The US State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights—an advisory body to provide guidance on human rights in US foreign policy—is a thinly veiled attempt to redefine human rights, prioritize religious freedom at the expense of other fundamental rights, and rollback decades of progress for women, LGBTQI people, and members of marginalized communities.
The Trump administration has a long track record of undermining basic human rights, both at home and abroad. Under the direction of President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and other cabinet members, the administration that chartered the Commission on Unalienable Rights has detained and separated migrant children from their parents and allowed them to die in custody; verbally attacked individual reporters and challenged the role and concept of a free press; actively weakened reproductive rights in the US and globally; and threatened the use of violence against activists for protesting against racism and police brutality in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Aubrey, and countless other Black people.
Yet, without a hint of irony, the administration launched the Commission to provide “fresh thinking” on human rights and resolve the supposed tension between those that are unalienable and those that fall into the category the State Department considers to be “ad hoc.”
To aid this effort, Secretary Pompeo stacked the Commission with members who have a history of promoting religious freedom at the expense of human rights for marginalized communities. Chairwoman Mary Ann Glendon has an extensive history of opposing international human rights standards that recognize women’s and girls’ rights to autonomy and self-determination over all areas of their lives.
Glendon served as the Vatican representative to the landmark 1995 Beijing Conference, where she unsuccessfully attempted to block language affirming women’s sexual and reproductive rights. She is joined by a cohort of commissioners with a history of working to undermine the rights of women and LGBTQI persons, including Christopher Tollefsen, a bioethicist who has written extensively in opposition to abortion rights, and F. Cartwright Weiland, who argued to limit abortion access during the historic Whole Woman’s Health vs. Hellerstedt case. In fact, six out of the 12 commissioners have actively opposed abortion access, ignoring the fact that the right to abortion is enshrined in international human rights agreements.
Throughout the public hearings, commissioners repeatedly expressed views consistent with their opposition to reproductive rights, including abortion, and challenged the fundamental principles of the international human rights system.
The real agenda of the Commission is patently clear. Over the course of the hearings, multiple commissioners argued that freedom of religion sits atop “lesser rights” and that the violation or infringement of these “lesser rights” must be tolerated in order to ensure the full protection of religious freedom. This argument deliberately ignores central human rights principles, including indivisibilty, and has dangerous implications for women, adolescents, and marginalized communities.
The Commission is not a theoretical exercise; it has real world consequences both domestically and internationally. For example, placing religious freedom above other fundamental human rights allows health care providers to refuse to provide critical services—such as abortion, emergency contraception, and gender-affirming care—based on their personal beliefs.
In these cases, freedom of religion is used to justify discrimination and the result is the denial of health care to individuals and communities in need. The situation may be even more dire for members of other marginalized groups. An undocumented woman must overcome many obstacles due to the intersecting oppressions she may face, including racism, xenophobia, sexism, and discrimination from the health care system.
In the United States, even if an objecting provider gives a referral, an undocumented woman is still forced to seek out another provider, which can exacerbate her risk of being detained and deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and be costly in expense and time. If she lives in a state where abortion is prohibited after the first trimester, an abortion may not be possible if she exceeds the gestational age due to being unable to find a willing provider.
Globally, the Commission has caught the attention of other aggressive, authoritarian regimes. At an early hearing, Brazil’s State Secretary for Family Affairs Angela Vidal Gandra da Silva applauded the Commission for its effort to elevate religious freedom. While requesting the Commission “define terms and meanings that are often mistaken internationally” and “bring back basic human rights,” Gandra Martins argued that Jair Bolsanaro’s administration was elected by Brazilians for its “values.” Yet, just like the Trump administration, the Bolsanaro administration has engaged in racist, misogynistic, and homophobic attacks against its own citizens as part of its ultra-conservative agenda.
The Commission is just one facet of the administration’s efforts to elevate religious freedom above other human rights. Coupled with the International Religious Freedom Alliance, the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the informal global antiabortion coalition, and US efforts to advance religious freedom at the United Nations and World Health Organization, the Commission emboldens authoritarian regimes like Bolsonaro’s to discriminate under the guise of religious freedom. Unfortunately, this is not unique. We’ve frequently seen women’s and LGBTQI rights sacrificed by authoritarian regimes using this justification. In Poland, for example, the far-right government has repeatedly attempted to curtail reproductive rights and has established LGBTQI-free zones to uphold “traditional values.” Not surprisingly, the Trump administration intended to host its third Religious Ministerial event in Poland, though it was cancelled due to COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further revealed the challenges of exercising human rights, perhaps most notably reproductive rights, which have been further strained due to both legal restrictions and shelter-in-place orders. If the Commission truly intends to guide the US’ direction on human rights, it will need to recognize the urgency of addressing domestic rights violations that undermine US authority on human rights globally. Rather than seeking to dismantle an already fragile framework, the US must make the promotion and protection of human rights a cornerstone of US foreign policy.
Photo: Lorie Schaull