July 15, 2019 – Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally announced the creation of a “Commission on Unalienable Rights.” Its stated purpose, according to a notice published in the Federal Register in May, is to provide “fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.”
The Trump administration’s actions and words — from threatening International Criminal Court judges and prosecutors, pulling out of the U.N. Human Rights Council and severing relations with its independent experts, to cozying up with authoritarian leaders and advancing xenophobic policies that defy international law — have made it abundantly clear that the administration has zero interest in being a global champion of human rights. This commission isn’t fooling anyone.
We know that references to “natural law and natural rights” are code words used by the religious right and social conservatives to advance anti-LGBTQ and anti-women’s rights agendas. We also know that members of the new commission have troubling anti-LGBTQ and abortion rights records. And based on the Trump administration’s record, there is good reason to believe the commission is intended to redefine universal human rights to fit the administration’s twisted and troubling worldview, with the clear and first target being the State Department’s long-standing work to advance the rights of LGBTQ people, women, and other vulnerable populations across the world.
In defending the commission in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Secretary Pompeo charged that human rights advocates have created “new categories of rights” that “blur the distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights granted by governments.” And that the commission will “ground our discussion of human rights in America’s founding principles.”
That’s a load of nonsense. Secretary Pompeo speaks of longstanding international human rights norms as if he’s demonstrated a single iota of respect for them, and as if those norms are incongruent with defending human dignity and democratic values.
The Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) — which Secretary Pompeo names as a foundational document that will be examined by the commission — is grounded in democratic values of equal rights, justice, and the right to self-determination. It establishes the modern international human rights framework that provides the legal and moral authority to hold governments and other perpetrators accountable for human rights violations — a framework that the Trump administration seems bent on dismantling.
What Secretary Pompeo fails to understand, or perhaps acknowledge, is that this modern international human rights framework is made up of the very same traditions and values that also guided America’s democratic origins. In fact, all too often in our modern history, it is the U.S. — irrespective of the political party in power — that has failed to live up to the UDHR, including the UDHR’s promise of economic justice. Different groups throughout American history, including indigenous peoples, enslaved African people, and women, among others, have all been the victims of America’s double-standard.
When the United States has wavered on its commitment at home and abroad, it is the UDHR in many cases that has provided the framework to hold our country’s leaders accountable. That’s because the full spectrum of rights enshrined in the UDHR are preordained by well-recognized democratic values, traditions, and principles, including the founding principles of our democracy.
The world has now witnessed the human costs of the Trump administration’s atrocious disregard for these basic human rights and democratic values: the inhumanity of family separation and detention, the discriminatory Muslim ban, the upended lives from the repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the revival of the racist ‘War on Drugs,’ numerous attempts to roll back advances in LGBTQ equality, trampling on the rights of women, and illegal restrictions on the rights of asylum seekers. Having had it with the world naming and shaming under the international human rights framework, the administration appears to be trying to find moral footing for President Trump’s discriminatory policies with the announcement of this commission.
Make no mistake: Pompeo’s commission is a dangerous initiative intended to redefine universal human rights and roll back decades of progress in achieving full rights for marginalized and historically oppressed communities. It is likely to use religion as grounding to deny human dignity and equality for all. It will undermine the existing State Department’s well respected and legally-mandated Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Affairs. And it will be a waste of taxpayer dollars, which would be better spent on implementing U.S. human rights treaty obligations and putting an end to Trump’s era of human misery and assault on our humanity.
We won’t let him get away with it.
Jamil Dakwar is Director, ACLU Human Rights Program. Sonia Gill is Senior Legislative Counsel, ACLU