Let’s make sure we understand the facts.  When we have that, we can begin to move forward and heal and solve problems.” (Emphasis added.)

After I’ve collected data, I . . . begin to speak fundamental basic, simple, small “t” truths.  Colossians talks about this.  It says, ‘Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer to each person.’” [Col. 4:6] (Emphasis added.)

Truth telling [is] what I try to do publicly as we lay down President Trump’s foreign policy to keep Americans safe and secure.” (Emphasis added.)

And I’m especially telling the truth about the dire condition of religious freedom around the world. America has a proud history of religious freedom, and we want jealously to guard it here.  But around the world, more than 80% of mankind lives in areas where religious freedom is suppressed or denied in its entirety.” (Emphasis added.)

The Secretary then commented on the absence of religious freedom in China, Iran, northern Iraq and bragged about the State Department’s Second Ministerial on International Religious Freedom.

“Making Decisions. The Bible calls us to be faithful in our stewardship of whatever it is that we have been privileged to hold onto, no matter how much or how little.  We have to be faithful in every single circumstance.” (Emphasis added.)

“International organizations will try, from time to time, to sneak language into their documents claiming that abortion is a human right.  And we’ll never accept that.”

“I pray you’ll help hurting people stay immersed in God’s Word.  By remaining humble.  By showing forgiveness.  By listening intently and carefully and thoughtfully.  By not rushing to judgment in complicated matters.  By being a faithful steward. By using your time with intentionally.”

“And I pray you’ll do these things not out of your own strength, but by relying on, as Paul says, ‘Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we are able to ask or to imagine.’”

Comments

These words are thoughtful and inspiring. But Pompeo as Secretary of State has failed to live up to his own words.

One instance, pointed out in a prior post, is his unceasing criticism of Cuba. Other such failures are his recent implicit disavowal of his May 2017 Senate testimony that Russian hackers working for the Putin government had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign; Pompeo’s initial feigned ignorance of the infamous phone call between President Trump and the new President of Ukraine when Pompeo had actually participated in the call, as he subsequently was forced to admit; Pompeo’s implicit acceptance of the President’s illegally soliciting foreign investigation of a political rival; Pompeo’s implicit acceptance of the President’s insertion of Rudolph Giuliani as an actor in U.S. foreign policy; and Pompeo’s attempts to prevent State Department personnel from testifying in the House’s impeachment inquiry.[2]

Another failure is Pompeo’s lack of integrity, as Tom Friedman, the New York Times’ columnist, discussed in a recent column. This conclusion was justified by Friedman “because Pompeo has just violated one of the cardinal rules of American military ethics and command: You look out for your soldiers, you don’t leave your wounded on the battlefield and you certainly don’t stand mute when you know a junior officer is being railroaded by a more senior commander, if not outright shot in her back.”

That cardinal rule was violated by Pompeo’s “cowardly, slimy behavior as the leader of the State Department.” This was especially true in his failure to speak up and defend the excellent U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. As John Sullivan, the current Deputy Secretary of State, stated at his October 30 Senate confirmation hearing to become the next U.S. Ambassador to Russia, that she had served “admirably and capably” as Ambassador to Ukraine and that he believed  that Giuliani had been “seeking to smear Ambassador Yovanovitch or have her removed.”

Pompeo, however, never said that. Instead he let her “be stabbed in the back with a Twitter knife, wielded by the president, “rather than tell Trump: ‘Sorry, Mr. President, if you fire her, I will resign. Because to do otherwise would be unjust and against my values and character — and because I would lose the loyalty of all my diplomats if I silently went along with such a travesty of justice against a distinguished 33-year veteran of the foreign service.’”

