Much of the time, the Trump Administration looks like a flailing force, a machine of deregulation, defunding, and destruction. Once in a while, though, it actually creates something intentionally and efficiently. The packing of the federal judiciary is one such pocket of sustained action. Another appears to be the State Department’s reframing of the concept of human rights.
On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the composition of a new body called the Commission on Unalienable Rights. He promised that the commission would undertake “a review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy.” In an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal on Sunday, Pompeo proposed a revision of the concept of human rights, to distinguish between original unalienable rights and “ad hoc rights” that have been added since the end of the Cold War. The argument that some widely recognized human rights are more universal than others is one that countries ranging from Russia to the Gulf States to the Vatican have been advancing for years. The United States has recently been on the other side of this debate, advancing articulations of women’s rights, reproductive rights, and L.G.B.T. rights as human rights. Now the U.S. appears poised to put its three-hundred-pound thumb on the scale in favor of narrowly redefining the concept of human rights.
The commission will be chaired by Mary Ann Glendon, a professor at Harvard and a former United States Ambassador to the Vatican. She is known for her vocal opposition to same-sex marriage. She has argued, among other things, that same-sex marriage presents a danger to children because it teaches them that “alternative family forms are just as good as a husband and wife raising kids together.” Mark Bromley, the chair of the Council for Global Equality, an L.G.B.T. foreign-policy advocacy group, told me that even among opponents of marriage equality, Glendon’s argument appears “pretty extreme.”
Another member of the new commission, Peter Berkowitz, of the Hoover Institution, has argued that human rights are, in essence, religious rights—indeed, that the source of all human rights is Christianity. A third member, Paolo Carozza, a professor at the Notre Dame Law School, has served the Vatican in various capacities and is a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. A fourth member, Christopher Tollefsen, a professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, has written that embryos are human beings and has argued that the Pope went too far when he suggested that the use of contraceptives may be permissible to prevent transmission of the Zika virus to newborns. The least conservative member of the commission is probably Katrina Lantos Swett, a Tufts University lecturer and a Democratic Party activist with a long record of human-rights work. But Swett’s area of study and activism is religious freedom abroad, and this is what unites her with her fellow-commissioners. Indeed, the commission, which includes scholars of different faiths, looks designed more like an interfaith commission than one created to study the subject of human rights. Read more via New Yorker