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US Should Focus on Rights for All, Not Rights for Some

Commission Report Neglects Urgent Problems, Sets Dangerous Precedent

A monitor displays the words "Commission on Unalienable Rights" behind Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as he speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, July 15, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool

A long-awaited draft report from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights has confirmed the concerns of Human Rights Watch and dozens of other rights groups.

The report busies itself with “concern” about a “proliferation” of human rights claims and standards. But the biggest crisis facing human rights is not diverse groups of people asserting their rights – it’s the growing number of autocratic, authoritarian governments that brazenly cast them aside.

In some ways, this misplaced focus is on-brand for the Trump administration, which has done little to address real human rights threats while undermining international human rights institutions and cozying up to dictatorial governments.

In 2019, Pompeo formed the commission to reassess the United States’ human rights obligations and “reorient” human rights institutions. Human rights groups quickly voiced fears over the commission’s aims, composition, and process, warning that its work jeopardized the universality and indivisibility of human rights.

At the report’s launch on July 16, Pompeo publicly attacked protesters advocating for racial justice and twice condemned the New York Times. A report affirming human rights means little if the country’s top diplomat uses it as an opportunity to savage protesters and the free press.

The report focuses at length on the US Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The report pays little attention to what followed these, including advancements in the rights of racial minorities, women, children, people with disabilities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, as well as the growing realization of economic and social rights.

But the United States is bound by all of its human rights commitments, not only those affirmed in 1776 and 1948.

Given only two weeks to respond to the report, Human Rights Watch submitted a formal comment reiterating that this is a misguided enterprise and provides a dangerous blueprint to countries that want to shy away from their human rights obligations.

If the United States wants to promote human rights, it doesn’t need to revisit them – it needs to respect them.

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