“I am pro-life, I believe that all human life is sacred, and that human life begins at conception,” Andrew Bremberg told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently. Asked if rape victims should have access to abortion, he replied, “I don’t believe that abortion is a moral solution to any problem.”
Nominated by President Trump to be the United States ambassador to the United Nations office in Geneva, Bremberg is a policy adviser at the White House with no experience in international affairs.
He seems poised, however, to further Trump’s campaign against sexual and reproductive rights, which includes a global gag rule that slashed funding for overseas nongovernmental organizations that perform abortions or even offer counseling on the matter; cut funding for other international women’s sexual and reproductive health programs; and end funding to the UN Population Fund, citing concerns over “coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization” practices in China.
Those “coercive” practices have been proven repeatedly to be false, yet the Republican Party still uses them as a reason to walk away from the UN agency. Bremberg, whose Senate confirmation hearing was held as part of a panel of other nominees on June 20, was a chief architect of Trump’s extreme version of the global gag rule, also called the Mexico City policy.
The Lancet medical journal is reporting that the global gag rule increases the incidence of abortions, most likely unsafe ones, particularly in countries relying heavily on US aid, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa.
In written testimony to questions from Senator Bob Menendez, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate committee, posed before the hearing, Bremberg wrote, “The Mexico City Policy is a critical protection for taxpayers and for the women and girls that we support around the world against collusion with the global abortion industry in the guise of foreign assistance.”
“He’s not just a party-liner, he’s a hard-line Republican aligned with the more conservative branch of this administration,” Sarah Margon, the Washington director at Human Rights Watch, told PassBlue.
If confirmed, Bremberg would head the UN’s second-most important base, after New York. Geneva is the seat of the Human Rights Council, the World Health Organization, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN refugee agency, among the larger entities. The US withdrew from the Council a year ago, at the instigation of the US ambassador then, Nikki Haley.
Yet the US is participating on the Council’s sidelines by holding sessions on human-rights topics, most visibly this spring on the detention of approximately one million Uighurs in China.
Bremberg told the Senate committee that the Council “has not lived up to its noble mission or its name.”
Until recently, Bremberg, who grew up in Summit, N.J., has been working behind the scenes in the Trump White House as director of the Domestic Policy Council, where he not only stretched the limits of the global gag rule but was also tasked — unsuccessfully — with ending Obamacare. In addition, he is a former executive with the Department of Health and Human Services and worked for the George W. Bush administration in public health, among other government jobs.
At the Senate hearing, he promised to defend the rights of the LGBTQ community. In his written testimony to Menendez, he wrote that he would continue to support US aid for HIV/AIDS.
He said, “This Administration has and will continue to support policies furthering the health and well being of all people, including minority groups, unmarried adolescent girls, and LGBTI individuals.”
In his public testimony, he said he would uphold human rights, citing crises in Burma, China and Venezuela, while criticizing the Human Rights Council as overly anti-Israel and pro-China.
Echoing Trump, he said he believed in “the necessity of putting the American people first at every decision point.”
Bremberg’s nomination occurs as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has just created a separate new commission in the State Department to advise him on redefining US policies, aligned with “natural law and natural rights,” the announcement read. For many human-rights advocates, this language is code for retrenchment, tinged with homegrown religiosity.
In his written testimony, Bremberg defined “human rights” as “those rights which are endowed by our Creator — usually expressed as freedoms that no government anywhere may abridge, which the US Declaration of Independence speaks of as ‘unalienable’ and can also be found in our Bill of Rights.”
He added that one “definitional source that many look to is the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Of his role as director of the Domestic Policy Council, Bremberg told the Senate committee, “I ran the interagency process for domestic policy issues similar to the National Security Council.” He cited his efforts to equalize international postal rates, which favor China. “If confirmed, I commit to bring the same eye and initiative to other international organizations to seek reforms that will better protect Americans and people around the world.”
As an adviser to Trump, Bremberg was directly involved in the decision to add a much-contested question to the 2020 census concerning citizenship and immigration status, now being challenged in the Supreme Court. In the past, Bremberg was also a policy adviser to Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader and Republican from Kentucky, a key Trump ally.
In the hearing, Bremberg defended the administration’s drive to cut US contributions — up to $2 billion — to UN operations, including the UN refugee agency. He said the US was still the largest donor to the agency and repeated the administration’s demand that other countries increase their financial support, even though the US is far richer than any other country.
Senator Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, pointed out in the Senate hearing that the current number of forcibly displaced people in the world is a record 70 million and that the US intake of refugees has dropped 71 percent under the Trump administration.
Human-rights advocates are watching Bremberg’s nomination with concern. “Time will tell how quickly he moves, as we’re just in the post-hearing phase,” Margon said. “But his hearings already raised lots of eyebrows.”
Trump named a similarly oriented conservative, Robert Destro, to be assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. His nomination, still pending, was first sent to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee one year ago. (Bremberg’s was sent in the fall.) Destro testified before the committee in March.
“They all come from the same world of conservative Catholics — people whose primary entrée into human rights relates to religious freedom,” said Rob Berschinski, a senior vice president with the advocacy group Human Rights First and former director of the Washington office of the US mission to the UN, led by Samantha Power, the US ambassador under Obama at the time.
Given the backlog of nominations before Congress, no dates have been set for the Senate votes on Bremberg or Destro. The Senate recesses in August.
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.