Human Rights First Expresses Deep Concern to Trump Administration’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights”

After Observation of Commission’s Public Meetings, HRF Recommends Commission Focus on Correcting Administration’s Abysmal Human Rights Record

Washington, D.C.Human Rights First today strongly urged members of the Department of State’s Commission on Unalienable Rights to use their final report to recommend to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that he institute significant changes to numerous Trump administration policies concerning human rights and the rule of law.

The emphatic call came via a letter addressed to Commission Chairperson Mary Ann Glendon, and was delivered as the Commission prepares its “advice and recommendations concerning international human rights matters” to Secretary Pompeo, in keeping with its mandate.

The letter detailed several serious and unaddressed concerns regarding the Commission’s mandate and work to date. It highlighted that, based on the content of its public meetings, several Commission members appear to disagree with international human rights law and U.S. treaty obligations. In particular, Human Rights First remains concerned that commission members appear intent on prioritizing certain rights over others as a means to justify discrimination against some marginalized groups.

Human Rights First has led the charge against the Commission’s unnecessary, misguided, and harmful mandate since the body was announced in May 2019.

In the letter, Human Rights First’s Senior Vice President for Policy Rob Berschinski wrote:

“Questions and comments made by some commissioners during public meetings have reinforced one of our deepest concerns: namely, that the Commission’s final report will present a narrow and inaccurate interpretation of U.S. obligations under international human rights law, and will suggest support for a model of human rights promotion that prioritizes or gives more weight to some rights over others. When raised, the Commission’s discussion of rights prioritization has focused squarely on prioritizing freedom of religion over other internationally recognized rights, such as the right to health or the right to be free from discrimination.

“Some commissioners, as well as some of the individuals who testified before the Commission, have suggested that freedom of religion sits atop ‘lesser’ or subsidiary rights and that the violation or infringement of these lesser rights must be tolerated in order to ensure the full protection of religious freedom.”

Berschinski noted that even as the Trump administration remains engaged in an assault on human rights and the rule of law both domestically and internationally, the Commission has declined to use its mandate to examine these policies. He wrote, “Commissioners tasked with providing the Secretary of State with ‘advice and recommendations concerning international human rights matters’ have thus far failed to indicate publicly that any of the administration’s policies might harm global human rights protections or U.S. interests, or to provide recommendations for policy modification.”

The letter also expressed HRF’s concern that by prioritizing some rights over others, the Commission risks legitimizing the efforts of governments like China’s that promote a hierarchical approach to human rights to justify repression. Wrote Berschinski:

“Human Rights First staff are deeply concerned that the Commission’s willingness to treat the human rights framework as malleable and open to unilateral interpretation will—inadvertently, but also unmistakably—embolden authoritarian and populist regimes that actively promote revisionist and culturally-relativist interpretations of human rights in order to justify their repressive policies.”

The full text of Human Rights First’s letter to the Commission can be found here.


Published on April 16, 2020


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