The Commission on Unalienable Rights is a stalking horse

The Commission on Unalienable Rights is a stalking horse September 28, 2019

The U.S. State Department launched the Commission on Unalienable Rights this summer to promote human rights globally based on “natural law and natural rights.”

human rights commission christianity trump discrimination
Sign at 2018 human-rights rally: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses (*conditions apply). (Deb Nystrom, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

This oddly old-fashioned-sounding focus raised a red flag for Notre Dame political science professor Daniel Philpott, the vice chairman of the Institute for Global Engagement, who told the online e-zine Beyond Parallel that the term “natural law” in this political context is troubling.

“[It] reflects a concern that human rights have gone off the rails, in part because of abortion and claims about marriage rights,” Philpott said, calling it a prejudicial issue.

In other words, the Commission’s curious “natural law” focus implies that the it may have been formed to investigate globally accepted universal notions of human rights in a conservative, religiously aligned political context that the Trump administration favors. Indeed, the administration has consistently been hostile to rights attributed to LGBTQ people and same-sex marriage, both aggressively dismissed by the Christian Right conservatives as unnatural, ungodly and unbiblical. And evangelical Christians are paramount to the president’s voter base.

In addition, Pompeo oversaw the creation of a new administration policy to deny abortion funding to international groups seeking U.S. aid, even though abortion is constitutionally legal in America.

The official Federal Register notice in May of the Commission’s formation, explained:

“The Commission will provide the Secretary of State advice and recommendations concerning international rights matters. The Commission will provide fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.”

That should be more honestly phrased as “our nation’s founding principles derived from Christian scripture,” of which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a very conservative evangelical Christian, is presumably fluent.

An ardent supporter of Israel and believer that God promised that nation’s land to the Jewish people, as the Bible stipulates, Pompeo also anticipates a coming “rapture” in the “Holy Land” when Christians after a monumental war will ascend en masse to Heaven, according to scriptural prophesy.

“We will continue to fight these battles,” Pompeo told a “God and Country Rally” in 2015, because there is a “never-ending struggle” until “the rapture.” In November, the he told a reporter for The New York Times Magazine that the Bible “informs everything I do.”

In a July op-ed in the conservative Wall Street Journal, Pompeo contended that America’s founders defined unalienable rights as including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and that a “moral foreign policy should be grounded” only in the goal to “protect individual dignity and freedom.”

Except LGBTQ dignity and reproductive-rights freedom, apparently, both of which are anathema to conservative Christians’ view of reality.

“[A]fter the Cold War ended, many human-rights advocates turned their energy to new categories of rights,” Pompeo argued in his op-ed piece. “These rights often sound noble and just. But when politicians and bureaucrats create new rights, they blur the distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights granted by governments. Unalienable rights are by nature universal. Not everything good, or everything granted by a government, can be a universal right. Loose talk of “rights” unmoors us from the principles of liberal democracy.”

He said the new commission will “study” the U.N.’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights shepherded by the late Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of former U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, and to which the U.S. His hope, he wrote, is that the commission’s work “will generate a serious debate about human rights that extends across party lines and national borders.”

The vast majority of 58 United Nations states — 48 — signed the original declaration. Eight others voted “no,” including the U.S.S.R., and two abstained.

Some legal scholars have argued that because of the declaration’s long and stable history for more than 50 years, it has become binding as a part of customary international law.

A July op-ed in The Washington Post, titled “Beware the Trump administration’s plans for ‘fresh thinking’ on human rights,” warned that although the then-new Commission ostensibly aimed to provide “an informed review of the role of human rights in foreign policy,” it did not imply downsides.

“[T]his superficially laudable step is fraught with threats to the very human rights it purports to strengthen,” wrote the article’s author, Kenneth Roth, executive director of the activist group Human Rights Watch. “That is because, as Pompeo suggested, the purpose of the commission is not to uphold all rights but to pick and choose among them.”

To support this contention, Roth quoted Pompeo as saying:

“What does it mean to say or claim that something is, in fact, a human right? 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 to be honored.”

Pompeo, his Wall Street Journal op-ed, also complained that “rights claims are often aimed more at rewarding interest groups and dividing humanity into subgroups” — as Roth points out, “apparently taking issue with rights that protect women and LGBT people.”

The current administration likes to liberally sprinkle the phrase “religious freedom” over public debate, as though they also favor American’s concurrent freedom from other religions coercive intents.

This Commission is a barely concealed attempt to strengthen its push of fundamentalist Christianity and its sectarian principles on the American public square by denigrating international human-rights norms under a patina of “objective” scholarship.

In a news article about the formation of the Commission earlier this year in its Church & State magazine, Americans United for Separation of Church and State noted:

“‘Natural law’ is a term often used by religious conservatives — chiefly traditional Catholics — to undermine church-state separation and argue that public policy should be anchored in faith-based rationales.”

Watch out.


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