Much of the time, the Trump Administration looks like a flailing force, a machine of deregulation, defunding, and destruction. Once in a while, though, it actually creates something intentionally and efficiently. The packing of the federal judiciary is one such pocket of sustained action. Another appears to be the State Department’s reframing of the concept of human rights.
On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the composition of a new body called the Commission on Unalienable Rights. He promised that the commission would undertake “a review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy.” In an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal on Sunday, Pompeo proposed a revision of the concept of human rights, to distinguish between original unalienable rights and “ad hoc rights” that have been added since the end of the Cold War. The argument that some widely recognized human rights are more universal than others is one that countries ranging from Russia to the Gulf States to the Vatican have been advancing for years. The United States has recently been on the other side of this debate, advancing articulations of women’s rights, reproductive rights, and L.G.B.T. rights as human rights. Now the U.S. appears poised to put its three-hundred-pound thumb on the scale in favor of narrowly redefining the concept of human rights.
Pompeo’s statement, which he appeared to read with some difficulty, framed the mission of the new body in the language in which political theorists think and speak about human rights. “What does it mean to say or claim that something is, in fact, a human right?” he asked. “How do we know or how do we determine whether that claim that this or that is a human right, is it true, and therefore, ought it to be honored? How can there be human rights, rights we possess not as privileges we are granted or even earn but simply by virtue of our humanity, belong to us? Is it, in fact, true, as our Declaration of Independence asserts, that as human beings, we—all of us, every member of our human family—are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights?” The answers that the commission may propose appear preordained by its makeup.
The commission will be chaired by Mary Ann Glendon, a professor at Harvard and a former United States Ambassador to the Vatican. She is known for her vocal opposition to same-sex marriage. She has argued, among other things, that same-sex marriage presents a danger to children because it teaches them that “alternative family forms are just as good as a husband and wife raising kids together.” Mark Bromley, the chair of the Council for Global Equality, an L.G.B.T. foreign-policy advocacy group, told me that even among opponents of marriage equality, Glendon’s argument appears “pretty extreme.”
Another member of the new commission, Peter Berkowitz, of the Hoover Institution, has argued that human rights are, in essence, religious rights—indeed, that the source of all human rights is Christianity. A third member, Paolo Carozza, a professor at the Notre Dame Law School, has served the Vatican in various capacities and is a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. A fourth member, Christopher Tollefsen, a professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, has written that embryos are human beings and has argued that the Pope went too far when he suggested that the use of contraceptives may be permissible to prevent transmission of the Zika virus to newborns. The least conservative member of the commission is probably Katrina Lantos Swett, a Tufts University lecturer and a Democratic Party activist with a long record of human-rights work. But Swett’s area of study and activism is religious freedom abroad, and this is what unites her with her fellow-commissioners. Indeed, the commission, which includes scholars of different faiths, looks designed more like an interfaith commission than one created to study the subject of human rights.
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Bromley told me that he fears the State Department is about to create a hierarchy of human rights and will place religious freedom at the top of the pyramid. The commission is just one of many ways in which the agency is promoting the concept of religious freedom. Next week, Pompeo will host a three-day “ministerial” on religious freedom, the second such event of his tenure. Last month, presenting the 2018 State Department Report on International Religious Freedom, Pompeo announced that he was elevating the Office of International Religious Freedom, taking it out of the Office of Human Rights and making it reportable directly to the undersecretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights.
At the beginning of his brief presentation last month, Pompeo noted that he was, for many years, a Sunday-school teacher and a church deacon, and he called religious freedom “our first liberty here, in the United States.” If he meant first not just chronologically but first in order of importance, it would follow that other human rights may not be “unalienable.” This would be especially true of rights with which religious freedoms are often seen as coming into conflict—such as reproductive rights and L.G.B.T. rights.
Two of the statements most important to the American understanding of human rights were uttered by Hillary Clinton. In 1995, as the First Lady, she attended the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing, and delivered a speech titled “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights.” In 2011, as the Secretary of State, she spoke at a United Nations assembly in Geneva and said, “Gay rights are human rights.” Each time she meant that women—or L.G.B.T. people—are human, and if they are attacked for being what they are, they are attacked for their humanity. In the interpretation promoted by Pompeo, however, women’s rights or L.G.B.T. rights are somehow additional to basic human rights—ad-hoc rights, alienable rights. These are not abstract ideas. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains thirty articles (of which only one, Article 18, guarantees freedom of religion), including “the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law” (Article 6); the right to legal protection without discrimination (Article 7); the right to privacy (Article 12); the right to participation in the community, “in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible” (Article 29). Each of these can be read very differently depending on whether a person’s gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity are read as essential attributes of humanity or optional add-ons.
In effect, the new commission will contemplate who is and isn’t human, and who, therefore, possesses inalienable rights. Most of the commissioners appear to believe that embryos are human. Many of them also appear to subscribe to the Trump Administration’s general position that trans people do not exist. A troubling word in Pompeo’s speech was “citizen.” Did the Secretary of State mean that only the rights of citizens are inalienable?
“I see this as a deeply intellectual attempt by some very smart people to redirect the modern human-rights movement,” Bromley told me. “It’s pretty scary.” Amid the mess and destruction of this Administration, this effort looks particularly deliberate. If the United States asks the international community to redefine human rights as religious rights, it will have the support of a vast coalition of very different countries—a coalition of which Russia has, for a decade, been the informal leader. The subsequent reframing of human rights could change the work of international bodies—and the lives of millions of vulnerable people—for a long time to come.