The Trump administration said Monday that it will review the role of human rights in American foreign policy, appointing a commission expected to elevate concerns about religious freedom and abortion.
Human rights groups accused the administration of politicizing foreign policy in a way that could undermine protections for marginalized populations, including the gay, lesbian and transgender community. Democratic senators have raised concerns about the panel’s intent and composition, fearing it would consist of members who “hold views hostile to women’s rights” and blow away existing standards and definitions.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the creation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, saying the country must be “vigilant that human rights discourse not be corrupted or hijacked or used for dubious or malignant purposes.” As human rights claims have “proliferated,” he said, nations are in conflict about what constitutes a human right and which rights should be respected and treated as valid.
“I hope that the commission will revisit the most basic of questions: What does it mean to say, or claim, that something is in fact a human right?” Pompeo said. “How do we know, or how do we determine that this — or that — is a human right. Is it true, and therefore ought it to be honored?”
He said he expected the most comprehensive review on the subject since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations and laid out broadly accepted rights and freedoms.
The commission will be chaired by Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon, a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. A conservative scholar and author, Glendon turned down an honor from Notre Dame the year President Barack Obama gave a commencement address there, protesting the school’s decision to recognize him in spite of his support for abortion rights.
Monday’s announcement alarmed human rights groups, which said they feared the commission could roll back progress in establishing protections for marginalized group.
Amnesty International USA said there was no reason for such a review given the decades-old protections in place, while the American Civil Liberties Union said “taxpayer resources would be better spent assessing the administration’s failure to meet basic human rights obligations, rather than redefining those rights.”
Adotei Akwei, Amnesty International’s deputy director for advocacy and government relations, said he was concerned that the commission, in its use of the word “unalienable,” was aiming to redefine human rights in the narrow way America’s founding fathers understood them.
“Let’s face it: The founding fathers didn’t have a very large universe of rights they were talking about,” Akwei said in an interview.
A group of Democratic senators said in a letter last month that they were dismayed that the commission was being assembled without congressional oversight. Several of the names of people reported to be on it, they charged, support discriminatory policies against gays and lesbians, “hold views hostile to women’s rights, and/or to support positions at odds with U.S. treaty obligations.”
“We believe the extent to which this administration has undermined American leadership and credibility on promoting fundamental human rights is of historic proportions,” the senators wrote. “The department’s proposed Commission on Unalienable Rights must not serve as a platform to further erode U.S. leadership and undercut U.S. interests.”
Glendon, who joined Pompeo at the State Department for the announcement, said she was honored to do the job at a time when “basic human rights are being misunderstood by many, manipulated by many and ignored by the world’s worst human rights violators.”