The State Department initiative is seen as a potential counterweight to an expansive liberal view of human rights.
The Trump administration plans to officially launch a new panel on human rights as early as Monday — one already under scrutiny from Democrats who fear its stated focus on “natural law and natural rights” could undercut protections for women and LGBTQ people around the world.
State Department officials are briefing officials in Washington this week on the unveiling of the “Commission on Unalienable Rights,” a body with as many as 15 appointees who will offer advice on human rights policy to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. At least 10 of the people have been chosen so far, and their names are expected to be revealed at the launch, according to people familiar with the issue, who noted that the launch plans could still change.
The panel was conceived with almost no input from the State Department’s human rights bureau, people familiar with the matter say, effectively sidelining career government experts who have focused on human rights policy and history across numerous administrations.
“Congress has a responsibility to ensure the United States continues to stand as a principled bulwark in defense of human rights and the rule of law,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “That includes robust oversight to ensure this new commission is not used as another platform for the Trump administration to further erode U.S. leadership on human rights across the board.”
A State Department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Officials say the panel is advisory and will not create policy, and maintain that everyone has “unalienable rights,” including LGBTQ people and other minorities.
In a notice posted in the Federal Register in May, the State Department said the panel “will provide fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.”
The State Department has been relatively vague about the panel’s functions, insisting it will decide how to define terms like “natural law and natural rights.” Activists and lawmakers have been alarmed by that language, because both terms have been used in a variety of ways — from core foundations of modern philosophy to arguments used by some religious opponents of same-sex marriage.
They’ve also focused on the group’s expected focus on the “nation’s founding principles,” and whether it means the panel would ignore international human rights agreements hammered out over decades. The State Department has been telling people it’s briefed that the panel will at least consult one major international document — the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The commission’s mission statement includes the “promotion of individual liberty, human equality and democracy through U.S. foreign policy,” according to people familiar with the issue.
Supporters of the Trump administration’s new panel say they hope it will reclaim the concept of human rights from groups that have taken it too far.
“Thanks to a growing emphasis on ‘economic and social rights’ — the banner under which many ‘social justice’ campaigners march — international human rights has become mired in social-policy goals and terminology,” Aaron Rhodes, president of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe, wrote in a Wall Street Journal columnapplauding the new panel last month.
“We’ve seen a proliferation, and consequent dilution, of human rights,” he added. “When human-rights advocates campaign for a ‘human right to sanitation,’ it diverts our attention from basic rights like freedom of speech or freedom from torture.”
In remarks to reporters in May after POLITICO first broke the story about the panel, Pompeo said the body’s purpose in part will be to sort out “how do we make sure that we have a solid definition of human rights upon which to tell all our diplomats around the world.”
He added that although the panel is separate from State’s human rights bureau, it is “deeply connected” to that bureau’s work. The secretary’s Policy Planning Staff, a group that functions as an in-house think tank, has been charged with setting up the commission.
The commission’s draft charter, first published by Just Security, says the panel will have no more than 15 members, meet once a month and cost roughly $385,000 a year to operate. Some lawmakers are already trying to use the appropriations process to prevent the commission from receiving any funding.
The secretary of State chooses the panel’s members, who, the draft charter says, should have “distinguished backgrounds in U.S. diplomacy, international law and human rights.” The panel is supposed to be bipartisan, according to the draft charter, and its members do not appear to need Senate confirmation.
The draft charter doesn’t do much to clarify the panel’s mandate. “The commission’s charge is not to discover new principles, but to recover that which is enduring for the maintenance of free and open societies,” it states at one point.
The panel’s creation is notable in part because President Donald Trump has been trying to slash the size of the government. Just last month, he issued an executive order directing federal agencies to cut their number of advisory committees by a third.
The Trump administration typically uses human rights to whack adversaries, such as Iran and China, while generally avoiding it when dealing with allies and partners, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
One area in which the administration has put significant effort, however, is promoting religious freedom. That has included aiding minority Christians overseas — a move that has thrilled evangelicals in Trump’s Republican base. But it has also included appeals for better treatment of Muslims and other faith groups, especially in countries such as China and Iran.