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US: State Department Should Affirm Rights for All

Unalienable Rights Panel Shouldn’t Rewrite International Law

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 should reject any attempt by its Commission on Unalienable Rights to rewrite international law by rejecting internationally recognized rights for all, Human Rights Watch said today.

In a submission to the Commission on Unalienable Rights, Human Rights Watch raised concerns that the commission’s report may attempt to downgrade the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and the rights of women and girls, including access to reproductive health services. The 40-page submission reviews the potentially dire consequences when governments do not give full backing to the human rights of LGBT people and of women and girls.

Human Rights Watch called on the commission to ensure that its report upholds the universality of human rights, and on the State Department to reject the report if it does not.

“The US government cannot unilaterally rewrite international human rights law,” said Andrea Prasow, Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “To maintain any credibility on human rights, the commission should recognize the necessity of upholding all rights equally, without giving some rights less value than others. If the report does not reflect that basic premise, the State Department should reject it outright.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo established the commission in June 2019, tasking it with advising on the promotion of human rights in US foreign policy. His announcement and subsequent appointments to the commission sparked concerns that it could be used to undermine reproductive freedom or the rights of LGBT people.

In April 2020, Pompeo appeared to question the legitimacy of the international principles of nondiscrimination and equality before the law, saying, “things that we all know as Christian believers aren’t part of the inherent dignity of a human being became rights…”

Human Rights Watch has documented many examples of the human rights violations against LGBT people around the world because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In the dozens of countries that prohibit same-sex sexual activity, LGBT people face violations of the right to privacy and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention. In many other countries where LGBT advocacy is restricted, they face violations of their freedoms of assembly, association, and expression.

In some countries, LGBT people face torture or other ill-treatment, for instance when the authorities employ forced anal examinations in criminal investigations. In these and other instances, LGBT people are not seeking special, separate, or new rights, but seeking to be protected by the same human rights that apply to everyone.

The human right to health includes access to reproductive health care, such as contraception, and other comprehensive health services. In particular, because denial of access to safe, legal abortion puts the health and lives of women and girls at risk, international standards call for countries to ensure that regulation of abortion does not lead women and girls to resort to unsafe abortion. Governments should at a minimum decriminalize abortion and ensure that abortion is safe, legal, and accessible when the pregnancy threatens life or health or would cause substantial pain or suffering. 

In his announcement of the commission in June 2019, Secretary Pompeo suggested that it should reexamine internationally recognized human rights amid what he referred to as a proliferation of human rights claims. The official notice of the creation of the commission calls on it to make recommendations on international human rights matters “where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” 

“When the US was founded, many understood ‘rights’ to belong only to white men who owned property,” Prasow said. “Just as the Constitution was amended and reinterpreted to abolish slavery and ensure that women have the right to vote, international law has evolved too, and a series of treaties – many signed by the US – make clear that human rights apply to everyone, equally.”   

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