The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can any good come out of the Commission of Unalienable Rights?

So I’m saying there’s a chance.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unveils the creation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, headed by Mary Ann Glendon, left, a Harvard Law School professor and a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, at the State Department on Monday. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

The idea that the Trump administration would make a contribution to the promotion of human rights seems pretty risible. As president, Trump has gone out of his way to defend Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman — the very authoritarians responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in the world. Indeed, on his first overseas visit to Saudi Arabia, Trump said, “We are not here to lecture. … We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be or how to worship.”

Trump’s State Department has been little better. His first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, interpreted Trump’s “America First” doctrine as a rationale to downgrade human rights discussions. Tillerson’s director of policy planning, Brian Hook, wrote one of the worst policy memos I have ever read, in which he advised the secretary of state to be cynical on human rights: “One useful guideline for a realistic and successful foreign policy is that allies should be treated differently — and better — than adversaries.”

Even outlets that have been sympathetic to the Trump administration have acknowledged that on human rights, it has been wanting. Thomas F. Farr, writing in First Things, acknowledged, “human rights have not played a sufficient role in the Trump administration’s foreign policy so far. ... The deficit has been particularly noticeable in policies toward North Korea, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, each of which presents national security perils for the United States.”

It is in that context that one must appreciate the rather skeptical reaction to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement Monday of a new Commission on Unalienable Rights.

A month before Pompeo’s announcement, Just Security’s Rebecca Hamilton fired a shot across the bow by publishing the commission’s draft charter, observing that it would be staffed by Policy Planning rather than the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. She warned that “the ‘natural law’ language was code for religiously-infused opposition both to reproductive rights and to protections for members of the LGBTQ community.” Just Security remained unpersuaded even after Pompeo’s announcement.

They are not the only skeptics. The New Yorker’s Robin Wright asked the heads of Freedom House and Human Rights Watch to comment, and the responses were not exactly supportive: “Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, expressed concern about the administration’s distinction between ‘unalienable rights’ and ‘ad-hoc rights,’ as well as its ‘seemingly permissive stance on a variety of human-rights abuses’ around the world.” The head of Human Rights Watch was even more dismissive, telling Wright: “We don’t need a commission to figure out that the Trump administration will have little credibility promoting human rights so long as the president continues to embrace autocrats.” Amnesty International’s official statement was, shall we say, unenthusiastic: “This approach only encourages other countries to adopt a disregard for basic human rights standards and risks weakening international, as well as regional frameworks, placing the rights of millions of people around the world in jeopardy.”

So is there any reason for optimism? Maybe a smidgen. I talked to a senior administration official about Pompeo’s thinking behind this initiative. Based on the conversation, two things seemed clear. First, the goal is less to abandon LGBTQ rights and more to focus on the antecedent rights that are prerequisites to even have a conversation about, say, the treatment of transgender individuals. One analogy this official used was that individuals need a lot of things if they’re in the desert, but the first priority is water. Everything else is superfluous without water. Similarly, it sounds like Pompeo wants to prioritize the prevention of bodily harm and torture, because protecting those rights makes marriage rights a possibility. Second, Foggy Bottom was unprepared for the blowback. This official repeatedly insisted to me that unalienable rights did not have to be God-given, and that much of this language had been misconstrued in the press.

If you squint hard, there is a way that this commission could be constructive in the Age of Trump. The president has been God-awful in talking about human rights. One can conceive that if this commission could articulate a bare minimum of human rights, even this president could promote rather than denigrate. For any other president, this would be an unnecessary exercise. For Trump, it is possible that Pompeo could use the work product to alter presidential rhetoric.

So maybe this will work — but color me deeply skeptical. No human rights initiative that manages to alienate the most important human rights NGOs is off to a great start. Pompeo’s Wall Street Journal op-ed explaining the initiative is part of Pompeo’s tradition of writing WSJ op-eds that needlessly alienate stakeholders. Take this paragraph, for example:

The human-rights cause once united people from disparate nations and cultures in the effort to secure fundamental freedoms and fight evils like Nazism, communism and apartheid. We have lost that focus today. Rights claims are often aimed more at rewarding interest groups and dividing humanity into subgroups.
Oppressive regimes like Iran and Cuba have taken advantage of the cacophonous call for “rights,” even pretending to be avatars of freedom.

To put this gently, Pompeo’s potted history of human rights discourse does not resemble my recollection of how international relations has operated in this area. There was never a time when calls for human rights “united people.” Authoritarian regimes were cynical in their approach to human rights norms even during Pompeo’s alleged halcyon days of unity. And last I checked the Nazis abused the human rights of certain subgroups way more than others.

The most obvious problem is that the Trump administration has been equally cynical in its approach to this issue. Pompeo has been a little better than Tillerson, but bring up Saudi Arabia and the gentleman from Kansas turns deaf and dumb. An administration that demands better human rights practices by foreign governments seems to have a difficult time practicing what it preaches.

The commission’s members are primarily conservative but also the kind of individuals that, in normal times, would be taken seriously. These are not normal times. The people running this will need to bend over backward to demonstrate good faith to skeptics. On this issue, the administration they serve has dug a hole for itself. It is possible that this commission can level the ground. It is not very likely.