In July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a new Commission on Unalienable Rights. This new commission will distinguish between the “unalienable rights” of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and “ad hoc rights” added after the Cold War. By making this distinction, based upon a deeply conservative definition of human rights, however, Pompeo’s commission will actually threaten sexual equality, LGBTQ rights and reproductive health globally.
Pompeo’s definition of “unalienable rights” draws on the ideas of a legal scholar who has staked her career on making a stark distinction between human rights and women’s rights. Mary Ann Glendon is a Harvard Law School professor, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage and abortion. Pompeo has not just drawn on Glendon’s ideas but also appointed her as the head of the new commission. According to Glendon, “Human rights are women’s rights. … But it is not the case that whatever a particular nation state decides to call a woman’s ‘right’ is necessarily a universal human right.”
Differentiating between “unalienable rights” and “ad hoc rights” does the same thing as Glendon’s contrast between human rights and women’s rights: They both narrow the meaning of human rights to the natural law and rights of the U.S. political tradition. This undermines the international feminist movement and other movements for social, economic and racial justice that have driven the development of universal human rights over the 20th century. Such a definition legitimizes, for instance, Pompeo’s recent expansion of the Mexico City Policy, also known as the global gag rule, which denies U.S. foreign aid to organizations offering abortion-related services or advocacy. This in turn deprives communities of access to family planning, HIV prevention and treatment, cervical cancer screenings, and prenatal and other forms of health care. It also serves as a model for the new “domestic gag rule” that President Trump’s administration has announced to block Title X funding from health providers offering abortion or information about abortion.
This politically motivated human rights distinction is not only dangerous; it is also historically inaccurate. Many believe that it was Hillary Clinton who initiated the idea that “women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights” in her famous speech at the 1995 U.N. World Conference on Women at Beijing. But women’s rights have been central to international human rights long before Clinton’s speech and long before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, early 20th-century feminist efforts to make women’s rights human rights helped make the Universal Declaration possible.
Starting in the 1920s, Latin American feminists pioneered innovations in international law. Working with U.S. feminists, they created the first intergovernmental organization in the world to promote women’s rights, the Inter-American Commission of Women, and one of the first international treaties to demand individual rights, the Equal Rights Treaty, which called for signatory nations to grant women and men equal rights under the law.
A number of dedicated advocates pushed this proto-human rights treaty into Pan-American and League of Nations meetings. Four Latin American countries signed the Equal Rights Treaty in 1933 (Cuba, Paraguay, Uruguay and Ecuador). The U.S. refused, claiming that women’s rights fell under domestic rather than international jurisdiction.
Drawing on long histories of Latin American solidarity against U.S. imperialism, Latin American feminists also shaped the meaning of the treaty. They emphasized not only equal political and civil rights under the law but also economic and social rights, including state-sponsored maternity leave and child care for working women. Mobilizing around this treaty in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Panama and other countries, feminists mounted successful campaigns for voting rights, maternity legislation and equal pay for equal work laws.
In the 1930s and ’40s, their demands for international women’s rights became more urgent in the face of rising fascism across the globe. Latin American advocates merged their calls for women’s rights with growing demands for what were now being called “human rights”— rights for all regardless of race, religion, sex or class, and for social and economic rights espoused in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and Atlantic Charter. In the late 1930s, Latin American feminists’ work for international women’s rights became a model for new inter-American treaties committed to the “rights … of all individuals regardless of race or religion” and to social and economic rights.
Recognition of their leadership resulted in the appointment of numerous Latin American feminists to their countries’ delegations to the 1945 San Francisco conference that created the United Nations. There, Bertha Lutz from Brazil, Minerva Bernardino from the Dominican Republic, Amalia de Castillo Ledón from Mexico and Isabel Pinto de Vidal from Uruguay worked with representatives from the “smaller nations” and with various NGOs such as the NAACP to push human rights in the U.N. Charter. Despite opposition from U.S. and British feminists who worried about stoking controversy, these Latin American women pushed women’s rights into several parts of the charter, including its definition of human rights, and proposed what became the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women.
After 1945, inter-American feminists upheld the U.N. Charter’s human rights promises as including the rights of all people to move and migrate freely; to live free of racism, imperialism and state violence; and to have access to health care. They spoke out against U.S. imperialism and the buildup of nuclear weapons.
Their expansive definition of human rights that included women’s rights was eventually adopted in the 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights when a number of Latin American feminists worked behind the scenes on its wording. They worked closely with other feminists from the global south, including Hansa Mehta from India (one of the two women on the commission, with Eleanor Roosevelt), who was responsible for Article 1 reading “All human beings are born free and equal” rather than “All men are born free and equal.”
In another instance, Castillo Ledón reshaped the definition of “family” in Article 16 so it was not defined by marriage alone. This work stemmed from Latin American feminists’ long-standing efforts to protect the rights of children born out of wedlock and their mothers, and explicitly push back against Catholic doctrine.
The pivotal work of Latin American feminists in shaping human rights and the Universal Declaration has gone almost entirely overlooked by scholars, including Glendon, who wrote a book about the drafting of the 1948 Declaration, “A World Made New” (2001). Her book mentions Mehta but neglects Castillo Ledón’s successful effort to expand the definition of “family.” Such acknowledgment would challenge Glendon’s own objection to same-sex marriage, which she has claimed is dangerous to children because it teaches that “alternative family forms are just as good as a husband and wife raising kids together.”
Reclaiming the longer feminist and inter-American history behind human rights matters because it invalidates the divide that Glendon and Pompeo are now fabricating. It also challenges the idea that human rights are simply a domestic product of the United States. If Pompeo wanted “a moral foreign policy” based on the origins of human rights as he has said, he should look to the Latin American feminists who pioneered human rights. They knew that individual political and civil rights could not be parsed from collective or social rights, and that women’s rights could not be separated from human rights.
They also knew human rights could only thrive in a world free of U.S. empire. At a time when the United States is in flagrant violation of many international human rights norms, we should reclaim this history — and then live up to it.