How Pompeo’s focus on religion could recast US rights policy

Why We Wrote This

For many, U.S. human rights policy is akin to a national statement of principles. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an evangelical Christian, is reporting on his commission’s work to define what an “unalienable right” is.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/Reuters
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a press conference at the State Department July 1, 2020. He will be reporting on the work of his Commission on Unalienable Rights in a speech in Philadelphia July 16, 2020.

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A year ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched his Commission on Unalienable Rights, which he tasked with determining what is a basic human right and what is not. On Thursday he will unveil the results of the commission’s work, which he previewed as “an important restatement of how the United States thinks about human rights ... and our role ... in preserving those rights for all people who are made in the image of God.”

Some say they worry this will constitute a narrowing of the U.S. vision of human rights to a focus on Mr. Pompeo’s priorities as a conservative Christian. Among their biggest concerns is that his challenging of the vision promoted by Western powers over recent decades could prove to be a boon to autocratic regimes determined to halt the expansion of rights, including democratic governance and gender equality.

“Religion is a fundamental freedom, one I think has been promoted by recent administrations,” says David Kramer, who served as an assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush. “But my worry is that Pompeo’s focus on it – as we’re seeing in this commission – will mean that other rights, like women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, will be subordinated to it.”

Since becoming secretary of state in April 2018, Mike Pompeo has sought to distinguish his vision of human rights from that of preceding administrations and set a new course for the promotion of human rights globally.

The conservative Republican and evangelical Christian has pushed to shift the United States away from what he sees as an overemphasis on women’s reproductive rights and LGBTQ issues and toward religious freedom – which he likes to note is the first right America’s Founding Fathers listed in the Bill of Rights.

Moving the U.S. away from participation in international and United Nations-affiliated human rights bodies such as the Geneva-based Human Rights Council has also been a priority. The U.S. has a “unique” vision of human rights, he says – what he prefers to call “unalienable” rights – and should be leading in promoting that perspective rather than compromising with other visions in international forums.

Mr. Pompeo will have an opportunity to take his vision beyond rhetoric this week when he unveils the results of his Commission on Unalienable Rights in a speech in Philadelphia Thursday afternoon.

Given what the secretary of state has said about the yearlong work of his commission, it appears he intends to use the results to recast the State Department’s vision of human rights and how the U.S. goes about promoting them.

The commission’s report “is an important restatement of how the United States thinks about human rights and our unalienable rights and our role ... in the world in preserving those rights for all people who are made in the image of God,” Mr. Pompeo told reporters last week in previewing his speech. “These unalienable rights are important,” he added. “They extend across the world.”

But others in the human rights community, including many who have served in past administrations, say they worry that the recasting constitutes a narrowing of the U.S. vision of human rights to a focus on Mr. Pompeo’s priorities as a conservative Christian.

Boon to autocrats?

Among their biggest concerns is that Mr. Pompeo’s challenging of the vision promoted by Western powers over recent decades could prove to be a boon to autocratic regimes determined to halt the expansion of rights, including democratic governance and gender equality.

“One of my biggest concerns about this commission is that it’s really just questioning the international human rights system that we have – and at the same time that a lot of authoritarian states are putting that system under intense pressure,” says Amy Lehr, director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

“There’s a real risk,” she adds, that “it opens the door to the leaders of those regimes pointing to the U.S. and saying, ‘You don’t like this system [of international human rights] and we don’t like it, either.’”

It is not as though Mr. Pompeo is turning his back on human rights issues, some State Department officials say. They point out that he has recently been very vocal about the Chinese government’s treatment of the Muslim Uyghur population and its clampdown on democratic rights in Hong Kong. The U.S. has also imposed sanctions on Chinese officials involved in implementing those rights abuses.

But the recent focus on China has some experts wondering if that is more a reflection of the Trump administration’s demonization of China in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic (and in the run-up to the November election) than evidence of a prioritizing of human rights.

“There’s growing concern that human rights are being instrumentalized to go after certain governments we have problems with,” says Ms. Lehr. “We should be criticizing a country for its human rights record and practices and not because that country is a geopolitical rival,” she adds. “That is why our human rights policies need to be based on principles.”

One of those principles that has driven U.S. rights policy is the freedom from oppressive discrimination, especially of minority or underprivileged populations. But some experts say they see in Mr. Pompeo’s focus on religious freedom a narrowing of the U.S. vision to exclude groups that have made recent gains in recognition.

“Religion is a fundamental freedom, one I think has been promoted by recent administrations. But my worry is that Pompeo’s focus on it – as we’re seeing in this commission – will mean that other rights, like women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, will be subordinated to it,” says David Kramer, who served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor under President George W. Bush.

Defining what is a right

Indeed, in launching the Commission on Unalienable Rights in July 2019, Mr. Pompeo questioned what he said had been a “proliferation” of rights over recent years – and he tasked the commission with determining what is a basic human right and what is not.

“Is it true, and therefore ought to be honored?” Mr. Pompeo offered as a basic question for the commission. The 10-member body, made up largely of conservative religious scholars, should also “point the way toward that more perfect fidelity to our nation’s founding principles,” he said.

The commission and Mr. Pompeo’s characterization of its work have set off alarm bells in the human rights community, with more than 160 organizations and prominent advocates voicing concerns that the commission could backtrack on the “universality of human rights” that they say has been built and strengthened – often with U.S. leadership – over the last 70 years.

The Bill of Rights is a fine foundation for human rights policy, Mr. Kramer says, but he worries that Mr. Pompeo has shown little interest in promoting any of the rights beyond freedom of religion.

“What about freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association?” says Mr. Kramer, now a professor of human rights and foreign policy at Florida International University in Miami.

Another problem he sees for Mr. Pompeo is that he serves a president who has shown little interest in the promotion of human rights, as he has demonstrated an affinity for many of the world’s worst dictators and most despotic regimes.

“I give Pompeo credit for some of his work on human rights, but at the same time how do you push others on freedom of the press when you work for a president who calls the press the ‘enemy of the people’?” he says. “It undermines you and sets a horrible example for despots and tyrants out there who are predisposed in that direction.”

Left out of conversation

The former assistant secretary is also troubled that the State Department bureau he once ran has been “marginalized” by Mr. Pompeo and denied any involvement with the commission. Indeed, some State Department observers say the way Mr. Pompeo left the human rights bureau out in the cold on his project underscores his estrangement from much of the department’s operations and career officials and his distrust of the federal government’s “deep state.”

Still, it’s the narrowing of the conception of human rights implicit in Mr. Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights that Ms. Lehr of CSIS finds most worrisome.

An expert in business and human rights and the intersection of technology and human rights, she counts it as progress that the global conception of human rights has expanded to include new populations and sectors over recent decades.

“As we move into a less state-centric world, it’s important that more actors” like corporations, business communities, and nongovernmental organizations “are engaged and participating in recognizing and promoting those rights,” she says.

On the other hand, “if we go back to the beginning of our country” for our vision of human rights, “we have to remember that I as a woman wouldn’t have had full access to many of those basic rights,” Ms. Lehr says. “Not to mention people of color, who certainly did not enjoy what was promised” in the Bill of Rights.

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