Diverse Coalition Calls for Disbanding State Department Commission on Unalienable Rights

Washington, D.C.Human Rights First today, in partnership with nearly 180 human rights, faith-based, civil liberties, professional, academic, and social justice organizations, as well as 250 former senior government officials, foreign policy experts, scholars, and religious leaders, called on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to disband the State Department’s newly formed “Commission on Unalienable Rights.” In a public letter organized by Human Rights First, signatories expressed alarm at the extreme views of many of the Commission’s members, and noted that the body’s stated purpose will harm the global effort to protect the rights of all people.

Upon release of today’s letter, Human Rights First’s Rob Berschinski released the following statement:

There’s a reason that Secretary Pompeo purposefully avoided engaging the State Department’s human rights experts in establishing the Commission on Unalienable Rights and selecting its members. There is no world in which the Commission benefits the cause of human rights, though in all likelihood it will provide ample fodder for bigotry. Given the views of the majority of the commissioners, the Commission should be seen for what it is: an attempt to rationalize a caste system of rights to exclude LGBTQ people and those in need of family planning.

For decades, dictators have spoken about “clarifying” and “prioritizing” certain rights in order to justify their actions. In order to defend this highly misguided effort, the Secretary of State is adopting similar rhetoric. His aims may be different, but the effect will be the same on marginalized people. If Secretary Pompeo really wanted to support human rights, he’d have a hard talk with President Trump and stop defending autocrats from Saudi Arabia to Hungary. Instead, he’s wasting staff time and taxpayer dollars in an attempt to generate intellectual cover for his ideologically regressive agenda.

Human Rights First has previously expressed its deep skepticism of the Commission, noting that President Trump’s racist rhetoric and attacks on America’s free press and judiciary, as well as his administration’s role in separating children from their parents, and selectively highlighting the human rights records of some countries while downplaying those of others, among other actions, undermine U.S. credibility on human rights.

The signatories stressed in today’s letter a concern that the Commission’s express purpose is to circumscribe the rights of some marginalized groups, while creating a hierarchy of rights similar to those frequently favored by repressive regimes:

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.”

The signatories therefore urged Pompeo to abolish the Commission, concluding:

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.



Published on July 22, 2019


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