US: Beware the administration’s plans for ‘fresh thinking’ on human rights

Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Monday the creation of a Commission on Unalienable Rights to provide “an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy.” But this superficially laudable step is fraught with threats to the very human rights that it purports to strengthen.

That is because, as Pompeo suggested, the purpose of the commission is not to uphold all rights but to pick and choose among them: “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?”

But human rights do not exist in the eye of the beholder. International treaties that have been widely ratified (though many not by the United States) codify what they term “inalienable” human rights.

The fundamental rights set out in these treaties are clear, but the Trump administration is unhappy that they are cited to uphold, for example, reproductive freedom or the rights of LGBT people not to face discrimination. So there is reason to fear that this exercise in identifying “unalienable” rights is a unilateral attempt to rewrite international law according to the administration’s conservative social views.

Those fears are only intensified by Pompeo’s selection of Mary Ann Glendon, a prominent scholar opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage, to head the commission. Pompeo himself, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, complained that “rights claims are often aimed more at rewarding interest groups and dividing humanity into subgroups,” apparently taking issue with rights that protect women and LGBT people.

Pompeo justified the need for “fresh thinking” by citing an alleged conflict among rights: “As human rights claims have proliferated, some claims have come into tension with one another, provoking questions and clashes about which rights are entitled to gain respect.” He didn’t explain further, but it’s likely he is referring to the Trump administration’s view, asserted domestically in the courts, that reproductive and LGBT rights conflict with religious freedom such that one’s religious views should take precedence over, for instance, the duty not to discriminate.

These comments about a “clash” of rights might also be used to reaffirm the long-standing U.S. position that only civil and political rights, not economic and social rights, are real human rights. Both are detailed in widely ratified treaties — the two “covenants” that list the rights originally set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But while China, for example, has never ratified the civil and political rights treaty — the sorts of rights detailed in the U.S. Constitution — the United States has never ratified the one on economic, social and cultural rights, which lists such rights as to food, health care and housing. Read more via HRW