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Pompeo: We don't have 'capacity to deal with all human rights violations'

Advocates say a new report released by Pompeo is part of an ongoing effort by the Trump administration to undermine LGBTQ rights.

By Casey Quinlan - July 17, 2020
Mike Pompeo

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a draft report on human rights on Thursday that advocates say would harm LGBTQ people.

The report is the work of a “Commission of Unalienable Rights” Pompeo announced last year to carry out “an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy.”

Pompeo is an avowed evangelical Christian who, journalist Masha Gessen noted in the New Yorker, mentioned during his introduction of a State Department report in 2019 that he “was, for many years, a Sunday-school teacher and a church deacon.” He has injected his religious beliefs into his role as secretary of state, telling a pro-Israeli group last year, “As secretary of state and as a Christian, I’m proud to lead American diplomacy to support Israel’s right to defend itself.”

In an op-ed announcing the rights commission published in the Wall Street Journal on July 7, 2019, Pompeo wrote that “when politicians and bureaucrats create new rights, they blur the distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights granted by governments. Unalienable rights are by nature universal. Not everything good, or everything granted by a government, can be a universal right. Loose talk of ‘rights’ unmoors us from the principles of liberal democracy.”

Pompeo used the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights as his jumping-off point in making distinctions between “unalienable rights” and “ad hoc rights.” While unalienable rights are said to be inherently possessed by all people by virtue of their humanity, “ad hoc rights,” Pompeo says, are “granted by governments.”

Pompeo noted in his remarks introducing the commission a year ago: “As human rights claims have proliferated, some claims have come into tension with one another, provoking questions and clashes about which rights are entitled to gain respect. Nation-states and international institutions remain confused about their respective responsibilities concerning human rights.”

The makeup of the commission itself indicated what its focus would be.

The appointed chair of the commission, Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard professor, opposes abortion rights and marriage equality, calling the latter “a bid for special preferences,” and charging that it will harm children and infringe on the religious liberty of those who oppose it.

During his speech introducing the report on Thursday, Pompeo paraphrased Glendon’s writing, saying, “A rapidly expanding catalog of rights … not only multiplies the occasion for risks of collision, but risks trivializing core American values.”

Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality, told NPR of the entire commission membership: “If you look at their academic work, if you look at their ideological perspectives, they’re very monolithic. They all champion religious freedom, often to the detriment of other communities, particularly the LGBTI community and women and girls who seek to exercise their sexual and reproductive health.”

Pompeo said that a dedication to unalienable rights “doesn’t mean we have the capacity to deal with all human rights violations.”

“Americans do not only have unalienable rights but also positive rights: rights granted by governments, courts, multilateral bodies. Many are worth defending in light of our founding. Others aren’t … More rights doesn’t necessarily mean more justice,” he said.

Andrea Prasow, acting Washington director at the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, said that the report and Pompeo’s comments suggest that it is setting a framework to “prioritize some rights over others and [consider] some well-recognized human rights to be political preferences rather than fundamental rights.” She said that while it was not yet clear how the report would affect issues of LGBTQ equality, it is “deliberately vague so as to obfuscate its true purpose.”

The report includes a list of factors the commission deems necessary to consider when deciding whether “a new claim of human right warrants support in U.S. foreign policy.” Among those factors is:

Does the new claim represent a clear consensus across a broad plurality of different traditions and cultures in the human family, as the Universal Declaration did, and not merely a narrower partisan or ideological interest? Caution is particularly warranted in two circumstances. Sometimes broad new rights have been championed by undemocratic and repressive regimes to undermine the unity and effectiveness of recognized universal rights. On other occasions, activists determined to bypass ordinary politics and domestic democratic processes employ the language and structures of international human rights to advance agendas that are not widely shared in the community of nations, and sometimes not even within activists’ own nation.

The report says that a foreign policy that doesn’t account for the support of the American people for a “new rights claim” will risk “losing domestic legitimacy.”

The document also makes a distinction between economic and social rights and civil and political rights.

In sum, the principles of the Universal Declaration do demand that economic and social rights be taken seriously in formulating U.S. foreign policy. However, for many reasons — ranging from our own constitutional traditions to the language of the Universal Declaration itself to prudential concerns about the abuse of rights — it is reasonable for the United States to treat economic and social rights differently from civil and political rights.

Said Prasow: “Any attempt to marginalize economic and social rights would … have an impact not only on economic and social rights but on civil and political rights as well.”

Jayne Huckbery, a clinical professor of law and director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Duke University, who attended the commission’s hearings, told NPR: “Very limited and anachronistic visions of human rights were discussed, rejecting the dynamic approach to human rights that emphasizes the need for evolution to extend human rights to previously marginalized groups.”

Maria Sjödin, the deputy executive director of OutRight Action International, an organization focused on human rights violations and abuses against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people, said the report is an effort to “fundamentally redefine and undermine human rights.”

“The report makes numerous references to ‘natural law’ and ‘natural rights,’ terms used to describe a social order which is often characterized by male domination, subservience of women, racial inequality, and complete erasure of LGBTIQ people,” she said.

Sjödin said that the report aims to undermine the principle that human rights belong to everyone, regardless of religious denomination, gender, race, sexual orientation, and other characteristics.

“This report is not business as usual. Neither is the Commission on Unalienable Rights. They are frightening signals of a growing institutionalization of strategic and highly thought-out fundamentalism,” she said.

Prasow noted, “I see the commission report as phase one, which may then form the basis for policy decisions that are more explicit in their rejection of certain human rights,” she said.

Monica Kerrigan, executive director of Planned Parenthood Global, stated, “At a time when this administration is attacking reproductive rights, rolling back LGBTQ+ rights, perpetuating systemic racism, marginalizing immigrants, and demonizing the free press, this report is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to bolster neocolonialist ideals and intentionally exclude specific groups from legal protections.”

The Trump administration has banned most transgender people from serving in the military and has rolled back many Obama-era nondiscrimination protections for transgender people, including in homeless shelters, in health care, and in choosing to use bathrooms and facilities that correspond to their gender.

The administration has pushed forward many other rules that would target LGBTQ rights in the name of “religious freedom.”

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

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