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Opinion Mike Pompeo wants to nationalize human rights

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks onstage before speaking at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on July 18, 2019. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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Rori Kramer is the director of U.S. advocacy for American Jewish World Service. She is a former deputy assistant secretary of state and previously worked as a senior foreign policy adviser in the Senate.

On Thursday, just steps away from where the Declaration of Independence was signed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will unveil his views on human rights. Pompeo’s vision, supported by the work of his Commission on Unalienable Rights, is a partisan effort to roll back U.S. support for universal human rights. As a former State Department official, I fear some of the most marginalized people around the world will be worse off if Pompeo succeeds.

Pompeo created this commission last year, ostensibly to address his concerns about shortcomings in the international human rights system. That system can — and should — be strengthened. But Pompeo’s approach suggests that instead he seeks to reinterpret human rights within a narrow and highly partisan agenda. For the members of his commission he has selected a dozen conservative academics, moral philosophers and theologians, most of whom appear to have little to no practical experience with human rights. Pompeo has also kept the group’s work mostly private — in defiance of federal rules for public commissions and in spite of a lawsuit by public interest groups.

The commission was charged with bringing the role of human rights in U.S. diplomacy into closer conformity with our founding principles. Its final recommendation will likely pay lip service to these ideals. But the commission’s few open meetings suggest the group will almost certainly champion the religious liberty of right-wing conservatives over the rights of the many, specifically women and LGBTQI+ people. In a speech to a conservative political group last year, Pompeo remarked that he was confident the commission would elevate “this right to religious freedom, the most important freedom in many respects.”

When the United Nations adopted its foundational statement on rights in 1948, there’s a reason why they decided to call it the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The authors made clear that the rights they enumerated applied to all human beings, regardless of origin or status. By the same token, the declaration pointedly declined to elevate certain rights over others, since its authors were all too aware that this opened the path to selective interpretations of its principles. Most of the fundamental texts of human rights since then have elaborated on the theme — such as the United Nations’s 1993 Vienna Declaration, which stated that all human rights are “universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated.”

Pompeo’s effort to redefine human rights correspondingly runs two serious risks.

First, purposefully confusing the individual freedom to worship with a state license to advance a particular religious agenda is a gross misreading of the United States’ founding document. Pompeo’s vision would weaken U.S. moral authority by redefining who is protected under U.S. foreign policy. We know from the public record that Pompeo’s conservative worldview downplays threats to the human rights of the world’s most vulnerable groups, such as women and LGBTQI+ people.

We have already seen Pompeo’s State Department remove references to sexual and reproductive health from international resolutions and statements, as well as from the work of the department itself. And he has dramatically expanded the global gag rule, the draconian policy which prohibits foreign organizations receiving U.S. funding from providing any kind of information, referrals or services about abortion.

Second, other governments and enemies of human rights will cite the commission’s declaration to deny whatever rights they find domestically inconvenient. Governments in countries such as Brazil, Hungary, Poland and Russia have already used the defense of religion as an excuse to restrict civil liberties, and the commission’s conclusions could end up legitimizing such trends.

Meanwhile, authoritarian governments such as China and Iran will use Pompeo’s approach to accuse the United States of promoting only those rights that it finds convenient. Peter Berkowitz, the commission’s executive secretary, has dismissed such concerns as “naive.” Yet Berkowitz’s argument, which insists that a country should be allowed to interpret human rights in accordance with its “national traditions,” could have been written in Beijing. This argument effectively makes the violation of some human rights acceptable, no matter who makes it.

There are those (such as Berkowitz) who shrug off such concerns, arguing that despots will do what they do regardless of U.S. statements. Yet words matter. Our own founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, are “just words” in the end. Their dismissal misses the crucial point: Any effort by Pompeo and his commission to restrict universal human rights brings us a step closer to the actions of those pariah countries they have criticized.

Given the commission’s low profile so far, it’s difficult to know precisely what its conclusions will be. The commission may well couch its findings in vague and reassuring language. But champions of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness will be well-advised to keep careful watch on how Pompeo and his allies choose to apply the new principles to the State Department’s internal workings and U.S. foreign policy more broadly.

The United States was — and must continue to be — dedicated to the proposition that unalienable rights are universal. They need no national interpretation.

Read more:

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Jennifer Rubin: Mike Pompeo’s scandals big and small erode his dwindling credibility

David Ignatius: Mike Pompeo offers a telling explanation for why he fired Steve Linick

Hugh Hewitt: This Supreme Court term was a win for religious conservatives. We can thank Trump.