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August 18, 2019

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EDITORIAL:

Inalienable human rights not up for debate, hence America’s founding

Human rights advocates are worried about the State Department’s newly created Commission on Unalienable Rights, and with very good reason. It appears that the group’s intent is to weaken or eliminate the rights of women, members of the LGBTQ community, immigrants, non-Christians and other groups.

The commission was created by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and will be chaired by Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon, both of whom have expressed discriminatory views. And while Pompeo and others have been vague about the commission’s purpose and objectives, its formal mission statement contains language suggesting it will promote policies of conservative extremists and the religious right.

For the record, Pompeo said the panel was created to provide him with “an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy.” But he offered vague answers when pressed for details, saying that the 10 members of the commission would serve as advisers instead of policymakers and would focus on principles over policy.

Behind Pompeo’s smokescreen, though, the real purpose of the group appears to be stated in a founding document published in the Federal Register this spring. That document identified the purpose as providing “fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.”

Those last two terms — natural law and natural rights — set off alarm bells for human rights advocates. The terms have become code words among the far right in their efforts to oppose same-sex marriage, diminish women’s reproductive rights, pursue anti-immigration policies and so forth.

That’s troubling, but it’s not surprising coming from the likes of Pompeo and Glendon. Pompeo voiced strong anti-gay and anti-Muslim views as a Kansas lawmaker before joining the Trump administration and has not backed away from those views as a Cabinet member. Glendon is a prominent anti-abortion activist and same-sex marriage opponent. 

Against this backdrop, the name of the commission takes on an Orwellian ring. By all appearances, it’s clear that this commission isn’t out to strengthen rights but to curtail them.

Another troubling aspect: Pompeo suggested that a review of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights would be a focal point for the group. That decades-old document establishes the framework of today’s international human rights standards, which the Trump administration has trampled with actions like its family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border, Muslim ban, attack of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, praise for authoritarians who have committed atrocities, and so forth.

Activists are justifiably concerned that Pompeo’s purpose is to weaken or eliminate those international standards to reduce barriers to Trump’s despicable behavior. Violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have been cited in sanctions against offending countries, so undermining the declaration would leave the U.S. less susceptible to punishment by the international community.

It would also give shelter to Vladimir Putin and his ilk for the same reason. Any damage done to the standards is a feather in Putin’s cap because it weakens the shared values of the West. So considering that Pompeo has written that he hoped the commission would “reorient” institutions like the United Nations, Putin must be smiling.

Needless to say, then, this is alarming.

“If this administration truly wanted to support people’s rights, it would use the global framework that’s already in place. Instead, it wants to undermine rights for individuals, as well as the responsibilities of governments,” said Joanne Lin, Amnesty International’s national director of advocacy and government affairs, to Politico. “This approach only encourages other countries to adopt a disregard for basic human rights standards and risks weakening international, as well as regional frameworks, placing the rights of millions of people around the world in jeopardy.”

That being the case, the activities of Pompeo’s group demand intense scrutiny. Unalienable rights are a sacred concept to Americans — they’re etched in the Declaration of Independence — and generations have strived to extend them across the globe. Undermining them is unacceptable.