On July 16, just over one year after they were assembled to bestow upon the world a framework for separating “unalienable” from “ad hoc” rights, the 11 members of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights” presented the secretary with a report that draws dangerous, foregone conclusions about manufactured problems.
As detailed at Just Security yesterday by Aya Fujimura-Fanselow, Jayne Huckerby, and Sarah Knuckey, the Commission’s draft report does exactly what its many critics have spent the last year saying it would do: weaken human rights protections under the guise of strengthening them.
Undeterred by a lawsuit and vociferous, bipartisan, substantive criticism throughout the entirety of its short existence, the Commission appears to have accomplished what Pompeo has long sought. Its report provides a veneer of academic credibility to Pompeo’s campaign to elevate religious liberty to what he views as its rightful place as the world’s “foremost” right. As a corollary, the report advances an argument for how future ideologues can ignore international law to limit the rights of LGBTQI+ people and women, among other groups disfavored by the commissioners. In so doing, it provides a roadmap for repressive governments around the world eager to excuse their own rights violations in the name of national tradition.
In response to the Commission’s draft report, today 230 human rights organizations, activists, academics, former senior government officials, and other concerned parties submitted to the Commission’s chairperson a letter rejecting the draft report as “fundamentally flawed and unnecessary.” Its organizational signatories range from many of the largest and most well-known international human rights NGOs to local groups operating in cities across America. Its individual signatories include former senior U.S. government officials from the Clinton, W. Bush, and Obama administrations; accomplished policy and legal scholars from dozens of the country’s universities; and leaders representing a diverse range of religious faiths.
The letter is being provided as an official public comment on the draft report by its signatories, and is being made public here for the first time. Its signatories decry the transparent political agenda underlying the Commission’s work, as well as the report’s complete failure to acknowledge the many Trump administration policies that have significantly undermined America’s leadership on human rights. It identifies five faulty conclusions central to the report’s thesis, and concludes by noting that the report “undermines decades of human rights progress” and “will provide cover for those who wish to narrow certain categories of rights protections, resulting in a weakening of the international human rights system and its protections in the process.”
This outcome, however, is unfortunately predictable based on the process that created it. Pompeo first announced the Commission’s mandate in late May 2019. Its purpose, as unveiled in the Federal Register, was 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 mission statement, drafted without the input of the department’s human rights bureau and blatantly adopting the lexicon of those that seek to curtail LGBTQI+ rights, apparently so embarrassed the department that it was later quietly modified.
Pompeo soon thereafter made public the Commission’s largely ideologically uniform membership, having once again sidelined his human rights office in the process. Notably, while several of the commissioners were practicing faith leaders or had centered their careers on the defense of religious liberty, few if any specialized in economic, social, or cultural rights; matters of online censorship or technology-enabled surveillance; human trafficking; torture; disability rights; or any number of other matters of pressing public policy concern. What many of the commissioners did have in their backgrounds, however, were on-the-record statements hostile toward LGBTQI+ rights and reproductive rights, which they collectively characterize in the draft report as not human rights, but “social and political controversies.”
Given such a transparent effort to redefine human rights in religious nationalist terms, last July hundreds of faith leaders, former senior government officials, scholars, and human rights, civil liberties, and social justice organizations wrote to Pompeo demanding that he disband the Commission before it began its work in earnest. Unsurprisingly, he did no such thing. Instead, a secretary of state who has famously denigrated journalists doubled down, using his speech unveiling the Commission’s report earlier this month to suggest, among other culture war tropes, that the New York Times is among the greatest threats to “the truth of our founding and the rights about which this report speaks.” Pompeo’s boss, no doubt, approved.
Today’s letter is being submitted on the final day of a two-week “comment period” that has been touted as providing members of the public with an opportunity to inform the final version of the Commission’s report. Not one to consider the views of the broader public – let alone his critics – or bind himself with the formalities of following the process he set out, Pompeo has reportedly already directed his workforce to use the draft document to “guide every State Department employee involved . . . in our foreign policy.”
As the signatories of today’s letter note, “[t]hat the Secretary of State would issue such direction to State Department personnel while you continue to solicit public comment from civil society on a document described as a ‘draft’ epitomizes the bad faith of this enterprise.” Indeed, the Commission on Unalienable Rights has produced a document responsive to a problem that does not exist, and harmful to the people it purports to support.