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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo clears his throat at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, DC on April 7, 2020.
Critics have accused Mike Pompeo of sculpting policy out of his religious beliefs. Leah Millis/AFP via Getty Images

Pompeo’s plan for a hierarchy of human rights could serve to undermine them all – including religious freedom

In pushing for religion to be given more prominence in U.S. foreign policy concerns, could Secretary of State Mike Pompeo be acting in bad faith?

That’s what many human rights groups believe. In a letter dated July 30, a coalition of faith-based and secular civil liberty groups and leaders accused Pompeo of acting out of “personal political and religious beliefs.” It coincided with the last day of public consultation on a draft report by the Pompeo-appointed Commission on Unalienable Rights that prioritizes religious freedom over other human rights.

As a scholar of human rights and the law, I understand these concerns. Valuing one human right over another undermines efforts to protect everyone’s rights, including the freedom of religion.

The 60-page draft report draws upon “biblical teachings” and “classical liberalism” to conclude that “foremost among the unalienable rights that government is established to secure, from the founders’ point of view, are property rights and religious liberty.”

It is a view grounded in a historical narrative of American exceptionalism. Indeed, launching the report, Pompeo declared: “America is special. America is good. America does good all around the world.”

‘Ad hoc rights’

Pompeo set up the Commission on Unalienable Rights with a mandate to provide him with advice on human rights “grounded in our nation’s founding principles” and “the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights” – an international agreement supported by the U.S. that sets out, but does not rank, universal human rights such as the rights to education, health and work and freedom of speech and assembly, and protections from torture and discrimination.

In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Pompeo stressed his goal was to distinguish between original “unalienable rights” and what he called “ad hoc rights” that have been added since the end of the Cold War.

The commission’s draft report seeks to do this by suggesting that some rights are “unalienable” in that they are inseparable from our humanity and equates these to human rights. Other rights are merely granted by governments.

The report implies that religious freedom and property rights are more important than other civil and political rights, like freedom of speech and assembly, or the right to vote. It also says economic, social and cultural rights should be treated differently in U.S. foreign policy.

Other rights – including those covering reproductive rights and LGBTQ protections – are dismissed by the commission as “divisive social and political controversies.” It further cautions against U.S. support for “new” rights.

Even before the report’s release, 400 U.S.-based human rights groups and experts noted in a joint letter that “it is a fundamental tenet of human rights that all rights are universal and equal.”

They also aired concern about the makeup of the commission – the majority of members are scholars of religious freedom with stances against abortion and the expansion of LGBTQ rights – among other issues.

Religious leaders and faith-based media are among those who have expressed concerns with the draft report.

Undermining obligations

Critics say that if the U.S. declares some rights are more important than others, the move will devalue all human rights – including religious freedom. Without freedom of speech and assembly, rights to health and education, and protection from discrimination and violence, freedom of religion doesn’t mean much. That is why human rights are considered indivisible, interrelated and interdependent.

It could also cast further doubt over the legitimacy and credibility of U.S. efforts to promote rights overseas. The concern is other countries may see the proposed approach as a green light to promote their own national sovereignty claims over their obligations to existing human rights law and standards – the latter which the commission’s report disparages as “drawn up by commissions and committees, bodies of independent experts, NGOs, special rapporteurs, etc., with scant democratic oversight.”

It is hard to separate the commission and the draft report from the the political agenda of the administration, which has made religious freedom a central plank of its platform. Likewise the commission’s report echoes the disdain the Trump administration has displayed for international bodies.

Already a priority

The establishment of Pompeo’s commission and its draft report differs from bipartisan efforts that had already placed an emphasis on religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy.

The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 passed during the Clinton administration and amended in 2016 during the Obama administration, established the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, along with an Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department headed by an ambassador-at-large.

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Congress receives an annual report on international religious freedom, which evaluates other countries’ efforts to promote religious freedom. It focuses on acts of religious persecution and naming “countries of concern,” which can result in sanctions.

But the office has been more active during the Trump administration. Pompeo used the launch of its 2019 annual report – which singles out China as one of the worst offenders of religious freedom for its treatment of Uighurs – as an opportunity to heighten the administration’s rhetoric against China.

Where from here?

Having received public comments, the commission could, of course, substantially alter its draft report. But even before the end of the consultation period, it was reported that Pompeo promoted the draft as guidance for State Department staff to follow.

The list of challenges to human rights in the U.S. and around the world is long and complex: rising authoritarianism and nationalism, a global pandemic, widespread protests demanding racial justice, climate change, new technologies and economic inequities, among others. The U.S. is only an effective advocate for the protection of human rights overseas, if it can ensure all rights for its own people equally.

But a meaningful deliberation about how the U.S. should protect and promote human dignity for all both domestically and internationally may require a very different approach than that of the Commission on Unalienable Rights.

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