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State Department launches panel focused on human rights and natural law

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in past remarks about the creation of his Commission on Unalienable Rights, said he felt it was important to evaluate “how we think about human rights inside of our efforts in diplomacy.” (Jacquelyn Martin/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday announced the creation of an advisory commission on human rights that has engendered controversy since it was proposed.

Pompeo said the Commission on Unalienable Rights “will provide the intellectual grist of what I hope will be one of the most profound re-examinations of inalienable rights in the world since the 1948 Universal Declaration.”

The panel will be headed by Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard Law School professor who wrote a book about the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Pompeo was Glendon’s research assistant when he studied law at Harvard. Glendon is also a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

Besides her academic research, Glendon is known for her antiabortion views. At the 1995 U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing, she fought successfully to keep abortion from being listed as a human right.

In thanking Pompeo for the appointment, Glendon said this is a time when “basic human rights are being misunderstood by many, manipulated by many and ignored by the world’s worst human rights violators.”

Some civil rights groups expressed concerns that the new commission could become a vehicle to chip away at same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Jamil Dakwar, head of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program, said it is an attempt to redefine human rights and “to roll back decades of progress in achieving full rights for marginalized communities.”

When the panel was first outlined in an internal State Department memo, the proposed chair was Robert P. George, a Princeton University professor who was a co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposed same-sex marriage, and a prominent antiabortion advocate.

A State Department official said that George will not be on the commission and that the panel will not weigh in on either issue.

“They will not make any pronouncements on gay marriage and abortion,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preview plans for the commission.

Its work is likely to be heavily scrutinized, nevertheless. The commission’s job is to provide “fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights,” according to a notice published in May in the Federal Register.

The mention of natural law, a philosophy that all human beings are endowed with certain rights, set off alarm among advocates of legal abortion and same-sex marriage. The phrase is used by those who argue that basic human rights — such as free speech and the expectation that governments should not torture people — are made vulnerable when social goods such as education, health care and clean water are elevated to the characterization of human rights.

Daniel Philpott, a University of Notre Dame professor who was initially mentioned as a potential commission member, said that natural law reflects a concern that human rights have gone off the rails, in part because of abortion and claims about marriage rights.

“The idea is these claims of human rights are not based upon natural law or the truth of the human person,” he said. “In a sense, these are false claims to human rights. It brings down the cause of human rights in general. Why should we pursue other human rights if human rights can be anything one faction or party advocates them to be?”

Last month, five Democratic senators sent Pompeo a letter expressing concern about the commission’s focus on natural law, calling it “a term sometimes used in association with discrimination against marginalized populations.”

Proponents of a reassessment say perceptions of what qualifies as a human right have evolved since the days when it took a gross abuse, such as a gulag or apartheid, to raise significant concern. Pompeo appeared to endorse that view, saying the commission will ask the most basic of questions.

“What does it mean to say or claim that something is in fact a human right?” he said. “How do we know or how do we determine whether that claim, that this or that is a human right? Is it true and therefore ought it to be honored?”

The commission is composed of experts, philosophers and human rights activists from every political persuasion. Pompeo said their deliberations will be grounded in the nation’s “founding principles” and those included in the U.N. document on human rights.

“Every once in a while we need to step back and reflect seriously on where we are, where we’ve been and whether we’re headed in the right direction,” he said.

Pompeo bemoaned the continuing human rights violations that persist seven decades after the declaration was drafted and said multinational institutions that are supposed to police human rights have not proved up to the task amid confusion on what constitutes a human right.

“We must therefore be vigilant that human rights discourse not be corrupted or hijacked or used for dubious or malignant purposes,” he said.

The commission will get input from the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL), which already produces annual reports rating countries on their records for human rights and religious liberty. Critics have wondered whether the volunteer panel will undermine the bureau, which for more than four decades has been responsible for holding abusive governments to account.

“We don’t need this commission,” said Michael Posner, the State Department’s assistant secretary for DRL from 2009 to 2013. “What we need is for the U.S. government, the secretary of state and the president to abide by and uphold international human rights standards we already have adopted.”

Modern human rights law is rooted both in religious concepts and experience. Many of the basic principles are embedded in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which in turn formed the basis for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations after World War II and the Holocaust.

William L. Saunders, a human rights scholar at Catholic University who also was mentioned as a potential commission candidate, said that getting input from experts outside of government is sensible.

“I would think the Universal Declaration will guide and shape reflection by the new commission,” he said in an email.

Pompeo has spoken out about human rights abuses in some countries, including China’s detention of Uighur Muslims, Iran’s treatment of religious and ethnic minorities, and the repressive policies of Cuba and Venezuela.

“The distinctive mark of Western civilization is the belief in the inherent worth of human beings, with the attendant respect for God-authored rights and liberties,” Pompeo said in a May speech at the Claremont Institute. “Indeed, the Declaration says that ‘all men are created equal.’ And we ought to help nations protect these first things — and human rights, as well.”

Critics, however, have faulted him for not saying more about abuses committed by governments friendly to the United States. The administration’s response to last year’s killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi remains a particular concern.

“When Mr. Khashoggi gets murdered in Turkey and we know there’s a senior Saudi leader, the crown prince, involved, we ought to be saying something about it,” said Posner, the former DRL head. “When the government of the Philippines is executing thousands of people, we ought to be saying something. When a free press is denied a place in Turkey, we ought to say something.

“That’s what diplomacy is about,” he said. “That’s what DRL has done for 40-some years. The idea that we need fresh thinking or need to somehow revise and rethink what the principles are flies in the face of that history and experience.”