Pompeo’s Commission on “Unalienable Rights” Prioritizes Property Over People

“Women, sadly, suffer the most human rights abuses. We can help them do better,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as he presented the first draft report produced by the Commission on Unalienable Rights (CUR) this month in Philadelphia.

Despite these words, the report itself erases women’s human rights and does not offer protections against discrimination on the basis of gender, race or sexual orientation. Instead, it refers to “abortion, affirmative action, and same-sex marriage” as “divisive social and political controversies in the United States.” The report then names religious freedom and property rights as the most important rights.

This is hypocrisy in its purest form, and it sends a signal of how the Commission and Pompeo intend to weaponize religious freedom at the expense of other human rights. Now that it is armed with a blueprint to do so, it’s important the Commission and the report are not ignored.

Secretary Pompeo announced the formation of the Commission in 2019. Despite the existence of international rights-based institutions, the Commission’s charter stated a need for “fresh thinking” about human rights. Notably, this new thought leadership was supposedly needed where rights-based discourse “has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” As political appointees had been using language to attack international institutions as well as reproductive health, LGBTQ rights, and other human rights across the administration, the warning signs behind CUR’s formation were clearly recognizable.

My organization, Equity Forward, along with others in the broader human rights community, therefore began researching who was involved. What we found was alarming. The commission is led by Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor who pushes an extremely narrow interpretation of human rights. She cites religious liberty as a reason for denying reproductive health care and LGBTQ rights. Glendon has also served on the board of a legal fellowship run by the Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group Alliance Defending Freedom. Like its chair, the majority of the Commission’s members have egregious track records on reproductive rights and gender, from refuting gender transitions to rolling back health insurance coverage for birth control even for their own students. The commissioners also almost exclusively have backgrounds in academia, rather than experience working in human rights institutions.

These commissioners were all appointed with no oversight or approvals process — by Pompeo, who has an appalling human rights history himself. He is against marriage equality, and as a Congress member, sponsored a slew of anti-LGBTQ legislation. Pompeo opposes abortion in every case unless a patient is going to die; once he got to the State Department, he expanded the global gag rule, which denies U.S. funding to any organization that promotes or provides abortion care. The agency’s annual human rights report has also cut sections of the report that included critical data and analysis on women’s rights and reproductive health.

Pompeo has also put xenophobic, white nationalist policies front and center as secretary of state. In January, the State Department issued a concerning rule to combat the unproven phenomenon of “birth tourism”; the rule denies pregnant people visas unless they can prove they’re not going to give birth in the U.S. It only applies to those traveling to the U.S. from outside of the Visa Waiver Program countries, which consist largely of European, primarily white countries. Doctors have also sounded the alarm about charging immigration officers with no medical backgrounds with the task of adjudicating people’s pregnancies.

Indeed, through this rule and comments made recently attacking The New York Times’s 1619 Project, Pompeo is removing any thin veil previously draped over his racism. The CUR was formed because Pompeo was unable to fully execute his white supremacist, homophobic, xenophobic, misogynistic aims through existent human rights institutions, like the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Human Rights Committee. Pompeo — like others across the Trump administration — moved to circumvent and delegitimize them. He then went a step further by creating his own institution: the Commission on Unalienable Rights.

Pompeo and his CUR have since made clear their intent to nationalize human rights, stating that too many human rights dilute their authority. In his speech presenting the CUR report, Pompeo claimed that the U.S. Declaration of Independence is the most important human rights document. The Commission then emphasized that the rights enshrined in these founding documents — at a time when just white men were entitled to these rights and considered enslaved Black people their property — are the most important to preserve. The report reads, “Foremost among the unalienable rights that government is established to secure, from the founders’ point of view, are property rights and religious liberty.” The Commission then argued that while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) — which the CUR claims its work is grounded in — does not rank certain human rights over others, the U.S. is free to do so.

But this is not true: despite its checkered history with international law and Pompeo’s isolationist tendencies, the U.S. is still legally obligated to adhere to human rights standards as set by international human rights bodies and treaties to which it is a signatory. This includes UDHR, which CUR touts as “transformative” — and, as the Commission fails to note, has been widely interpreted to extend to freedom from discrimination, including based on sexual orientation and gender orientation. The U.S. has also signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — which along with UDHR, is part of the International Bill of Human Rights — and has been determined by the UN Human Rights Committee to include abortion rights as human rights.

The Commission’s report is an ominous indication of what is to come in terms of further flouting of international human rights law, as well as the increased influence this administration aims to carve out for its unchecked “unalienable rights” body. In early June — the same week Trump teargassed Black Lives Matter protesters in front of the White House to have a photo op in front of a church — the administration quietly passed an executive order to do just that. The order on “advancing religious freedom” gave the State Department and USAID a new budget of $50 million with a policy mandate for prioritizing religious freedom in everything from grant recipients to diplomacy efforts. CUR, with its foremost prioritization of religious freedom, would fall under this umbrella. With the Commission’s budget originally assessed at $385,074, this order is seemingly monetizing and rubber stamping the dangerous work we have already seen coming out of the Commission and other areas of these agencies.

The public comment period for the Commission’s report ends at midnight on July 30. Many comments raising issue with its content have already been published. Human rights groups have mobilized legally, and Representatives Joaquin Castro of Texas and Jamie Raskin of Maryland have raised concerns within the House Foreign Affairs Committee over the report and the Commission’s existence.

Ultimately, we cannot have a Commission ostensibly dedicated to human rights that considers the health and rights of women, LGBTQ folks, as well as Black, Indigenous and people of color to be divisive, and believes in protecting property over people. That CUR took this position only reinforces the need for unhindered, legitimate human rights institutions. We must continue to shed light on the Commission for whose rights it will protect — and those it doesn’t even bother to name.