Friedman buttressed this opinion by referring to recent comments by “two now retired, longtime State Department diplomats, Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky, . . . [when they said,] ‘At the very least, Pompeo enabled the smear campaign to go unchallenged, acquiesced in the Giuliani back channel effort with Ukraine and failed to say a word in defense of Bill Taylor, George Kent or Marie Yovanovitch. These are breathtaking acts of craven political cowardice and beneath the dignity of any secretary of state.’”[3]

At a November 18 press conference, a journalist challenged Pompeo on this issue: “There are a lot of questions about why you have not chosen to speak up publicly in defense of your employees, including those who testified before the impeachment inquiry.  Can you explain why you haven’t chosen to make comments in their support?” Pompeo gave the following demonstrably false response: “I always defend State Department employees.  It’s the greatest diplomatic corps in the history of the world.  Very proud of the team.”

Pompeo at this press conference also dodged pointed questions about specific foreign service officers. One asked for his opinion on President Trump’s tweet about Ambassador Yovanovitch during her testimony at the impeachment inquiry; Pompeo’s  response: “I’ll defer to the White House about particular statements and the like.  I don’t have anything else to say about the Democrats’ impeachment proceeding.” Another question was whether he thinks “Ambassador Taylor  has been an effective envoy of . . . [Ukraine] policy and if he is going to remain in his job, or if the President has lost confidence in him.” The response: “State Department’s doing a fantastic job.”[4]

Friedman believes the basic reason for this Pompeo failure to support foreign service officers is his desire “to run for president after Trump — and did not want to risk alienating Trump.” Pompeo, the self-proclaimed Christian, thereby failed to heed the warning of Mark 8:36:  “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, but lose his soul?”

Therefore, this blogger joins Friedman’s conclusion: “So it’s now clear that Pompeo had not taken an oath to defend and protect the Constitution. [Instead he] took an oath to defend and protect Donald J. Trump and Pompeo’s own future political career — above all else — and that’s exactly what he’s been doing. Shame on him.”

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[1] State Dep’t, Secretary Pompeo: Being a Christian Leader (Oct. 11, 2019);  Pompeo faces criticism for giving speech on being a ‘Christian leader,’ The Christian Post (Oct. 15, 2019).

[2] Jakes, Pompeo Defends Trump’s Ukraine Conspiracy Theory, N.Y. Times (Oct. 5, 2019); Fandos, Barnes & Shear,  Former Top State Dept. Aide Tells Impeachment Investigators He Quit Over Ukraine, N.Y. Times (Oct. 16, 2019); Horowitz & Pérez-Peña, Pompeo Confirms He Listened to Trump’s Call to Ukraine President, N.Y. Times (Oct. 2, 2019); Wong & Sanger, Pompeo Faces Political Peril and Diplomats’ Revolt in Impeachment Inquiry, N.Y. Times (Nov. 6, 2019).

[3] Friedman, Mike Pompeo: Last in His Class at West Point in Integrity, N.Y. Times (Nov. 18, 2019); Miller & Sokolsky, Marie Yovanovitch got smeared, Where was Mike Pompeo?, CNN.com (Nov. 16, 2019).

[4] State Dep’t, Secretary Michael R. Pompeo Remarks to the Press (Nov. 18, 2019).

 

Secretary Pompeo Reiterates U.S. Hostility Towards Cuba

On or about November 16, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo reiterated U.S. hostility towards Cuba in an interview by Carlos Alberto Montaner, an exiled Cuban author now living in Spain. Here are the key points of that interview. [1]

“Cuba is a foreign policy priority for the Trump Administration. The President’s National Security Memorandum of June 2017, which established our policy to support the Cuban people, while holding the Cuban regime accountable both for its human rights abuses in the country and for its destabilizing interference in other parts of the region, . . . was only the beginning. Since then, we have imposed more sanctions on the Cuban regime, including the elimination of an authorization for ‘fraternization’ group trips, the impediment of US passenger and recreational vessels, such as cruise ships, yachts and private planes, to travel to Cuba, and finish the scheduled American air transport service to all Cuban airports except Havana.”

