Trump’s Human Rights Commission Could Undercut Human Rights

The State Department's new human rights commission will be led by an anti-choice activist.

[Photo: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a ceremony.]
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday announced the creation of the U.S. State Department’s “Commission on Unalienable Right.” It will, according to Pompeo, conduct “an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy” and provide him “with advice on human rights.” Mark Wilson / Getty Images

The Trump administration launched an advisory commission this week tasked with examining human rights in foreign policy—but advocates worry it could undermine global reproductive rights.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday announced the creation of the U.S. State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights. He said the commission will conduct “an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy” and provide him “with advice on human rights.” A notice published in the Federal Register in May said the commission will provide “fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.”

Though the State Department has an office devoted to human rights, the commission was “conceived with almost no input from” it, Politico reported. Officials told the outlet that the commission is “advisory and will not create policy, and maintain that everyone has ‘unalienable rights,’ including LGBTQ people and other minorities.”

Mary Ann Glendon, a professor of law at Harvard University who teaches on human rights, will chair the commission. Glendon’s anti-choice activism earned her the “Proudly Pro-Life Award” from National Right to Life in 2009. That year, Glendon turned down a medal from the University of Notre Dame, citing its decision to give President Barack Obama an honorary degree.

In 2012, Glendon penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, falsely claiming the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit was an “abortifacient” mandate. The “main goal” of the policy, she wrote, was “to conscript religious organizations into a political agenda, forcing them to facilitate and fund services that violate their beliefs, within their own institutions.” In another piece for the Journal in 2004, Glendon wrote of her opposition to marriage equality, claiming that it could “usher in an era of intolerance and discrimination [against religious freedom] the likes of which we have rarely seen before.”

Françoise Girard, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC), called Glendon’s appointment to lead the commission “troubling.” Girard told Rewire.News that Glendon has “been associated with the Vatican for a very long time” and represented it at the 1995 United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. There, Girard said, Glendon “objected strenuously on behalf of the church to words like ‘reproductive rights’ [… and to] any mention of abortion.”

Girard said there is ample “reason to be worried about the commission and its makeup” given the conservative, anti-abortion voices on the panel. She said the IWHC is concerned because the new panel’s mission is “to reexamine the very notion of human rights.”

“We’re very worried that this will actually seriously undermine the notion that women’s rights are human rights,” Girard said.

The State Department’s use of language like “natural law and natural rights” points to a “religious interpretation” of rights, Girard said. The term “is a code religious conservatives often use to impose their religious beliefs about women and LGBTQ people in some sort of non-religious disguise,” according to ThinkProgress.

Jeremy Kadden, senior international policy advocate for the Human Rights Campaign, pointed to the phrasing in a statement to CNN. “This is an attempt to pull back a U.S. human rights vision that we’ve had for decades and create this new vision that uses these new terms like ‘unalienable rights’ or ‘natural rights’ or ‘natural law,’” Kadden said. “These are all things that have been used by extremist people on the far right, to create a gap between what they consider unalienable rights and alienable rights.”

Other global human rights advocates similarly sounded the alarm about the commission’s formation. “This administration has actively worked to deny and take away long-standing human rights protections since Trump’s inauguration,” Joanne Lin, national director of advocacy and government affairs at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement. “If this administration truly wanted to support people’s rights, it would use the global framework that’s already in place. Instead, it wants to undermine rights for individuals, as well as the responsibilities of governments.”

Dr. Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood, questioned the intentions of the State Department’s commission. “The Trump-Pence administration’s new sham commission should be seen for what it really is: an attempt to narrowly redefine human rights in order to violate them,” Wen said in a statement. “At a time when this administration is attacking reproductive rights, rolling back LGBTQ rights, and detaining children and families under horrific conditions, this commission is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to unconscionably exclude specific groups from legal protections..”

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment from Rewire.News.