The Trump Administration Believes There Are Too Many Human Rights

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is doing his best to restrict human rights and what the term “human rights” means; in the summer of 2020, he said: “Americans have not only 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.”[1] To remedy this supposed transgression, Pompeo has attempted to redirect the nation’s attention to what he perceives are the true heydays of human rights—1776 and 1948.[2] Pompeo is attempting to reshape the landscape of human rights by relying upon language in the Charter for the Commission of Unalienable Rights, which dictates that the Commission’s findings should be “grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”[3]

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”) “has been reinterpreted over the decades to ensure that it provides protections for groups not specifically mentioned seventy-two years ago, much as courts and lawmakers have expanded the ideals in the U.S. Constitution to embrace those who were originally excluded, including African Americans and women.”[4] In other words, the UDHR has evolved over time. However, the Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights (“the Commission Report”), on which Pompeo rests his theory, suggests that the 1948 document has no room to evolve and should only be viewed by the document’s.[5] The Commission believes that some human rights are more important than others, and as a result it is “desirable” that governments across the globe prioritize rights deemed to be the most vital over others.[6] Taking Pompeo’s lead would prove disastrous by potentially stripping millions of people of the rights and dignities they have fought for tirelessly for decades.

Pompeo’s Priorities

On September 23, 2020, Pompeo spoke on a videoconference about the Commission’s findings and succinctly summarized the human rights that he and the Commission believe to be above all others: “It’s important for every American, and for every American diplomat, to recognize how our founders understood unalienable rights…Foremost among these rights are property rights and religious liberty.”[7] During that video conference, Pompeo went on to discuss in detail his reasoning for holding these specific rights in such high regard.

  1. Religious Freedom

In Pompeo’s remarks, he noted his belief that the term “human rights” has become a far too inclusive term: “Many multinational organizations have lost their way, focusing on partisan policy preferences while failing to defend fundamental rights.”[8] Pompeo and the Commission present this argument by tying it to tradition and religion. Pompeo said he hoped the Commission Report would inspire other countries to examine their moral, philosophical, and religious traditions in reaffirming a commitment to human rights.[9] Speaking to the importance of religion, Pompeo has also noted that: “Pushing religion out of the public square drives oppression, drives authoritarian regimes, and really gets at human dignity.”[10] However, relentlessly pushing religion into the public sphere may also drive oppression, considering religions are often dismissive of LGBTQ+ rights. But, under Pompeo’s plan, one may not have to worry about dismissing LGBTQ+ rights since they may very well cease to exist anyway.

  1. Property Rights

Interestingly, although Pompeo highlights property rights as being fundamentally important, in Pompeo’s roughly 45-minute speech, the word “property” was uttered only once.[11] In his remarks, Pompeo noted that “[n]o one can enjoy the pursuit of happiness if you cannot own the fruits of your own labor.”[12] Following this blip in his speech, he mostly discussed religion and the abstract idea of the nation’s founding principles.[13] The Commission Report offers more detail as to why property is held out to be more important than others.[14] The Commission Report references the United States’ founders and John Locke, stating that “the protection of property rights benefits all by increasing the incentive for producing goods and delivering services desired by others.”[15] Additionally, the Commission Report justifies its reasoning with the idea that “[p]rotection of property rights is also central to the effective exercise of positive rights and to the pursuit of happiness in family, community, and worship.”[16] Essentially, the Commission Report suggests property ownership is almost essential if a person is going to live a traditional and prototypical life.[17] However, as time has passed it has become readily apparent that many people are not interested in a traditional life, which is exactly why Pompeo’s views are so out of touch with the pulse of America.

Deprioritized Human Rights

Through either sheer ignorance or ambivalence, the Commission of Unalienable Rights identified property and religious liberty as more important than countless others human rights; the result is the devaluation of all other human rights and the people they seek to protect. Pompeo has decided that property and religious liberty are more important than human rights because of the history and tradition of the country. However, experts are wary of some human rights being treated differently than others:

“My hope is that this document doesn’t come close to establishing something that looks like a hierarchy of rights,” said Rob Berschinski, a deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the Obama administration. “But if it does, repressive governments are going to point to that fact and use it against this, and future administrations, to basically say ‘we are no different than you. You have your priorities, we have ours, now butt out.’”[18]

This argument creates a slippery slope for U.S. foreign relations. Where sovereign states are permitted to prioritize human rights as they see fit, and using tradition and religion to do it, this increases the potential for persecution of several recently protected groups.[19] Specifically, experts suggest that LGBTQ+, women, and minorities may be most at risk. Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. Director for Human Rights Watch, notes that, “[t]he U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights is a deeply misguided enterprise with the potential to undermine human rights protections that governments find disagreeable…The commission promotes the false premise that too many people, particularly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and women, are asserting their rights.”[20] The Report even goes as far as to label abortion, affirmative action and same-sex marriage as “divisive social and political controversies.”[21] These labels may not be all that shocking after learning that the Commission’s leader is Mary Ann Glendon, “a prominent anti-abortion activist who has stirred controversy in recent years for making comments that awarding The Boston Globe the Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on child abuse by Catholic priests ‘would be like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.’”[22] This emphasis on tradition signals to countries across the world that the United States will turn a blind eye to rollbacks of protections for LGBTQ+ people, women, and minorities—groups of people that have only in recent years been afforded rights that defend them from persecution.

