U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Developments

On May 22, 2019, the U.S. State Department announced its formation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights with two stated purposes. First, to provide the Secretary of State with “informed advice and recommendations concerning international human rights matters . . . [and] 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.” Second, to help “guide U.S. diplomatic and foreign policy decisions and actions with respect to human rights in international settings . . . [and] recover that which is enduring for the maintenance of free and open societies.” (Emphases added.)[1]

Although the Department has not yet provided many details about the Commission, there already has been positive and negative commentary about what this Commission might do.[2]

Now Politico reports that the Department is planning to launch the Commission next Monday, July 8, with the names of at least 10 of the body’s 15 members. Also it is being said that the Commission was developed “with almost no input from the . . . Department’s human rights bureau, .  . . [thereby] sidelining career government experts who have focused on human rights policy and history across numerous administrations.” There have been internal comments that the new body will at least consult one major international document—the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[3]

Senator Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ), the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a letter of concern to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that was joined by Senators Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT), Dick Durbin (Dem., IL), Jeanne Shaheen (Dem., NH) and Chris Coons (Dem., DE). They expressed “deep concern over the process and intent” of the new body.[4] Here are some of the key points of this letter:

  • “With deep reservations about the Commission, we request that you not take any further action regarding its membership or proposed operations without first consulting with congressional oversight and appropriations committees.” Of particular concern was the reference to ‘natural law’ and ‘natural rights,’ terms which are “sometimes used in association with discrimination against marginalized populations” without mentioning “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or any international human rights treaty the [U.S.] has signed or ratified.”
  • This letter also said that some of the rumored members of the Commission “are individuals known to support discriminatory policies toward LGBTQ people, hold views hostile to women’s rights, and/or to support positions at odds with U.S. treaty obligations.”

These are additional reasons for international human rights advocates to be concerned about this Commission and to be ready for its anticipated launching on July 8.

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[1] State Dep’t, Notice: Department of State Commission on Unalienable Rights, 84 Fed. Reg. 25109 (May 30, 2019); State Dep’t, Charter: Commission on Unalienable Rights (created: May 10, 2019); State Dep’t, Membership Balance Plan: Commission on Unalienable Rights (created: May 10, 2019).

[2] For more details, see these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: 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).

[3] Toosi, Trump’s ‘natural law’ human rights panel readies for launch, Politico (July 3, 2019).

[4] Menendez Press Release, Menendez, Leahy, Durbin, Shaheen, Coons Raise Alarm over Trump Administration’s Plans to Redefine Human Rights through New Commission (June 12, 2019).