The Commission is tasked with meeting once a month to provide “fresh thinking about human rights” and propose “reforms of human rights discourse where it has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that the goal of the panel was to determine “how do we connect up what it is we’re trying to achieve throughout the world, and how do we make sure that we have a solid definition of human rights upon which to tell all our diplomats around the world.” This Commission is separate from, and would presumably bypass the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Affairs formed in 1977.
The State Department Notice announcing the creation of the Commission is brief and vague, but suggests a significant shift in the State Department’s attitude towards international human rights with ominous implications. The State department’s announcement calls for a return to the support of “natural rights”, rather than the more contemporary notion of universal rights. This implies a more religious attitude towards human rights, which many have taken as a threat against LGBT and abortion rights. The State Department notably threatened to veto a UN Security Council resolution on sexual violence in war zones unless a passage referring to the provision of “sexual and reproductive health” assistance to survivors was removed. Distinguished Princeton University professor Robert P. George, co-founder of the anti-LGBT group National Organization for Marriage, is reported to have played a large part in designing the commission.
The adoption of natural rights also challenges the increasingly popular conception of a social and economic component to human rights. The rights to clean water, food, housing, healthcare, and economic security are often left out of discussions of natural law, considering the necessity of direct government facilitation to provide these rights. The Trump Administration’s reverence for the founding fathers’ attitude towards human rights, and their distaste for the moral and legal evolutions of the past two centuries is also cause for concern. While the founding fathers facilitated an advance in the ideological understanding of human rights, their legal system allowed for slavery and the oppression of women and landless men. Many of our most sacred rights were fought for many years, and a return would betray that struggle for justice. President Trump and his administration have long had a spotty relationship with the concept of human rights, often using them only as a rhetorical weapon against individual enemies while ignoring the crimes of our allies. While the exact intent of this new commission remains unclear, it’s safe to expect that it will be used to invoke the language of human rights while undermining them internationally.
- Human Rights First – An independent advocacy and action organization who have criticized Trump over this new commission.
- Human Rights Watch – A non-governmental, non-profit, international organization which provides a source of research and advocacy for human rights and anti-war causes around the world.