Why Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights Is Wrong

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently unveiled the draft report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights (Commission). During the event at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia (“a place intentionally chosen”, even if it is currently closed to the public), Secretary Pompeo gave a speech entitled “Unalienable Rights and the Securing of Freedom”.   

“And it’s important – it’s important for every American, for every American diplomat, to recognize how our founders understood unalienable rights.  As you’ll see when you get a chance to read this report, the report emphasizes foremost among these rights are property rights and religious liberty.”   – Secretary Pompeo, July 16, 2020 

https://www.state.gov/unalienable-rights-and-the-securing-of-freedom/

When reading the draft report, it is important to remember that the Commission is a political body created by Secretary Pompeo to perform a very specific, political function: to create an official U.S. State Department document that reflects his own view of human rights, narrowing the definition to undermine fundamental principles of international human rights law and backtrack on U.S. foreign policy objectives that provide protections for historically marginalized groups, including women, racial and ethnic minorities, and the LGBTQI community (human rights which Secretary Pompeo has called “ad hoc” rights). 

As an organization committed to implementing international human rights standards, The Advocates for Human Rights is deeply concerned about the mandate and work to date of the Commission, as well as the potential harm that the Commission’s report may have on the United States’ fulfillment of its international human rights obligations.  When the Commission was created in July 2019, we joined with other U.S. human rights leaders in sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a  public letter letter expressing concern about the many legal, moral, and philosophical problems with the Commission, its mandate, and its makeup, and calling for the Commission to be immediately disbanded. Our concerns deepened as we observed the work of the Commission over the past year. In April 2020, we submitted comments directly to the Commission as it prepared its “advice and recommendations concerning international human rights matters” to Secretary Pompeo, in keeping with its mandate.  

Now that the Commission has released its draft report and recommendations, we are alarmed that the report would narrow the scope of U.S. obligations under international human rights law and justify a ranking of rights that prioritize some rights, such as the right to freedom of religion, over others. We remain strongly concerned that the Commission’s draft report seeks to reinterpret the international human rights framework established over the past 70 years and limit widely recognized international human rights – particularly the rights of women, girls, and LGBTQI persons.  We are alarmed that the Commission suggests “other criteria” in its draft report to determine “whether and when a new claim of human right warrants support in U.S. foreign policy”. 

“In short, human rights are now misunderstood by many, manipulated by some, rejected by the world’s worst violators, and subject to ominous new threats.”  – Draft Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights 

https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Draft-Report-of-the-Commission-on-Unalienable-Rights.pdf

The international human rights law framework already adequately defines the scope, content, and obligations of States to respect and promote human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the nine core human rights treaties, particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), codify widely recognized and accepted international human rights principles. These treaties are the product of decades of multilateral negotiations and represent an international consensus regarding the scope of human rights that bind the States that have opted into to ratifying them. In ratifying the ICCPR, as well as the treaties such as the Convention Against Torture and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the United States has agreed to be bound by these multilateral human rights treaties.  

As the UDHR and subsequent binding human rights treaties make clear, human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated. In other words, all human rights are equal in importance. Although the international human rights framework does recognize a distinction between derogable and non-derogable rights, it does not establish a hierarchy that allows for the exercise of some rights in ways that violate others. A prioritization of one right – freedom of religion or belief – over the enjoyment of other human rights would constitute a violation of the United States’ binding obligations under international human rights law.   

As an organization with United Nations ECOSOC Special Consultative Status, The Advocates regularly participates in international advocacy at the UN human rights mechanisms.  The Advocates also partners with human rights defenders and civil society organizations throughout the world. Many of our partners are currently experiencing threats, including threats of physical harm, due to a backlash against human rights. We are concerned that the Commission’s work sends a signal to the international community that the U.S. government views the international human rights framework as malleable and open to unilateral re-interpretation. The Commission’s willingness to question the basic foundations of the human rights framework risks emboldening populist and authoritarian regimes to further restrict human rights and justify repressive policies. Further, it is in the U.S. government’s national interest to make the promotion and protection of human rights a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. Redefining and restricting human rights would limit the United States’ impact on the protection of human rights around the world. 

We do agree with the Commission’s Concluding Observation that, “A crucial way in which the United States promotes human rights abroad is by serving as an example of a rights-respecting society…” Unlike the work of the Commission thus far, however, a good faith review of the role of human rights in U.S. government policy would necessarily focus on how the U.S. could both improve its human rights record at home and promote greater protections for all human rights worldwide. Such a review would begin by reaffirming the U.S. government’s commitment to the international human rights framework as developed over the past 70 years and would recommend appropriate changes to Trump administration policy based on that framework. Along with others in the U.S. human rights movement, we have expressed our collective desire to refocus this administration on solving some of the human rights violations it has fueled through its reactionary policies on issues ranging from immigration, asylum, freedom of religion, systemic racism, and myriad due process and rule of law issues.  

The Commission was instructed last year to provide Secretary of State Pompeo with “advice on human rights grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”  We are better than we were when the UDHR was drafted, shortly after the end of World War II when there were no institutions to challenge the human rights violations perpetrated by State and non-State actors. Human rights are not merely documents. They reflect the core values of our own Constitution and the decades of jurisprudence strengthening anti-discrimination laws that have sought to ensure that these core values can be enjoyed by all. 

By Jennifer Prestholdt, Deputy Director and International Justice Program Director at The Advocates for Human Rights  

Take Action!  The release of the draft report on July 16 began a two-week public comment period.  The Commission welcomes all submissions.  Please route them by July 29 to commission@state.gov and/or Designated Federal Officer Duncan Walker, who may be reached at walkerdh3@state.gov

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