Mike Pompeo has stepped up his campaign to change the US approach to human rights, reframing them as “unalienable rights” rooted in American traditions, with a particular emphasis on religious freedom.
Since establishing a commission on unalienable rights, made up mostly of religious conservatives, the secretary of state has had its report formally adopted by the state department on 26 August, despite widespread objections from human rights groups.
Those groups argue that Pompeo’s approach establishes a hierarchy of rights, downgrading the status of issues like women’s right to reproductive health and LGBTQ+ rights to a second, optional tier. They also point out that it legitimises claims by authoritarian regimes that rights are based in national traditions.
“Pompeo has ramped up his efforts around this commission,” said Molly Bangs, the director of Equity Forward, a reproductive rights watchdog organization.
“Other foreign governments are now armed with this blueprint, the commission’s report, which they can feel free to use to rubber-stamp their own very concerning human rights practices.”
On launching the commission’s draft report in July, Pompeo, an evangelical Christian, said: “Many [rights] are worth defending in light of our founding; others aren’t.” He added that “foremost” among traditional American rights are property rights and religious liberty.
Since then, he has placed special emphasis on religious freedom, hosting ministerial meetings on the issue and pursuing partnerships with religiously conservative governments. The next meeting will be in Warsaw, hosted by a Polish government that has gained a reputation for restricting civic freedoms.
Speaking to the Atlantic Council on Tuesday, Pompeo said: “America’s foreign policy ought to be based on its traditions and our human rights policy around the world ought to be grounded in the American founding.”
In emails and meetings, Pompeo has urged state department staff to use the report to guide their daily work. At a town hall meeting on 9 September, which Pompeo insisted should be an in-person gathering despite Covid-19 restrictions, he was asked about how the new approach affected LGBTQ+ rights.
According to someone familiar with the meeting: “His response was these ‘things’ – he wouldn’t even say LGBT – these things are up for debate.”
The phrase “unalienable rights” has been inserted into a new gender equality policy document drafted last month by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). References to LGBTQ+ issues and abortion in the 2012 version of the document have been removed.
The section on reproductive health in the previous policy document has been renamed family planning and makes no mention of abortion. It emphasises “communication between spouses regarding fertility, finances, and household issues”.
In response, 15 Democratic senators wrote to the USAid acting administrator, John Barsa, saying the policy paper was “riddled with shortcomings and problematic characterizations of fundamental rights”.
“It is a stark demonstration that politics have overtaken principle at USAID under this administration and compromised the agency’s mission,” the senators wrote.
The state department is also seeking international support abroad for its approach, with limited success. Pompeo has called a meeting on 23 September, on the sidelines of the UN general assembly, which was initially billed as being on unalienable rights. The response was so tepid from Washington’s traditional allies that the meeting was recast as being about the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But diplomats at the UN said the agenda was the same: to relegate LGBTQ+ and reproductive health rights.
Louis Charbonneau, UN director of Human Rights Watch, said the meeting was intended “to promote the commission, an exercise to ‘re-examine’ internationally recognized rights”.
The US has circulated a declaration to member states calling on them to sign it and “recommit ourselves today to the Declaration and its foundational ideal that certain principles are so fundamental as to apply to all human beings, everywhere, at all times”.
It makes no mention of the treaties and conventions adopted since 1948 seeking to bolster the rights of vulnerable groups, and the establishment of treaty bodies like the committee on the elimination of discrimination against women, the committee against torture, and the committee on the rights of persons with disabilities.
“We don’t want to turn the clock back to a time before there were these important protections,” Charbonneau said. “Reaffirming the foundational treaties, without reaffirming the follow up treaties and treaty bodies, risks implying that those things are not essential.”
Rori Kramer, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, said she believed that the promotion of a new human rights doctrine was already influencing US diplomats around the world.
“From day one when Pompeo announced this, the intention was always to change the actual working policy of the department to fit his narrow religious views in a way that really upends the normal working order of the department,” Kramer, now director of US advocacy for American Jewish World Service, said.
“The human rights officers in the embassies have always historically been the person that supports the human rights activists, supports the LGBT activists who have been jailed by their authoritarian government and sort of stands with those people … They’re sending a very clear message they want that to change.”