Certain marginalized groups fear individual persecution in light of this Report, while other Americans are simultaneously hurt by the devaluation of freedom of speech, press, assembly, and countless other rights. This sentiment has been expressed by members of human rights groups:

“Human rights are not a choose-your-own-adventure,” said Tarah Demant, the director of the gender, sexuality and identity program at Amnesty International U.S.A. “The U.S. State Department’s effort to cherry-pick rights in order to deny some their human rights is a dangerous political stunt that could spark a race to the bottom by human rights-abusing governments around the world.”[23]

This cherry-picking of rights is a step in the wrong direction that could effectively bury rights that we all hold dear. The absence of recognition for the importance of freedom of speech, press, and assembly are particularly glaring considering the state of the country in 2020. The current Administration has treated protests of police brutality and the press in general with great hostility. The evidence suggests that Pompeo and the Commission’s goal is to degrade human rights that interfere with their vision of a nation guided by religion and history; and neither Pompeo nor the Commission seem to care about the people that will be hurt.

Global Response

Fortunately, the international response has been one of compassion and tolerance. Several influential human rights leading countries, such as France, Britain and Germany, have not joined the Commission Report.[24] However, these countries have not vocalized their actual thoughts on the Commission Report. After speaking to multiple diplomats, Rob Berschinski, senior vice president for policy at Human Rights First said, “[t]here are a number of foreign governments that are really concerned by the commission and its work.”[25] Berschinski continued, emphasizing that “[t]his is sensitive. Anytime democratic governments find themselves needing to criticize the US government on a matter of human rights, it’s by definition a complex topic to negotiate.”[26] Perhaps out of fear of what denouncing the Commission would do to U.S. relations, countries are unwilling to take the necessary, incontrovertible steps to protect human rights.

Conversely, some of the countries that have shown support for the Report have poor reputations pertaining to human rights, to say the least. According to the Washington Post, some supporters of the Report “are countries whose governments have been accused of human rights abuses, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In addition, Hungary, Poland and Serbia, which have an authoritarian bent, were among the handful of European countries that signed.”[27] However, a lack of support from some of the greatest leading countries in the free world has yet to deter Pompeo.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights is regressive, is intolerant, and, most importantly, is dangerous. If countries begin to shape their human rights laws around Pompeo’s ideals regarding religion and history, LGBTQ+ people, women, and minorities will see many of their rights disappear. Governments will stop protecting those that refuse to live their lives according to the outdated ideologies that political leaders believe were paramount at the nation’s founding. The U.N. will hopefully still have the power and influence it needs to help as many people as possible. A country with Pompeo as one of its leaders will surely not help in that fight: “this is Pompeo’s pet project and he’s not going to let it go,” said Mark Bromley, chair of the Council on Global Equality.[28]

There’s no reason to believe that Pompeo would give up on his mission now that President Trump has lost reelection. In fact, Pompeo is believed to have ambitions of running for President in 2024.[29] This problem is not going away, and the American people have to make it clear that these are not the views that they want the country to represent.

  1. Michael Pompeo, U.S. Sec’y of State, Unalienable Rights and the Securing of Freedom, Speech at National Constitution Center (July 16, 2020), https://www.state.gov/unalienable-rights-and-the-securing-of-freedom/ (emphasis added).
  2. U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights (2020), https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Report-of-the-Commission-on-Unalienable-Rights.pdf.
  3. Id.
  4. Carol Morello, Pompeo urges other countries to join alternative U.S. view on human rights, Washington Post (Sep. 23, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/pompeo-human-rights-un/2020/09/23/f34a4d2c-fdc2-11ea-830c-a160b331ca62_story.html.
  5. Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, supra note 2.
  6. Id.
  7. Pranshu Verma, Pompeo Says Human Rights Policy Must Prioritize Property Rights and Religion, New York Times (Jul. 21, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/16/us/politics/pompeo-human-rights-policy.html.
  8. Morello, supra note 4.
  9. Id.
  10. Id.
  11. Pompeo, supra note 1.
  12. Id.
  13. Id.
  14. Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, supra note 2.
  15. Id.
  16. Id.
  17. Id.
  18. Pranshu Verma, Pompeo’s Human Rights Panel Could Hurt L.G.B.T. and Women’s Rights, Critics Say, New York Times (Jul. 21, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/23/us/politics/pompeo-state-human-rights.html.
  19. Morello, supra note 4.
  20. Id.
  21. Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, supra note 2.
  22. Pranshu Verma, Pompeo Says Human Rights Policy Must Prioritize Property Rights and Religion, New York Times (Jul. 21, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/16/us/politics/pompeo-human-rights-policy.html.
  23. Id.
  24. Morello, supra note 4.
  25. Dan Spinelli, Mike Pompeo Plans to Push His Anti-LGBTQ Commission at the UN, Mother Jones (Sep. 11, 2020), https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2020/09/mike-pompeo-un-human-rights-commission-lgbtq-abortion/.
  26. Id.
  27. Morello, supra note 4
  28. Spinelli, supra note 25.
  29. Julian Borger, Pompeo claims private property and religious freedom are ‘foremost’ human rights, The Guardian (Jul. 16, 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jul/16/pompeo-claims-private-property-and-religious-freedom-are-foremost-human-rights.

 

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