The Honorable Michael Pompeo Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State Washington, D.C. 20520
Dear Secretary Pompeo:
We, the undersigned U.S. foreign policy, human rights, civil liberties, social justice, and faith leaders, experts, scholars, and organizations, write to express our deep concern with the Department of State’s recently announced Commission on Unalienable Rights. We object to the Commission’s stated purpose, which we find harmful to the global effort to protect the rights of all people and a waste of resources; the Commission’s make-up, which lacks ideological diversity and appears to reflect a clear interest in limiting human rights, including the rights of women and LGBTQI individuals; and the process by which the Commission came into being and is being administered, which has sidelined human rights experts in the State Department’s own Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL).
We urge you to immediately disband this body, and to focus your personal attention on the significant challenges currently facing the protection of human rights globally.
As you said when you launched the Commission and affirmed the importance of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), “the language of human rights has become the common vernacular for discussions of human freedom and dignity all around the world, and these are truly great achievements.” The UDHR begins by declaring that the recognition of the equal and inalienable rights “of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace.”
In the United States, the story of the past two and a half centuries is in many ways one of the as-of-yet unfinished recognition of these rights for African Americans and other minorities, women, LGBTQI people, people with disabilities, children, and other marginalized populations, often via immense struggle against those who would limit rights to a privileged few. Likewise, the story of the international human rights movement is one of the deepened recognition and protective reach of rights based on the painstaking work of social movements, scholars, and diplomats, through international agreements and law.
Given this history, we view with great misgiving a body established by the U.S. government aimed expressly at circumscribing rights through an artificial sorting of those that are “unalienable” and those to be now deemed “ad hoc.” These terms simply have no place in human rights discourse. It is a fundamental tenet of human rights that all rights are universal and equal. Governments cannot take or discard them as they choose. Like other governments, the U.S. government is bound to certain obligations codified in widely ratified international treaties. At best, an exercise seemingly geared toward objecting to this well-established fact presents a waste of time and energy better spent on actual human rights issues. More ominously, the reference to “ad hoc” rights resembles language used by autocratic and dictatorial governments, which frequently speak in terms of a hierarchy of rights.
We are likewise dismayed by the well-documented views of a significant majority of the Commission’s 10 members. Taken as a whole, the Commission clearly fails to achieve the legal requirement that a federal advisory committee “be fairly balanced in its membership in terms of the points of view represented and the functions to be performed.” Almost all of the Commission’s members have focused their professional lives and scholarship on questions of religious freedom, and some have sought to elevate it above other fundamental rights. The right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is a fundamental right, but one of among 30 such rights enshrined in the UDHR. No Commissioner focuses nearly as exclusively on any other issue of pressing concern contained with the UDHR, including the right to asylum, the right to be free from torture, the right to equal protection against any discrimination, or any of the UDHR’s enumerated economic, social, and cultural rights, among other topics.
Moreover, the Commission’s chair and members are overwhelmingly clergy or scholars known for extreme positions opposing LGBTQI and reproductive rights, and some have taken public stances in support of indefensible human rights violations. The Commission’s chair has stated that marriage equality undercuts the welfare of children. A Commission member has similarly stated that “the unavoidable message” of same-sex marriage “is a profoundly false and damaging one.” A third Commission member has argued against the use of contraception even when that use is meant to limit the spread of disease. A fourth has described questions of gender identity as “a matter of mental illness or some other pathology” and “a mark of a heartless culture.” A fifth has suggested that widespread outrage at the Saudi Arabian government’s premeditated murder and dismemberment of journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi is grounded in U.S. domestic political considerations. A sixth has described the government of the United Arab Emirates as one “committed to tolerance…committed to civil society,” despite that government’s egregious and well-documented human rights record at home and abroad.
These are deeply troubling positions, and it is our firm belief that individuals who hold such views have no place on a commission tasked with the promotion and protection of universal rights.
Finally, we are alarmed by reports and statements reflecting the fact that the Commission was established without the input of DRL, which is tasked by law with advising the Secretary of State, through its Assistant Secretary, on matters pertaining to democracy and human rights. We find the notion that the Commission will focus on “principles” but not “policy” to be a distinction without a meaningful difference. In this regard, we note that the office charged by you with supporting the Commission’s work is aptly named “Policy Planning.”
Taxpayer resources should simply not be wasted on this Commission. A body created by this administration, with the mandate and members you have made public, lacks real credibility. Its findings will have no weight or ability to redefine human rights.
Rather than continue with this Commission, we urge you to use the resources of your office to take action on the great many grave human rights issues facing the world today, including those—like the treatment of asylum seekers and administration rhetoric and policy supportive of some of the world’s leading human rights violators— you have the power to improve directly.
Thank you for your time and attention to this important matter.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.