The Commission on Unalienable Rights has already drawn criticism from lawmakers and human rights groups who worry the panel will be used by the Trump administration to rein in American efforts to protect women and LGBTQ people as part of its foreign policy. Pompeo has argued that the initiative will instead refocus U.S. efforts on the country’s “founding principles” and a declaration from the United Nations dating to 1948.
“Every once in a while, we need to step back and reflect seriously on where we are, where we’ve been and whether we’re headed in the right direction,” Pompeo told reporters Monday at the State Department. “I hope that the commission will revisit the most basic of questions: 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 it to be honored?”
The panel will be led by Mary Ann Glendon, a conservative professor at Harvard Law School and former ambassador to the Vatican who has long been a vocal opponent of abortion rights. The New York Times noted that the State Department already has an internal agency to oversee human rights issues but said the new panel was created as a separate entity without the input from career officials or experts.
During the event on Monday, Glendon said she looks forward to assuming the role at a time when “basic human rights are being misunderstood by many, manipulated by many and ignored by the world’s worst human rights violators.”
In an editorial published by The Wall Street Journal on Monday, Pompeo elaborated on his initiative, saying it could potentially help “reorient international institutions specifically tasked to protect human rights,” pointing to the United Nations.
“Human-rights advocacy has lost its bearings and become more of an industry than a moral compass,” the secretary wrote. “And ‘rights talk’ has become a constant element of our domestic political discourse, without any serious effort to distinguish what rights mean and where they come from.”
Human rights groups argue the Trump administration has instead largely ignored such issues in its foreign policy and at times moved dramatically backward.
“This administration has actively worked to deny and take away long-standing human rights protections since Trump’s inauguration,” Joanne Lin, a national director at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement. “If this administration truly wanted to support people’s rights, it would use the global framework that’s already in place. Instead, it wants to undermine rights for individuals, as well as the responsibilities of governments.”
Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Human Rights Program, said the panel was “absurd” and likened it to an attempt to “roll back decades of progress.”
The White House has been accused of rolling back several advocacy efforts for marginalized communities. Pompeo said in March that the U.S. would withhold federal funding from foreign nongovernmental organizations that give money to groups that perform abortions. And in June, Pride Month, the State Department prohibited U.S. embassies from flying the gay pride flag, drawing an outcry from several diplomats.
On Monday, the United Nations’ leading human rights official lambasted the federal government’s treatment of asylum seekers and migrants at detention facilities around the U.S. In a statement, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said she was “deeply shocked” that children had been “forced to sleep on the floor in overcrowded facilities, without access to adequate health care or food, and with poor sanitation conditions.”
“Migrants and refugees have embarked on perilous journeys with their children in search of protection and dignity and away from violence and hunger,” Bachelet, the former president of Chile, said this week. “When they finally believe they have arrived in safety, they may find themselves separated from their loved ones and locked in undignified conditions.”
The Trump administration has continued to defend itself amid allegations of mistreatment, with Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan saying Sunday that he knows “what our standards are, and I know that they’re being followed.”