He quickly pivoted from the 1948 U.N. declaration that is the cornerstone of contemporary human rights principles to the views espoused by the Commission on Unalienable Rights, which he created last year. The panel has drawn criticism for giving primacy to freedom of religion and property rights, raising concerns that it could undercut protections for women, gay people and other minorities.
Pompeo said he hoped the commission’s report would inspire other countries to examine their moral, philosophical and religious traditions in reaffirming a commitment to human rights.
“We must defend unalienable rights today because the international human rights project is in crisis,” Pompeo said. “Authoritarian governments, from China to Iran to Venezuela, are depriving our fellow human beings of their basic rights.
“Many multinational organizations have lost their way, focusing on partisan policy preferences while failing to defend fundamental rights. And even many well-intentioned people assert certain novel rights that often conflict.”
The virtual event was part of the State Department’s attempt to internationalize its vision of human rights, in which some rights have more weight than others and all rights depend to some degree on religious freedom. It is a theme Pompeo returns to frequently.
“Authoritarianism almost always follows the oppression of religion,” Pompeo said Tuesday night in an interview with Tony Perkins of the Values Voter Summit. “Pushing religion out of the public square drives oppression, drives authoritarian regimes, and really gets at human dignity.”
European nations have been particularly skittish about this interpretation.
The U.S. mission to the United Nations later Wednesday released a list of 57 countries that have joined a U.S.-drafted statement recognizing the universal declaration’s ideal that “certain principles are so fundamental as to apply to all human beings, everywhere, at all times.”
Among them 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. Other European countries, such as France, Britain and Germany, were absent.
The event reignited a controversy that has been brewing since Pompeo created the commission chaired by Mary Ann Glendon, who was Pompeo’s professor and mentor when he attended Harvard Law School. Glendon is the author of a book on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was hammered together under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt in the aftermath of the Holocaust and World War II.
The document has been reinterpreted over the decades to ensure that it provides protections for groups not specifically mentioned 72 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.
The commission’s report asserts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was focused on a “small set of rights” with near-unanimous consensus. It says that dozens of treaties and organizations created since then protect other rights, and that expanding the common understanding of what is a human right has made many disadvantaged groups more vulnerable and weakened the human rights framework.
Though the United States asked other democracies to join in the virtual event, the European Union urged its member states not to participate. Many human rights organizations in turn emailed diplomats suggesting that they show up and explain why they don’t support the U.S. views.
It was unclear how many participated. Besides Pompeo, the event featured introductory remarks by Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and a roundtable with Glendon, an Indonesian Muslim scholar and a Chinese human rights advocate who spoke on the principles rooted in Confucian philosophy.
A European diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions, described the U.S. approach as “cherry picking” some rights over others and said few were interested in attending.
“It’s probably more of a Pompeo show, not a hugely interactive event,” the diplomat said before the event started. “If you made it too interactive, it could get embarrassing.”
Human Rights Watch called on U.N. Secretary General António Guterres to publicly express concerns about the U.S.-hosted event.
“The U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights is a deeply misguided enterprise with the potential to undermine human rights protections that governments find disagreeable,” said Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. director for Human Rights Watch. “The commission promotes the false premise that too many people, particularly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and women, are asserting their rights.”
Other advocates rebuked Pompeo for his emphasis on religion, to the exclusion of other rights.
“Pompeo also noted that foreign governments should ‘turn to their own traditions’ concerning human rights,” said Rob Berschinski, senior vice president for policy at Human Rights First. “Whether with respect to the mullahs in Tehran or the theocrats in Riyadh, messages like this send a green light to those who choose to point to ‘tradition’ to violate the rights of women, religious minorities and other historically marginalized groups.”