“We take these measures because the Cuban people do not benefit greatly from such exchanges, the regime does. All these actions are designed to prevent US dollars from filling the pockets of the Cuban military, the same people who repress the Cuban people in the country, support Maduro in Venezuela and are aligned with Putin in Russia.”

“Cuba’s interference in Venezuela and other countries in the region is totally unacceptable. Particularly appalling is the participation of the Cuban military and intelligence services that support the despot Maduro, in exchange for shipments of Venezuelan oil. This oil belongs to the Venezuelan people, who are suffering greatly under the economic, political and humanitarian crisis that created Maduro’s corruption and mismanagement.”

“Maduro’s use of oil to pay for the intrusion and abuse of Cuba is a large-scale robbery and is illegal under Venezuelan law.”

“We continue to look for new ways to limit this illegal exchange. The United States is currently focusing on the tools of diplomacy and sanctions to generate pressure in order to achieve a democratic transition in Venezuela. We have made more than 200 designations related to Venezuela since 2017, under the Law on the Designation of Foreign Drug Trafficking Chiefs (Kingpin Act) and several presidential orders. These actions prevent Maduro’s illegitimate regime from using the US financial system for its corrupt and socially destructive economic practices, and impose a cost on the regime for its illicit practices, human rights violations and corruption.”

“The Cuban regime has made it clear that it not only supports, but is responsible for the power abuses of the Maduro regime. The United States remains determined to actively support a peaceful transition to democracy, freedom and the rule of law in Venezuela. President Trump has said that all options are on the table in Venezuela, including the military option, but in the State Department we are currently focused on deploying all our diplomatic and economic options to support the interim president Guaidó and the National Assembly in a peaceful restoration of democracy, freedom and the rule of law.”

“Certainly, the Cuban presence can be felt throughout the region. Ecuador recently expressed concern that Cubans were interfering in its sovereign territory, and we have seen how the Cuban regime has historically interfered in Nicaragua, Bolivia and Venezuela.”

Conclusion

Cuba, like every country in the world including the U.S., is legitimately subject to criticism on some of its actions and policies. But Cuba does not deserve this unceasing criticism from the U.S. Secretary of State.

Moreover, the Secretary fails to acknowledge that hostile policies and rhetoric by the much more powerful U.S. have forced Cuba to take certain actions to protect itself, like its increasing connections with Russia. The Secretary, who claims to be a Christian, should remember, and act in accordance with, these words from the Gospel of Matthew (7: 1-5 (NRSV):

  • “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s.”

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[1] Montaner, Pompeo: Washington seeks ‘new ways to limit illegal exchange’ between the regimes of Cuba and Venezuela, Diario de Cuba (Nov. 16, 2019).

 

 

U.S. Opposition to “Abortion” and “Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights” at U.N. High-Level Meeting  

On September 23, 2019, the U.N. General Assembly held a High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage that aimed to accelerate progress toward universal health coverage for everyone around the world, which would include access to health care services, medicines and vaccines in accordance with the U.N.’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, under which all countries have committed to try to achieve universal health coverage by 2030.[1]

At this High-Level Meeting, Alex Azar, the U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary, read a joint statement on behalf of the following 19 countries representing more than 1.3 billion people: the United States of America plus Africa (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Sudan), Eastern Europe/North Asia (Belarus, Russia), Europe (Hungary, Poland), Latin America (Brazil, Guatemala, Haiti) and  Middle East (Bahrain, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen).

The U.S. Joint Statement[2]

“We believe that health of women, men, children and adolescents supports and improves the overall health of our families and communities, and that the family is the foundational institution of society and thus should be supported and strengthened.”

“We commend the United Nations and the Member States on the significant work done on the Universal Health Coverage Political Declaration,[3] and for the high priority placed on expanding access to health care.”

“We therefore urge Member States to join us in focusing on the important work of expanding health and opportunities for all people, and especially those in situations of risk and/or vulnerability.”

