The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pompeo says protesters and mainstream media are attacking American way of life

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the National Constitution Center about the Commission on Unalienable Rights in Philadelphia on July 16. (Brendan Smialowski/Pool/Reuters)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday that the American way of life and its founding principles are “under attack,” focusing his criticism on voices in the mainstream news media and protesters who have torn down statues of historical figures.

Speaking as he unveiled the first report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, Pompeo said the events roiling the United States are antithetical to the nation’s ideals. Both Pompeo and the 60-page report, made public by the commission after a year of work, said property rights and religious freedom are the foremost unalienable rights.

“And yet today, the very core of what it means to be an American, indeed the American way of life itself, is under attack. Instead of seeking to improve America, leading voices promulgate hatred of our founding principles,” he said in his speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Pompeo had harsh criticism for the New York Times’s 1619 Project, on the history of American slavery, saying its underlying message was that “our country was founded for human bondage.”

“They want you to believe the Marxist ideology that America is only the oppressors and the oppressed,” he said. “The Chinese Communist Party must be gleeful when they see the New York Times spout their ideology.”

He also criticized protesters who have yanked down statues across the country, many of them erected in honor of Confederate officers in the Civil War but also enslaving founders of the nation.

“The rioters pulling down statues thus see nothing wrong with desecrating monuments to those who fought for unalienable rights — from our founding to the present day,” he said. “This is a dark vision of America’s birth. I reject it. It is a disturbed reading of history. It is a slander on our great people. Nothing could be further from the truth!”

Citing Frederick Douglass, an escaped enslaved person and abolitionist who called the Constitution “a glorious liberty document,” Pompeo added, “America is special. America is good. America does good, all around the world.”

The nationwide protests stemming from the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd had not occurred when Pompeo created the Commission on Unalienable Rights a year ago. He directed the academics he appointed to the panel to examine principles of human rights embedded at the dawn of American democracy and said he wanted it to spark debate over human rights at a time when authoritarian governments are committing abuses with abandon.

The commission’s report called the recent civil unrest a testament to “the nation’s unfinished work in overcoming the evil effects of its long history of racial injustice.”

“The credibility of U.S. advocacy for human rights abroad depends on the nation’s vigilance in assuring that all its own citizens enjoy fundamental human rights,” the report said. “With the eyes of the world upon her, America must show the same honest self-examination and efforts at improvement that she expects of others. America’s dedication to unalienable rights — the rights all human beings share — demands no less.”

Controversy has swirled around the commission since its creation. Its 11 members are predominantly professors and scholars. They include three women, one African American, one Asian, a rabbi and the president of a Muslim liberal arts college. Seven members are white men.

Hundreds of human rights advocates and former diplomats have signed letters objecting to the panel’s mission, saying it suggests some rights have more priority than others. A coalition of rights groups filed a lawsuit saying the commission aims to undercut rights for LGBT people, restrict reproductive and sexual rights, and erode protections for marginalized people.

Although some of the commission members have spoken out publicly against abortion and same-sex marriage, those topics are not dealt with at length in the report. The document mentions abortion twice in passing, and same-sex marriage, affirmative action and capital punishment briefly as examples of social and political controversies. The report says the commission members did not all agree on whether they were human rights issues.

A senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the commission’s internal deliberations, said the goal is not to weigh in on unalienable rights granted by God over “positive rights” agreed on by governments, but to get people thinking about which are the most fundamental.

“The report doesn’t say those rights are meaningless, get rid of them,” the official said. “The report does not say this one is better than that one. It affirms some rights are extremely important and we should protect them at all costs. But you can’t protect every right, everywhere, at all times.”

Some human rights groups immediately criticized Pompeo’s remarks and the report.

“There’s a tone-deafness for the moment we’re in,” said Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Center. “This is yet another tool in the arsenal of U.S. attacks on multilateralism. This is about all the other things the Trump administration has done to undermine and decimate the human rights system because they don’t like where it’s going.”

Rob Berschinski, vice president of policy for Human Rights First, said Pompeo is trying to recast American foreign policy in line with his personal religious and political views.

“Secretary Pompeo’s speech today on the Commission on the Unalienable Rights loosely clothed a foray into the culture wars under the seal of the U.S. State Department,” he said. “It should rightfully be seen as a political speech unbecoming of a secretary of state.”

Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Pompeo’s speech suggested a “hierarchy of rights,” where some are not worth defending.

“By justifying the roll back of hard-won advances for the rights of women, girls, and LGBTQ persons, Secretary Pompeo detailed a report that does not call on the U.S. Government to champion greater protections for all human rights abroad, but may in fact narrow the scope of U.S. human rights obligations and further erode America’s moral and global leadership,” Menendez said in a statement.