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On Monday the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the Trump administration has created the Commission on Unalienable Rights to investigate the extent to which human rights contribute to American foreign policy. This will be the most comprehensive review of human rights since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the U.N. General Assembly. This proposed revision of human rights by Pompeo aims to distinguish between original unalienable rights and ‘ad hoc rights’ that have been added since the end of the Cold War. This commission has drawn much criticism from lawmakers and activists alike, as many believe it to be an attempt to minimalize abortion and LGBTQ rights.
Pompeo has stated that the country must be “vigilant that human rights discourse not be corrupted or hijacked or used for dubious malignant purposes”. He has described how human rights have “proliferated” which has led states to conflict as they question which rights should or should not be respected or considered valid. Therefore, Pompeo hopes 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? How do we know or how do we determine whether that claim that this or that is a human right? Is it true, and therefore ought to be honoured?”
In stark contrast to this many democratic senators have in a letter expressed their dismay at the commission which is being held without congressional oversight. With several of the selected panel members reported to be in support of discriminatory policies against minorities, such as the Commission’s chairperson Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard Law School professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. Glendon turned down an honour from Notre Dame the same year that former President Barack Obama was scheduled to deliver a commencement address over his support for abortion rights. This has prompted fear in Democrats with the letter stating that the commission may “hold views hostile to women’s rights, and/or to support positions at odds with US treaty obligations”.
Joanne Lin, the national director of advocacy and government affairs for Amnesty International U.S.A. said, “if this administration truly wanted to support people’s rights it would use the global framework that is already in place”.
Modern human rights are grounded in the belief that all humans deserve dignity. These are the rights that gained bipartisan international consensus following the aftermath of the Holocaust, and America became a beacon for defending them. However, in more recent times it would appear that the American track record is diminishing, the original champion is taking more of a back seat approach to human rights. We have seen the current administration separating migrant children from their families and detaining them in less than humane camps, the state has withdrawn from the U.N. Human Rights Council and, currently, the U.N. Human Rights Committee and Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination are both missing the U.S. as a member. Consequently, it could only appear that Pompeo’s commission is working to disguise the US perspective of human rights’ as being only important when it can be used for their advantage as it tries to create a more conservative rendition of what our rights are.
This approach is limiting and creates a narrower interpretation of what freedoms we as individuals are entitled to, particularly minority groups. This is an approach that is often undertaken by autocrats, as they use human rights groups to deflect from their own human rights abuses. Consequently, with the U.S. still holding superpower status it would appear as if it is affirming this approach. If the U.S. wants to lead by example, this example encourages nations to adopt a disregard for human rights standards and stands to weaken the international and regional bodies which aim to protect them.
This commission comes after the U.S. gave its vehement opposition to the U.N.-backed resolution on combating rape in conflict. While the resolution did pass after a three-hour debate, it was only after the U.S. threatened to use its power of veto if the resolution continued to include references to sexual and reproductive health. This created a watered-down version of the resolution, leading countries such as the U.K., France and Belgium to express their disappointment. This exclusion of sexual and reproductive rights severely impacts both the LGBTQ community, who are often targets during times of conflict, as well as women, who are often victims of rape and may require access to safer terminations.
Human rights exist to protect the dignity of the individual, yet this commission aims to pick and choose which rights should be protected, and for whom. Rather than accepting the narrative that plagues minorities within conflicts, the U.S. would prefer to redefine what is unalienable and how this can allow for their foreign policy to act solely within the interests of conservative values, many of which have regularly undermined the rights of women and the LGBTQ community. If the commission does find and proceed to weaken these individual freedoms, it will place communities of people at risk and create a divide within the framework of human rights.