“To make the most meaningful progress without delay or dissension, we respectfully call upon Member States to join us in concentrating on topics that unite rather than divide on the critical issues surrounding access to health care.”

We do not support references to ambiguous terms and expressions, such as sexual and reproductive health and rights in U.N. documents, because they can undermine the critical role of the family and promote practices, like abortion, in circumstances that do not enjoy international consensus and which can be misinterpreted by U.N. agencies.” (Emphasis added.)

Such terms do not adequately take into account the key role of the family in health and education, nor the sovereign right of nations to implement health policies according to their national context. There is no international right to an abortion and these terms should not be used to promote pro-abortion policies and measures.” (Emphasis added.)

Further, we only support sex education that appreciates the protective role of the family in this education and does not condone harmful sexual risks for young people.”  (Emphasis added.)

“We therefore request that the U.N., including U.N. agencies, focus on concrete efforts that enjoy broad consensus among member states. To that end, only documents that have been adopted by all Member States should be cited in U.N. resolutions.” (Emphasis added.)

“To this end, we also understand the important role the Sustainable Development Goals play in assisting countries realize their own path to universal health coverage, in accordance with national policies and legislation.”

“We strongly support the highest attainable health outcomes for women, men, children, and adolescents holistically and throughout their lives.”

We support equal access to health care, which includes, but is not limited to reproductive concerns, maternal health, voluntary and informed family planning, HIV, elimination of violence against women and girls, and empowerment to reach the highest standard of health.” (Emphasis added.)

“We support programs to improve the health, life, dignity, and well-being of women, men, children, and families, and we will continue to be their stalwart defender.”

“Let us focus on concrete issues and challenges to accelerate access to health for all.”

“To this end, international solidarity has a key role to play, in order to the build broad consensus by member states.”

Preceding U.S. Letter Urging Support of the Joint Statement[4]

Prior to this High-Level Meeting, Secretary Azar and U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo reportedly sent a letter to at least some of the other U.N. members that were to attend this High-Level Meeting encouraging them to sign this joint statement opposing “harmful UN policies, especially at the World Health Organization, that promote sexual and reproductive health and rights” and “ensuring that every sovereign state has the ability to determine the best way to protect the unborn and defend the family as the foundational unity of society vital to children thriving and leading healthy lives.”

This letter reportedly also said, “We remain gravely concerned that aggressive efforts to reinterpret international instruments to create a new international right to abortion and to promote international policies that weaken the family have advanced through some United Nations forums.” Evidence of this [effort] is found in references throughout many multilateral global health policy documents to interpret ‘comprehensive sexuality education’ and ‘sexual and reproductive health’ and ‘sexual and reproductive health and rights’ to diminish the role of parents in the most sensitive and personal family-oriented issues. The latter has been asserted to mean promotion of abortion, including pressuring countries to abandon religious principles and cultural norms enshrined in law that protect unborn life.”

Other U.S. Challenges to U.N. Documents

This U.S. letter and the Joint Statement are consistent with prior efforts by the Trump Administration to delete and remove language from various U.N. agreements. Here are examples of this effort: (a) this April intense lobbying by U.S. officials resulted in the removal of references to sexual and reproductive health from a UN security council resolution on combatting rape in conflict; and (b) the U.S.previously attempted to water down language and remove the word “gender” from UN documents.

On September 24 Secretary Azar remained at the U.N. to attend President Trump’s address to the General Assembly and to meet with other governments representatives. He also was interviewed on Tony Perkins’ “Washington Watch” radio program  [5]

Opposition to U.S. Joint Statement[6]

The Netherlands’ Minister of Foreign Trade, Sigrid Kaag, spoke out in a competing joint statement issued on behalf of 58 countries. Although it did not mention the U.S. Joint Statement or use the word “abortion,” her joint statement clearly opposed the U.S. position. Her main points were the following: (1) “We strongly believe that SRHR [Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights] is an integral part of Universal Health Coverage and the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals]. (2) “Investing in SRHR has proven to be affordable, cost-effective, and cost saving.” (3) “Gender-related barriers to accessing UHC [Universal Health Care] must be addressed, including by direct involvement of women, adolescents and marginalized groups in policy and program design.” (4) “Investing in comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services in UHC is necessary to address the needs of women, girls, adolescents and people in the most marginalized situations who need these the most.”

