July 19, 2019 at 11:07 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Lawmakers ‘deeply concerned’ over State Department human rights commission
Fifty members of the U.S. House of Representatives in a letter they sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on July 18, 2019, said they are “deeply concerned” about the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights.

Fifty members of the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday said they are “deeply concerned” over the State Department’s new human rights advisory commission.

The lawmakers — including U.S. Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.) — in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said his “plan to establish a Commission on Unalienable Rights is an attempt to make an end run around career experts, statutorily established State Department structures and widely accepted interpretations of human rights law to push a narrow, discriminatory agenda that decides whose rights are worth protecting and whose rights the administration will ignore.”

Advocates have criticized the commission, in part, because it will stress “natural law and natural rights.” Pompeo on July 8 announced Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard Law School professor who is known for her vocal opposition to marriage rights for same-sex couples, will chair it.

The letter notes “a group of career, non-partisan human rights experts has been doing this work (of promoting human rights) for decades” through the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and its Office of the Legal Adviser. The lawmakers also ask Pompeo why the State Department “is proposing this seemingly redundant, unaccountable body.”

“The answer to us is clear: To push aside the modern human rights norm that the United States helped establish in favor of narrower protections for women, including reproductive rights; for members of the LGBTQI community and for other minorities,” reads their letter.

“While centuries ago, the concepts of ‘unalienable rights’ and ‘natural law’ were used by Enlightenment thinkers, today their use sits outside the rich body of international human rights norms and law,” it adds. “These terms imply ‘God-given’ or religiously-based rights, affecting issues including gender, sexuality and reproductive rights. Establishing a commission to advance these concepts represents a sharp departure from long-standing American foreign policy and legal traditions and threatens critical gains toward gender equality, LGBTQI human rights and other fundamental rights.”

The lawmakers also note House Foreign Affairs Committee staffers received an “11th hour” briefing on the commission before Pompeo formally announced it.

“The briefing was wholly inadequate and prior requests from committee staff for information remain unanswered,” reads the letter.

The lawmakers have requested the State Department to provide “any and all records, sent, received, created or edited by officials” related to the commission by July 25.

Pompeo defends commission at State Department religious freedom conference

A senior administration official with whom the Washington Blade spoke last week said the commission said it “was never an intention to single out a group of people, whether it be LGBTQ people, whether it be women.” Pompeo on Thursday referenced the commission in a speech he delivered at the State Department’s second annual religious freedom conference in D.C.

“The commission’s purpose is very simple,” he said. “We’re not out to discover new principles but to ground our discussion of human rights in America’s founding principles, and religious freedom is certainly amongst them.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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