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U.S. Unalienable Rights Commission Shouldn’t Cherry-Pick Rights

Don’t Use Religion to Justify Bias Against Women, LGBTQ People

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, unveils the creation of Commission on "Unalienable" Rights, headed by Mary Ann Glendon, left, a Harvard Law School professor and a former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, during an announcement at the US State Department in Washington, July 8, 2019.  © 2019 AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The United States State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights should uphold international human rights commitments and not use freedom of religion as a cloak to permit violations of the rights of women, girls, and LGBTQ people, 167 leading human rights activists and groups from 28 countries said today in a letter to the Commission.

The Commission on Unalienable Rights is an advisory body created by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in July 2019 to advise on human rights in US foreign policy. It has sparked concern from experts that the United States seeks to unilaterally rewrite agreed-upon human rights obligations and create a hierarchy of rights.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, Human Rights Watch, the International Women’s Health Coalition, and other organizations and activists from around the world said that the Commission should prioritize everyone’s rights to health and well-being, without discrimination, and recognize that reproductive rights are clearly established under international law. These rights are essential to people’s dignity and well-being and should not be treated as less worthy of protection than other human rights.

“The Trump administration has routinely employed freedom of religion as a tool of discrimination against women, girls, and LGBTQ people,” said Françoise Girard, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC). “The Commission on Unalienable Rights is a callous attempt to create a hierarchy of rights and deny the world’s most marginalized their fundamental rights. This politicization of international human rights sets a dangerous precedent and empowers regressive governments worldwide to pick-and-choose human rights obligations based on political ideology – a development with severe consequences for women and girls.”

The Commission serves, in Secretary Pompeo’s own words, to distinguish between “unalienable” rights and so-called ad hoc rights –  a worrying sign of the Commission’s intent. These fears are supported by the appointment of commissioners with extensive records opposing access to sexual and reproductive health services, women’s human rights, and rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. The Commission’s public hearings have not allayed concerns as commissioners have repeatedly alluded to the primacy of freedom of religion over other rights.

“The Commission was improperly established as yet another shameful attempt by this administration to erase protections in international human rights law for sexual and reproductive rights,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Reproductive rights are human rights. These attempts by the US State Department, through the Commission, to pick and choose which rights the United States will recognize and prioritize threatens to erode protections for women, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized and vulnerable communities around the world.”

Human rights instruments and mechanisms, many ratified by the US, clearly lay out fundamental rights that are universal, interrelated, and indivisible. By casting doubt on decades of international human rights law, the Trump administration gives cover to those who seek to roll back essential protections for women, girls, LGBTQ people, and minority groups worldwide, the letter said, urging the United States to uphold all human rights, not only those that fit a narrow political ideology.

Freedom of religion – while a fundamental human right – has increasingly been misused as an excuse to discriminate, with particularly severe consequences for women, girls, and LGBTQ people. For example, health care providers worldwide routinely refuse to provide critical health services – including abortion care, contraception, and gender-affirming services – arguing that it goes against their personal beliefs. To this end, the Trump administration has championed the right to freedom of religion at the United Nations and World Health Organization in an attempt to further restrict sexual and reproductive rights.

“The Trump administration has a record of curtailing women’s human rights at every opportunity, and this Commission attempts to provide cover to insidious discrimination against women and girls around the world who seek to fulfill their human rights and access the health services they need,” said Amanda Klasing, acting women’s rights co-director at Human Rights Watch. “Redefining some rights, and by extension some people, as ‘less equal’ only increases inequality, insecurity, and injustice.”

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