“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence laid out the reasoning for forming a new government. In the eyes of the colonists, the British government had impeded up on these sacred rights and attempts to petition the British Parliament and King had failed, thereby justifying the US Revolutionary War. In the nearly 250 years that have followed, these unalienable rights – including but not limited to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – have evolved to include freedom for African Americans, the right to vote for women and minorities, and LGBTQ freedoms. The history of the US can be viewed a never-ending struggle to secure these rights. When looking back on historical issues such as segregation, some of them may seem patently obvious to us now, but at the time, these were very real and often bloody affairs.
Now, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has taken it upon himself to create a commission to examine the role of human rights in government. The Commission on Unalienable Rights, announced Monday, will be spearheaded by Mary Ann Glendon, professor at Harvard Law School. Other notable members of the panel include Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, president of Zaytuna College, F. Cartwright Weiland, attorney, Christopher Olaf Tollefesen, philosopher, and Jacqueline Rivers, Harvard lecturer. Many of the members of the 12-person commission have backgrounds as religious scholars in Christianity and Islam.
When considering Pompeo’s statements about the goals of the commission, you’l find a clear sense. Glendon served as an ambassador for the Vatican on a number of occasions and praised Pope John Paul II’s opposition to abortion and contraception. She refused an honor from the University of Notre Dame in 2009 because President Barack Obama gave the commencement address. Her refusal was a protest of his actions on abortion and women’s reproductive rights.
Yusuf, Cartwright, and Tollefsen have all spoken out against issues related to women’s rights, even including stem-cell research. The entire panel actually seems in agreement on the issue of abortion, at least when considering their previous statements on the subject.
“A moral foreign policy should be grounded in this conception of human rights,” Pompeo wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece. “Yet after the Cold War ended, many human-rights advocates turned their energy to new categories of rights. These rights often sound noble and just… they blur the distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights.”
That was only the beginning of Pompeo’s rumination on the state of human rights, both in the US and abroad. A compelling argument could be made that those sentences alone translate to an intention to repeal rights. Pompeo’s task of rolling back protections which were earned over the course of decades, and even some of which are not solidified across all states, is the realization of US President Donald Trump’s grand plan of imprinting the federal government with religious-based moral rights. While Pompeo insisted that the panel is designed with the intention of examining principles rather than creating policy, the truth is that the Trump administration has pushed for language in UN resolutions that called for an end to reproductive and sexual protections. It made a strong effort during the Commission on the Status of Women meeting in March, although it failed.
Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, also had some choice words regarding human rights and US support for regimes that blatantly violate them.
“If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national-security interests, our economic interests,” Tillerson said.
Reading between the lines, it’s clear that the administration would like to force anti-abortion measures on the international level while simultaneously preventing reproductive measures and contraception, such as that provided by Planned Parenthood. So long as that is clear, other rights really do not matter. In fact, if the US critiques nations such as the United Arab Emirates, Israel, or Saudi Arabia, they might become angry and not partake in business.
That did not stop Pompeo from selecting other regimes to criticize.
“Oppressive regimes like Iran and Cuba have taken advantage of this cacophonous call for ‘rights’, even pretending to be avatars of freedom,” Pompeo wrote.
Alarmingly, members of the newly-inaugurated commission have spoken favorably of countries who are known abusers of human rights. Russell Berman, a Stanford University professor of comparative literature and German studies, gushed with admiration for the Saudi Arabian government when comparing it to that of Iran. Even the Khashoggi issue was not a big deal for Berman, but rather something Trump’s opponents had cooked up to use as midterm elections issue.
Yusuf remarked on how the UAE is a “country committed to tolerance” and “one of the safest countries on earth”, which sounds wild, as even princesses are abused, abducted, or have to flee for their lives.
The commission immediately encountered opposition, both from human rights advocacy groups and Democrats in Congress. “President Trump’s personal affection for gross human rights violators has stained America’s moral fabric,” said Senator Bob Menendez, top ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. The Commission on Unalienable Rights would in fact only weaken protections.
Joanne Lin, National Director of Advocacy and Government Affairs for Amnesty International, criticized the use of a new commission instead of pre-existing institutions. “If this administration truly wanted to support people’s rights, it would use the global framework that’s already in place. Instead, it wants to undermine rights for individuals, as well as the responsibilities of governments,” Lin said.
The truth of the matter, as evidenced by past statements and actions of panel members, seems to be that the Trump administration is not so much concerned with human rights, at least in the sense that most people would think of them. It appears that the administration believes that unalienable rights do not include abortion or reproductive health services, and these matters can be forced across the global. However, regimes that systematically oppress their people are fine, apparently, because they allow the US government to carry out its policies abroad. Unless those regimes are Iran or Cuba, in which case they are total human rights abusers.