Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a culture war speech at the U.S. Constitution Center in Philadelphia Thursday shortly before his controversial Commission on Unalienable Rights released its draft report declaring property rights and religious liberty “foremost” “unalienable rights.”
Pompeo created the Commission on Unalienable Rights last year, warning against human rights “inflation”—suggesting that there has been a proliferation of haphazardly created human rights—and bypassing the State Department’s existing human rights infrastructure. He packed the commission with mostly conservative academics and gave them the assignment of reconsidering United States human rights policies in the context of natural law, the founding principles of the U.S., and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations after World War II. In April, Pompeo said the commission would return U.S. human rights policy to the “Judeo-Christian tradition on which this country was founded.”
While anti-LGBTQ groups have been excited about the commission from the start, national and international human rights groups have been outspoken critics of the commission throughout its tenure, sounding the alarm about Pompeo’s apparent intention to elevate religious liberty above other human rights embedded in international agreements. Full disclosure: This author was among hundreds of foreign policy, human rights, civil liberties, social justice, and faith leaders, experts, scholars, and organizations, that signed a letter last year urging Pompeo to disband the commission.
Those fears were confirmed by the draft report and Pompeo’s speech, which stated that “foremost” among human rights are property rights and religious liberty. Pompeo said that “a rapidly expanding catalog of rights” risks “trivializing core American values.”
Here’s more from his speech:
Americans have not only unalienable rights but also positive rights, rights granted by governments, courts, multilateral bodies. Many are worth defending in light of our founding. Others aren’t … human rights advocates won great and laudable victories in our lifetimes, from the defeat of fascism to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and to the end of apartheid. But that was then.
Now, he charged, many human rights advocacy groups “have traded proud principles for partisan politics,” while international human rights bodies have failed to uphold unalienable rights. “The vital 20th Century human rights project has come unmoored,” he said. He continued:
I established this commission because America, uniquely among nations, has the capacity to champion human rights and the dignity of every human being made in the image of God, no matter their nation. But to do so effectively, we must insist on the rightness and the relevance of America’s founding principles. Surely, if America loses them, she loses her soul and our capacity to do good around the world. If we adhere to them, we will reflect it we replenish that capacity.
Pompeo praised President Donald Trump’s divisive speech at Mount Rushmore while trashing the New York Times’s 1619 project, which reframes the history of the U.S. around the consequences of slavery and which Pompeo accused of promoting “Marxist ideology.” Speaking of current protests and public debate around systemic racism, he charged that “too many leading voices promulgate hatred of our founding principles.”
Human rights advocates have criticized the commission’s draft report. Reps. Jared Huffman,D-C.A.) and Jamie Raskin,D-M.D, founders of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, released a statement that said in part:
As we feared, this report does not enshrine essential human rights but rather confuses the whole field by downgrading political and civil rights and promoting a muddled and airily abstract interpretation of religious freedom. While invoking ‘Protestant Christianity’ first as a founding ethos for America, Secretary Pompeo’s report cautions against ‘new claims of human rights,’ and warns that ‘the tendency to fight political battles with the vocabulary of human rights risks stifling the kind of robust discussion on which a vibrant democracy depends.’ We fear that such slippery, equivocating language is intended to devalue LGBTQ+ rights and women’s reproductive rights and relegate them to mere ‘claims.’ While often pretending to some kind of abstract universal ambition for the rights of people, the authors cannot resist throwing rhetorical bones to the Religious Right and its war on personal freedom in America.
Moreover, this report may lend credence to a foreign policy that disregards our international human rights framework in favor of a narrower interpretation of fundamental property and majority religious rights, one that allows for increased discrimination against political dissidents, women, and minority groups.
Amnesty International’s Americas director Erika Guevara-Rosas decried the report, saying in a statement,
The Department of State’s effort to cherry-pick human rights – in order to unlawfully deny the rights of women, LGBTI people and others – is a dangerous political stunt that could spark a race to the bottom by human rights-abusing governments around the world. This report, made through an illegitimate process, only further shows the contempt this administration has for human rights and its desire to excise certain rights for political gain.
The Council for Global Equality called the draft report “a mishmash of pontifications and sophistry—reflecting perhaps Pompeo’s political aspirations as much as his narrow, hard-right-religious worldview.” A CGE blog post said:
The basic message of this report sounds respectful but is deeply concerning as it argues that countries must have ‘leeway to base their human rights policy on their own distinctive national traditions.’ Claiming that this is a nuanced – not relativistic – approach, it still hands dictators a roadmap to justify abuses based on their culture, religion and national traditions.
Among the takeaways from the report, according to CGE, is “that abortion, affirmative action, and same same-sex marriage’ are ‘divisive social and political controversies in the United States’—in other words, not really human rights, and certainly not unalienable.”
The public has two weeks to comment on the report before it is made final; the report is advisory in nature and carries no legal weight but is expected to be used by Pompeo to provide justification for his opposition to international support for reproductive choice and LGBTQ equality.
Katherine Stewart, author of “The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism” wrote several days before the release of the report that Pompeo’s tenure reflects a dangerous alliance between “America’s Christian nationalists and like-minded religious nationalists in other countries.” The report buttresses Pompeo’s advocacy for deference to “pro-family” religious traditionalists in other countries, stating, “the United States should respect the independence and sovereignty of nation-states to make their own moral and political decisions that affirm universal human rights within the limits set forth in the [Universal Declaration of Human Rights].”
Pompeo, who has bragged about using his official travel as an opportunity to evangelize and has helped open doors for a conservative Christian ministry seeking access to foreign officials, reportedly has his eyes on a presidential run. The day after his speech in Philadelphia, he headed to Iowa to address the religious-right Family Leader Summit.
In Iowa, Pompeo was introduced by his wife, who credited his rise in government to “the hand of God.” He titled his speech, “My Faith, My Work, My Country.” Pompeo praised various aspects of Trump administration foreign policy, including its promotion of religious freedom internationally, and talked about how his faith shapes his work in the Middle East and elsewhere. And he mentioned the work that he and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar have done to mobilize anti-abortion activism at the United Nations.