In an audacious move that could be the capstone of the Trump administration’s campaign to reverse decades of American support for human rights globally, the State Department is creating a separate new commission to advise Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on redefining United States policies, aligned with “natural law and natural rights.”
For many human-rights advocates, this language is code for retrenchment, tinged with homegrown religiosity.
Pompeo’s team is calling the new panel the Commission on Unalienable Rights. The decision to form it was apparently made by mid-May, and notice of it was published, as required, on May 30, in a two-paragraph item in the Federal Register of government actions, where it was discovered first by Politico. The stealth that obscured the planning of the commission has troubled human-rights advocates.
Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said in an interview with PassBlue that the human-rights community has scant information on the scope of the commission.
“Although there’s a lot we don’t yet know about this commission or what it truly intends to look at, there is good reason to be concerned about how it may further undercut the State Department’s already weak support for and promotion of universal human rights,” she said.
The State Department official who signed off on the notice, and most likely the person leading the project, Kiron K. Skinner, was named Pompeo’s director of policy planning in August 2018. Now on leave from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University, she is an authority on post-World War II strategic history and the author of several books on Ronald Reagan. She is not well known among human-rights organizations and has been reluctant to speak about her role publicly.
The commission, separate from the State Department’s bureau of human rights, democracy and labor, is expected to meet “at least once per month and at such other times and places as are required,” the May 30 notice said. Requests by PassBlue to the policy planning office regarding the size and composition of the commission were not answered as of this writing.
One of the conservative scholars who is reported to have played a large part in designing the formation and aims of the mission is Robert P. George, a distinguished conservative professor at Princeton University, who is expected to be among the commissioners. George was a co-founder and past chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, formed in 2007 to oppose same-sex marriages.
The role of the commission, as defined in the registry announcement, is clear: “The Commission will provide the Secretary of State advice and recommendations concerning international human rights matters,” it says. “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.”
Since taking office in January 2017, the Trump administration has been chipping away at personal rights and choices in global programs, especially for women, with Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence leading the effort. Under Trump, the State Department has stripped references to women’s reproductive rights and choices from its annual global survey of human-rights practices, an abrupt departure from the administration of President Barack Obama. As president, Trump himself appears to cater to right-wing demands more out of political expediency than conviction, given his conservative voter base.
Democrats in Congress, which mandated the annual international human-rights reporting, beginning in 1974, are demanding the restoration of references to women’s reproductive rights. A committee of the House of Representatives has included the demand in a foreign appropriations bill proposed for the next federal budget.
Deliberate or not, the choice of a title for the new State Department advisory panel — the Commission on Unalienable Rights — has subtly co-opted and distorted the language of the American Declaration of Independence, adopted on July 4, 1776. That wording, reflecting the philosophical discourse of that era, said: “We hold these truths to be self‐evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Leaving aside contemporary quibbles over the word “men” — this was the 18th century, after all — those three prerequisites of freedom are being misinterpreted today by Pompeo and supporters of his brand of fundamentalist revisionism that they claim to draw from the country’s founding documents.
“Life” has come to mean the abolition of abortion and the diminution almost across the board of the rights of women around the world in foreign assistance programs. “Liberty” has been twisted to allow businesses to opt out of laws and programs in the US designed to protect and serve women. The “pursuit of happiness” seems to leave out LGBTQ people and all others who choose to define gender and build new models of family life in ways different from those of, for example, Pence.
In 2000, he staked out his position on marriage this way: “Congress should oppose any effort to put gay and lesbian relationships on an equal legal status with heterosexual marriage.” In 2004, as a member of the House of Representatives, Pence co-sponsored an amendment to the US Constitution that would define marriage as solely between one man and one woman.
Coincidental but relevant to the emerging US human-rights commission, the International Women’s Health Coalition is releasing a report on June 5 calling attention to a new survey in four developing countries — Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria and South Africa — that demonstrates the negative effects of Trump’s enhanced “global gag rule.”
The policy, introduced in the Reagan administration and imposed by Republican presidents since, prohibits the transfer of US funds to foreign nongovernmental organizations that provide any services involving or connected to abortion, including counseling, referrals or advocacy. Women are being deprived of services, the IWHC argues, as NGOs must choose between comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care and American funding.
“This deadly policy violates the rights of patients and ties the hands of providers,” the IWHC president, Françoise Girard, said in a statement after studying the effects of Trump’s harsh strengthening of the policy. “After two years of implementation, the impact is clear: The Global Gag Rule reduces access to contraceptives and abortion care, leading to unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and preventable deaths.”
The report, “Crisis in Care: Year Two Impact of Trump’s Global Gag Rule,” found, among other examples, that in Kenya an organization serving sex workers saw two clients die after resorting to unsafe abortions when referrals to clinics ended. In South Africa, an interviewee said that the gag rule was actually “promoting” unsafe abortion. In Nigeria, according to the report, a representative of a faith-based organization said that the prohibition “robs women of the information needed to make safe and informed decisions, ultimately increasing maternal deaths.”
In Nepal, which has a progressive abortion law, a US government-supported project designed to increase access to contraceptives and other services in 11 remote districts had to close, the survey found. The IWHC calls on all donors, implementers and others to “wherever feasible” document and publicize the impact of the gag rule under Trump’s watch.
“The Global Gag Rule is a reflection of the Trump administration’s extreme anti-women agenda, and a rejection of evidence, rights, and national health priorities,” Girard said. “US policymakers have the power to end this policy, and they must, because women’s lives are on the line.”