The Declaration of Independence promises that all people are inherently afforded, by sheer virtue of existence, certain inalienable rights. A new Trump Administration commission seeks to limit the scope of those inalienable rights.
In an opinion piece over the weekend, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lamented that the concept of human rights had “lost focus,” and so announced his Unalienable Rights commission to address the way human rights affect foreign policy.
(Side note, the fight over “inalienable” versus “unalienable” dates back to the Declaration itself, but isn’t an important distinction for this conversation — Pompeo chose one, Thomas Jefferson chose the other.)
.@amnesty scoffs at Pompeo's announcement on the formation of a human rights commission: "This administration has actively worked to deny and take away long-standing human rights protections since Trump's inauguration…" pic.twitter.com/1JqiZFtX32
— John Haltiwanger (@jchaltiwanger) July 8, 2019
“Every once in a while we need to step back and reflect seriously on where we are, where we’ve been and whether we’re headed in the right direction,” said Pompeo. ” I hope that the commission will revisit the most basic of questions: What does it mean to claim something is, in fact, a human right?”
“Words like ‘rights’ can be used for good or evil,” he added.
The commission has been months in the making, with references to a commission on natural rights and natural law under Pompeo’s purview dating back to May. But the tone of its announcement, and the use of the phrase “natural law,” has alarmed some.
The phrase is linked to anti-LGBT philosophies and activism. Natural law, some argue, dictates that gender is the same as sex assigned by doctors at birth and that men and women must exclusively form heterosexual romantic pairs because, the argument states, this is the law of nature.
Pompeo’s commission has been hailed by Tony Perkins, leader of the SPLC-designated anti-gay hate group the Family Research Council as a victory, stating that the concept of human rights loses its meaning if applied to too many different concepts. He was confident, however, that the commission would further the cause of religious freedom which is regularly used to fight against LGBT rights.
Beyond its connection to homophobia, the Commission sports anti-abortion credentials as well. Though a senior State Department official did say issues like gay rights or abortion rights will not be part of the panel’s purview.
“Women’s rights or gay rights or healthcare rights, those are domestic issues,” the official said, distinguishing them from unalienable rights. “At some point gay marriage might be considered one of those, but this is an issue that’s being worked out on a nation-state level.”
The commission will be helmed by Mary Ann Glendon, former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican. Glendon is a far-right ideologue with both anti-abortion and anti-gay credentials who once compared the Boston Globe to Osama bin Laden following the paper’s coverage of clerical sex abuses.
It also is somewhat alarming to have human rights dictated by a government accused of violating the human rights of migrants held in detention camps — characterized as “concentration camps” by members of Congress.
“This is an attempt to pull back a US human rights vision that we’ve had for decades and create this new vision that uses these new terms like ‘unalienable rights’ or ‘natural rights’ or ‘natural law,’ ” said Jeremy Kadden, senior international policy advocate for the Human Rights Campaign. “These are all things that have been used by extremist people on the far right, to create a gap between what they consider unalienable rights and alienable rights.”
Pompeo touts the new reassessment of what is and is not an inalienable human right as the most exhaustive exploration of the concept since the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It should be noted that the United States left the UN’s Human Rights Council last fall.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.