US: "Natural Law" Human Rights Panel Readys for Launch

The Trump administration plans to officially launch a new panel on human rights as early as Monday — one already under scrutiny from Democrats who fear its stated focus on “natural law and natural rights” could undercut protections for women and LGBTQ people around the world.

State Department officials are briefing officials in Washington this week on the unveiling of the “Commission on Unalienable Rights,” a body with as many as 15 appointees who will offer advice on human rights policy to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. At least 10 of the people have been chosen so far, and their names are expected to be revealed at the launch, according to people familiar with the issue, who noted that the launch plans could still change.

The panel was conceived with almost no input from the State Department’s human rights bureau, people familiar with the matter say, effectively sidelining career government experts who have focused on human rights policy and history across numerous administrations.

“Congress has a responsibility to ensure the United States continues to stand as a principled bulwark in defense of human rights and the rule of law,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “That includes robust oversight to ensure this new commission is not used as another platform for the Trump administration to further erode U.S. leadership on human rights across the board.”

A State Department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Officials say the panel is advisory and will not create policy, and maintain that everyone has “unalienable rights,” including LGBTQ people and other minorities. In a notice posted in the Federal Register in May, the State Department said the panel “will provide fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” Read more via Politico

The State Department has been relatively vague about the panel’s functions, insisting it will decide how to define terms like “natural law and natural rights.” Activists and lawmakers have been alarmed by that language, because both terms have been used in a variety of ways — from core foundations of modern philosophy to arguments used by some religious opponents of same-sex marriage.

They’ve also focused on the group’s expected focus on the “nation’s founding principles,” and whether it means the panel would ignore international human rights agreements hammered out over decades. The State Department has been telling people it’s briefed that the panel will at least consult one major international document — the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.