The State Department’s announcement of a new panel tasked with re-evaluating the role of human rights in American foreign policy and the choice of that body’s leader are fueling concern the Trump administration is further distancing itself from LGBTQ and women’s issues internationally.
In announcing the panel on July 8, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “International institutions designed and built to protect human rights have drifted from their original mission.”
He added, “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, and that’s why I’m pleased to announce today the formation of a Commission on Unalienable Rights.”
Pompeo even questioned the basic meaning of human rights, asking, “What does it mean to say or claim that something is, in fact, a human right?”
The secretary of state has injected religion into his government work dating back to his time in Congress and appears to be continuing that trend with his appointment of the former US ambassador to the Vatican, Mary Ann Glendon, to lead the commission. Glendon has previously described same-sex marriage as “tragic,” a “radical social experiment,” and said it would “impair” the rights of children.
Pompeo said those on the commission would be tasked with advising him on how to best shape the department’s approach to human rights in accordance with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which laid out common fundamental human rights to be universally protected.
Pompeo noted that the commission would consist of a wide range of experts across the ideological spectrum, from Democrats to Republicans, philosophers, and activists. But many of them are from the religious right, such as Christopher Tollefsen, who is a professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and has argued that human life begins at conception and that gender transition is “unreasonable.”
The State Department did not immediately respond to multiple questions about Pompeo’s statement by press time, including how institutions have “drifted from their mission” to protect human rights and whether or not the commission will focus on certain international regions.
There have been hints, however, about the brains behind the commission in the first place. Princeton Professor Robert P. George, who co-founded the notoriously anti-LGBTQ National Organization for Marriage, played a “prominent role” in creating the commission, a source told ABC News.
Another sign of George’s role in the commission emerged when the State Department used a phrase he’s known to use — “natural law” — when it issued a public notice in the Federal Register in late May. The department said the commission would provide “fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.”
The rosy picture painted by Pompeo was not well received by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. The House approved an appropriations bill last month that blocks funding for the commission and out gay Congressmember David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who chairs the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, issued warning signs about the State Department’s intentions.
“After decades of progress, this administration is trying to return our human rights policies to the dark ages,” Cicilline said in a written statement after Pompeo delivered his remarks. “Secretary Pompeo’s announcement is just a thinly-veiled attempt to re-write longstanding human rights principles to promote discrimination against the LGBTI community and women around the world.
Cicilline called on the Senate to also block funding for the commission. He further criticized Pompeo for pushing “his own political agenda” by overlooking the dozens of human rights experts in the State Department in favor of what he described as a “sham commission.”
“It’s ironic that an administration that has made it a practice to cozy up to the worst dictators and rights abusers thinks it can fool the American people into believing this is an effort to protect human rights,” he said.
Out gay Representative Sean Patrick Maloney of New York especially aimed his criticism at Glendon’s appointment.
“Picking an avowed homophobe to run a commission on human rights is absurd and insulting — but not surprising,” he said in a written statement to Gay City News on July 10. “This administration never misses an opportunity to target LGBTQ people.”
Multiple advocacy groups focused on international human rights issues blasted the commission and tore into Pompeo’s intentions to uproot the nation’s approach to human rights.
OutRight Action International, a US-based organization that fights for human rights for LGBTQ and intersex people around the world, described the new commission as “worrying.”
“The intent of Commission is to ground human rights in so-called ‘natural law,’ which typically means a social order based on religious texts, dominated by white men,” OutRight’s executive director, Jessica Stern, told Gay City News in a written statement on July 10. “This not only radically changes the definition of human rights and challenges international human rights standards established by the United Nations, it aims to turn back the clock by hundreds of years to a society characterized by male-domination, subservience of women, race and class segregation, and complete erasure of LGBTIQ people.”
Other groups shared similar concerns and stressed that such changes by the State Department could destabilize longstanding international efforts to improve human rights.
“This approach only encourages other countries to adopt a disregard for basic human rights standards and risks weakening international, as well as regional frameworks, placing the rights of millions of people around the world in jeopardy,” said Joanne Lin, who serves as the national director of advocacy and government affairs at Amnesty International USA.
Pompeo’s years-long opposition to LGBTQ rights has been clear since his time as a congressmember from Kansas. In 2010, he defended banning gay and lesbian folks from the military, saying, “We cannot use the military to promote social ideas that do not reflect the values of our nation.” He also described the Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality ruling as a “shocking abuse of power.” One year before that he said, “If you’re asking for what is ideal, I think it’s being raised by a man and a woman.”
Most recently, Pompeo’s State Department has shrugged off marriage and immigration laws by fighting the citizenship status of children of multiple bi-national families headed by same-sex couples, an issue that has been embroiled in legal battles.