Sweden’s Minister for International Development Cooperation tweeted that the action was “unbelievable news” and that “women’s rights must be protected at all times.” Another objector was Françoise Girard, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition, who said that “sexual and reproductive rights are human rights, and are enshrined in UN agreements for almost 25 years now” and that “the Trump administration’s position is extreme and its repeated attempts to strip women, girls, and gender- diverse people of their rights at the United Nations have failed.”

Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition, said the Pompeo-Azar letter “shows how they are trying to erode international consensus and roll back the clock for women and girls. It’s not just abortion that they care about, they care about women’s ability to exercise autonomy over their bodies and about denying them critical access to the services they need.” That Pompeo and Azur both signed the letter suggests an escalation of the US strategy to undermine policy statements, she added.

Keifer Buckingham, senior policy adviser for international public health at the Open Society Foundations, said that rather than an escalation, “it could be them just putting out in public what they have been doing in private.” She said the US was effectively sending a message of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”, which could have funding implications.

Other civil society and women’s rights groups expressed alarm at the efforts and accused the U.S. of aligning with countries like Saudi Arabia and Sudan with poor human rights records and, also, of putting unfair pressure on poor countries that depend on U.S. aid.

Support for U.S. Joint Statement[7]

On the other side of this controversy were anti-abortion groups that praised the statement as a sign of the administration’s “strong pro-life leadership on the world stage.” For example, the group Susan B. Anthony (SBA ) List issued a statement, saying, “From day one, President Trump has worked to restore respect for life as a foundational American value, not only in our domestic policies, but in our international relations as well.”

Conclusion

This speech by Secretary Azar, the preceding letter and the U.S. lobbying for other nations’ support against abortion and reproductive health can be seen as confirmation of fears that the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights that was announced this June was designed to put a gloss of respectability on efforts to attack women’s rights and to appeal to the Administration’s base of very conservative religious supporters.[8]

As noted in other posts, this U.S. Commission emphasizes the July 4, 1776, U.S. Declaration of Independence’s statement “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.” But the Commission ignores that phrase’s indications that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are “among” certain unalienable rights; i.e., there are other such rights. Moreover, the Commission ignores the very next sentence of that Declaration: “That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, this Declaration recognizes that these recited rights need to be “secured” by subsequent legislation that will have details not specified in this Declaration. (Emphasis added.)

Moreover, the U.S.-promoted Joint Statement’s requiring all 193 U.N. members to adopt a U.N. document or treaty as a precondition for them to be used in other U.N. documents would give every one of those members a veto right on the subsequent use of those documents or treaties. Is there any such document or treaty that has such unanimous approval? (That is exceedingly unlikely.) It also is  antithetical to the provisions of such treaties requiring a certain number of ratifications in order for the treaties to go into effect for the parties to the treaties. In short, this provision of the Joint Statement would totally prevent progress on these and many other issues.[9]

In short, the U.S. positions expressed in the U.N. speech by Secretary Azar were most unfortunate.

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[1] HHS Dep’t, Secretary Azar Represents the United States During UNGA High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Care Coverage (Sept. 23, 2019); U.N. Gen. Ass’bly, uhc 2030.

[2] U.S. HHS Dep’t, [Secretary Azar], Remarks on Universal Health Coverage (Sept. 23, 2019); Howard, U.S. wants the U.N. to oppose terms such as “reproductive health and rights” in policies, CNN (Sept. 23, 2019).

