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Rights Groups Go to Court Over US Challenge to Human Rights

State Department Commission Threatens Women, LGBT People

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, April 29, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool

The Trump administration is calling into question which internationally protected human rights the United States should recognize and respect – and it created a State Department commission to do so.

On June 9, Human Rights Watch and other organizations argued in US federal court to stop this commission’s work, which puts everyone’s rights at risk.

The controversy began in May 2019, when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the creation of a new Commission on Unalienable Rights, tasked with reexamining human rights in US foreign policy. Implicit in this is reducing the focus of US diplomacy to a few rights the Trump administration deems “entitled to gain respect.” The initiative set off alarm bells among human rights advocates, who stressed that human rights are universal and indivisible, not selected unilaterally and ad hoc by governments.

These concerns were heightened when the commission was stacked with people who espouse a conservative understanding of religious liberty, most of whom had previously expressed hostility toward the rights of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

More than 160 human rights organizations and advocates voiced alarm about the commission’s work, emphasizing that it threatens an international human rights system that has been carefully negotiated and reflected in law over more than 70 years.

Four human rights organizations sued the State Department in federal court. The lawsuit argues that the creation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights violated federal law requiring a balance of views in an advisory committee’s membership and transparency in its work – neither of which is evident with the commission.

In June, Human Rights Watch and five other rights groups filed an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief supporting the lawsuit.

The commission itself is a misguided endeavor. The notion that the United States can unilaterally decide which fundamental human rights it wants to respect undermines the very notion that human rights transcend the policy preferences of individual governments.

Secretary Pompeo has suggested that the commission’s findings may be released in the coming weeks. Instead of casting doubt on the validity of some rights or picking and choosing which rights it will support, the US government should instead focus its energy on upholding the full range of human rights that foster a more just and equitable world.

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