October 20, 2019

Commission on Unalienable Rights

On May 30, without fanfare, a notice of intent to establish a State Department Commission on Unalienable Rights was published in the Federal Register. The stated purpose of the Commission is to provide “fresh thinking about human rights” and propose “reforms of human rights discourse where it has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights…to which [Dr. Martin Luther] King called us while standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.”

The Commission’s draft Charter, obtained by Just Security, goes beyond the notice of intent in describing the Commission’s duties as including “advice and recommendations, for the secretary’s approval, to guide U.S. diplomatic and foreign policy decisions and actions with respect to human rights in international settings.” This raises concerns that the Commission, which will have the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning “supply all staff and support functions” and offer guidance directly to Secretary Pompeo, is designed to bypass the Office of Legal Adviser and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

Initial reporting on the Commission, by Nahal Toosi at Politico, highlighted concerns of human rights activists that the “natural law” language was code for religiously-infused opposition both to reproductive rights and to protections for members of the LGBTQ community. In subsequent days, Roger Pilon at the Cato Institute weighed in, acknowledging concerns that the Commission could be used as a vehicle to advance a particular religious agenda, but ultimately concluding that “this commission, properly staffed and conducted, affords an opportunity to redirect our public debate to America’s first principles.”

Upholding human rights is an American value. And while leading the way globally isn’t always what we’ve done best, when we do it well we see not only the inherent benefit, but also the alignment between human rights and national security. To be sure, there are myriad concerns to raise about both the theory and practice of human rights. Has human rights discourse over-promised? Does it serve a fundamentally imperialist agenda and replicate existing hierarchies of power? Does it misrepresent its own history? Yet imagining that the Commission will engage these debates requires overlooking both the personnel involved and the broader policy environment in which the Commission will operate. The Commission is particularly troubling in the context of attacks on minority communities and human rights defenders on a global scale, including the rise of authoritarian governments that are backtracking on decades of norm development. Continue reading here.

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