[3] The Political Declaration stated that the High-Level Meeting will have “a dedicated focus for the first time on universal health coverage . . . and [a strong recommitment] to achieve universal health coverage by 2030” with 83 numbered paragraphs of specific actions towards that goal. (U.N. Gen. Ass’bly, Political Declaration on the High-level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage (Sept. 10, 2019).)

[4] Cha, U.S. joins 19 nations, including Saudi Arabia and Russia: ‘There is no international right to an abortion, Wash. Post (Sept. 24, 2019); Ford, Leaked letter suggests US is rallying UN members to oppose abortion, Guardian (Sept. 23, 2019).

[5] HHS Dep’t, Secretary Azar Attends Presidential Address at UNGA, Furthers U.S. Partnerships on Health through Bilateral Meetings (Sept. 24, 2019).

[6] Netherlands Ministry Foreign Affairs, Joint Statement on SRHR in UHC (Sept. 23, 2019).

[7] SBA List, Pro-Life Groups Praise Trump Admin’s Defense of Life at the UN (Sept. 24, 2019).

[8] See posts to dwkcommentaries about the Commission on Unalienable Rights.

[9]  See List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law (TREATIES).

 

 

 

 

Cuba’s Increasing Cooperation with Russia   

A recent blog post commented on the increasing connections between Cuba and the European Union, one of the consequences of the Trump Administration’s hostile rhetoric and policies about the island nation. Another unfortunate consequence of this U.S. hostility is the increasing cooperation between Cuba and Russia.[1]

Last week, for example, Vice President of the Cuban Council of Ministers Ricardo Cabrisas Ruiz, led a Cuban delegation for meetings in Moscow. This included the X Meeting of the Russia-Cuba Business Committee, the first National Exhibition of Cuba in Russia and the XVII meeting of the Russian-Cuban Intergovernmental Commission.

At the Commission meeting Cabrisas said, “I call on continuing to work to strengthen the bonds of friendship and solidarity between the two peoples and governments, to make our economic, commercial and financial relations of cooperation more efficient.” He also complained that U.S. sanctions, together with the effects of climate change, have caused losses to the Cuban economy in the last decade “for almost 22 billion U.S. dollars” and that this damage “has affected [Cuba’s] financial situation and caused some delays in our payments. ” However, he stressed that Cuba is resolving this situation “gradually” and that it has “the will and the decision to fulfill each of our obligations to the Russian Federation.” Moreover, Cuba is satisfied “with the effective participation of the Russian Federation in Cuba’s economic-social development plan until 2030.”

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov, meanwhile, presented as “good news that the volume of trade between Russia and Cuba could reach 500 million dollars by the end of this year.” Last year, he added, “the volume of Russian-Cuban trade grew by 34%.” With respect to Cuba’s current fuel crisis, Borisov said that the two countries had just signed a plan to modernize the Cuban energy system, which will allow Cuba to reduce oil supplies from abroad by a third and save 1.8 billion dollars. This was the result of the efforts of last January’s creation of a working group to implement projects aimed at modernizing Cuba’s energy sector with the help of Russian companies.

Russia also is interested in resuming agricultural cooperation with Cuba and raising it to the levels achieved during the Soviet era, according to the director general of the Russian National Committee for Economic Cooperation with Latin American Countries (CN CEPLA), Tatiana Mashkova. She also referred to possible bartering and the use of the ruble in commercial transactions. The vice president for the Russian side of the Cuba-Russia business committee also recalled that in those years the Soviets supplied irrigation machinery and all kinds of harvesters to Cuba.

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[1] Havana clings to Moscow as a ‘piece fundamental to solve the current crisis,’ Diario de Cuba (Sept. 21, 2019)    See also these posts to dwkcommentaries: Professor LeoGrande’s Comments on the Strengthening Cuba-Russian Relationship (Jan. 3, 2018); Trump’s Hostility Towards Cuba Provides Opportunities for Russia (Dec. 19, 2017).

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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).)