Opinion | A New Trump Battleground: Defining Human Rights

After the horrors of World War II, the United States led in adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, recognizing the “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights” of all people to life and liberty. For three-quarters of a century it has stood for the protection of human rights by the rule of law.

Now, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is establishing a Commission on Unalienable Rights to “provide fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights,” according to a notice in the Federal Register.

Fresh thinking isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But tampering with a legacy built over decades raises serious questions, especially when the State Department’s human rights bureau and Congress have so far been excluded from the process.

One concern is the reference to “natural law,” which is held to be more powerful than the laws people write, and can suggest a narrower, religious sensibility. When the term natural law has been thrown about, it’s often been by people concerned with what they think is unnatural — homosexuality, transgender rights, reproductive choice and sexual equality.

“It has nothing to do with gay marriage or abortion,” a senior State Department official said of the initiative, a personal project of Mr. Pompeo that the department plans to describe in more detail next month. “It’s not about policy, it’s about principles,” although there could be policy implications in the future, the official said.

The official said Mr. Pompeo is committed to human rights, public hearings and public debate. If the commission moves forward, its membership should be diverse and balanced.

The department would say little else about the plan, such as why Mr. Pompeo feels the country’s human rights discourse has “departed from our nation’s founding principles” or why the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, decades of State Department reports on the human rights records of more than 190 countries, several reports to the United Nations and countless speeches by presidents and other officials haven’t already provided a solid foundation to understand fundamental human rights principles.

The House is considering a proposal to restrict funding for the commission while several Democratic senators, in a letter to Mr. Pompeo, expressed “deep concern” with the process and intent of the initiative.

A shift to “natural law” would conflict with the view that “modern human rights are based on the dignity inherent in all human beings, not on God-given rights,” Harold Hongju Koh, a Yale law professor who was assistant secretary of state for human rights in the Clinton administration, told The Times.

Mr. Pompeo’s initiative appears to tap into a debate within conservative religious and legal circles, a core of President Trump’s base.

R.R. Reno in First Things, a publication of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, writes about being “increasingly against human rights” and says “exalting human rights as the epitome of social responsibility short-circuits collective judgment and stymies action for the sake of the common good.”

Vice President Mike Pence and other evangelicals have promoted religious freedom as “our first freedom” and argued that human rights are becoming politicized and conflated with economic and social goals, such as equal rights for workers, women and gays.

State Department officials say one influence in the creation of the plan has been Robert George, a Princeton professor and prominent Catholic thinker who co-founded an anti-marriage equality group.

As for President Trump’s own approach to human rights, he has denigrated the free press, sought to ban Muslims from the country and treated immigrants and refugees harshly. He has undercut protections for women‘s reproductive health and for transgender people, going so far as to try to kick them out of the military.

Mr. Trump has denounced abuses by Iran, Cuba and China — adversaries at odds with the United States on many issues — while soft-pedaling the egregious behavior of repressive political favorites like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and even North Korea.

If the commission is another step toward narrowing or calling into question America’s commitment on human rights, it will further erode the country’s leadership and give the world’s repressive rulers more reasons to ignore complaints about their own abuses and atrocities.

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Carol Giacomo, a former diplomatic correspondent for Reuters in Washington, covered foreign policy for the international wire service for more than two decades before joining the Times editorial board in 2007. @giacomonyt

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