In an official announcement in July 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo created the Commission on Unalienable Rights. He said it would revisit what America’s founding documents say about basic questions like: What does it mean to say something is a human right? How do we determine whether a claim of a human right should be honored?
“Is it, in fact, true, as our Declaration of Independence asserts, that as human beings, we — all of us, every member of our human family — are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights?” Pompeo asked at the commission’s formal announcement, on July 8.
There was an immediate outcry from human rights groups who pointed out there were already established answers to all those questions — the international community’s been working on them at the United Nations since World War II.
But Pompeo’s commission pressed on, and is expected to release its advisory report in July. On March 6, four human rights groups filed suit against the US State Department in New York’s Southern District. Their suit asks that the commission be folded, that its records be made public, and that the Trump administration be barred from taking recommendations from the body.
The plaintiffs worry the commission’s report could lay the groundwork for the Trump administration to redefine human rights on religious terms.
“The United States here is proposing a new path forward. They’re trying to create something to support these arguments that they want to be making to countries around the world — to say that there is an alternative definition of human rights — if [those countries] too believe that the system has gone too far.”
“The United States here is proposing a new path forward,” said Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Center, one of the groups suing the State Department over the commission. “They’re trying to create something to support these arguments that they want to be making to countries around the world — to say that there is an alternative definition of human rights — if [those countries] too believe that the system has gone too far.”
Radhakrishnan said the Trump administration’s track record shows its definition of human rights doesn’t include reproductive rights or protection for transgender or gay people. Instead, she said, Trump officials have prioritized religious freedom.
Radhakrishnan said the members of Pompeo’s unalienable rights commission share a similar perspective. “And that perspective is one that prioritizes religious liberty over other rights,” she said.
The commission members include professors from Stanford University and University of Notre Dame. Commission chair Mary Ann Glendon is a former US ambassador to the Vatican and a Harvard University law professor who once had Pompeo in one of her classes.
“It is not to be an echo of this administration,” Glendon said of the commission on a faith-focused TV show called “The World Over” with Raymound Arroyo on Sept. 19, 2019. “What is sought for is the honest opinion of a group of activists, advocates and scholars.”
The group has formally met five times. It’s heard from experts and human rights activists. Commission member Paolo Carozza said their report won’t recommend the US step back from any of its international human rights obligations.
“That's not what we're doing. That's not what we're about. That's not what we've been asked to do,” Carozza said.
Carozza said the commission’s goal is to investigate some of what’s called “third generation rights,” like the rights to a healthy environment, natural resources and economic development. Carozza said some of those rights are deeply controversial in parts of the world, and the US should not impose its values there.
“Rather than intervening and trying to say, well, one side is right and the other side's not, the way that I view the task of the commission is to help clarify the scope of the controversy and what's at stake.”
“Rather than intervening and trying to say, well, one side is right and the other side's not, the way that I view the task of the commission is to help clarify the scope of the controversy and what's at stake,” he said.
But it’s hard to trust assurances when so much of the committee’s work seems to happen in private, said Mark Bromley, chair of the Council on Global Equality, another plaintiff in the suit against the State Department.
“Those meetings have not been open to the public. There are no notes,” he said. “But it really is quite clear that that's the meat of this work and the meat of this project.”
Meanwhile, Bromley said, Pompeo has described the coming report in religious terms. Bromley pointed to what Pompeo said in September in a speech at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, to the Concerned Women for America.
“And it is not without controversy, for sure,” Pompeo said then of the commission and its report. “There are those who would have preferred I didn’t do it and are concerned about the answers that our foundational documents will provide. I know where those rights came from. They came from our Lord, and when we get this right, we’ll have done something good, not just, I think, for the United States, but for the world.”
Bromley’s interpretation of those remarks by Pompeo: “He believes that this commission will redefine our country's approach to human rights in religious terms, and that it will be a significant change in terms of how we look at civil rights here in the United States, but really how the world looks at human rights.”
Bromley said human rights organizations fear that the Trump administration’s example will lead countries across the world to value some rights — and some people — over others.