Unalienable Rights Commission Intent on Privileging Religious Freedom Over Other Rights, Appears Set to Provide Trump Administration Roadmap to Deny Equal Rights for All
Slanted Membership, Withheld Records and Closed Door Meetings Violate Federal Law
New York, NY — Today, a coalition of international human rights organizations sued the Trump administration for creating and operating the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unlawfully created the Commission in July 2019. Since then it has been working behind closed doors to articulate a definition of human rights that is grounded in certain religious traditions and that will eliminate rights for LGBTQI individuals, restrict sexual and reproductive health and rights and remove protections for other marginalized communities across the globe. The Commission’s establishment — and its mandate to fundamentally reconsider the U.S.’s commitment to human rights — represents yet another way in which the Trump administration has eroded U.S. human rights commitments and practices, both domestically and abroad.
Democracy Forward filed today’s lawsuit on behalf of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), the Council for Global Equality, and Global Justice Center.
“The Trump administration’s agenda is on display at the Supreme Court this week for all to see,” said Kerry Kennedy, President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “Our lawsuit is bringing light to their attempts to export their misogynistic and homophobic policies around the world—policies which would deny women basic reproductive health rights, like access to contraceptives, would deny LGBTQI people recognition as rights holders, and would hand over who gets rights and who doesn’t to religious sects and autocrats.”
“The Trump administration is continuing its pattern of illegally outsourcing policymaking to hand-picked groups to reach pre-determined outcomes,” said Democracy Forward Executive Director Anne Harkavy. “This time, Secretary Pompeo seeks to use an unlawful advisory committee to redefine human rights and undercut protections for women and the LGBTQI community across the globe, so we are suing to stop him.”
“The State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights is just another stepping stone in the White House’s agenda to roll back well-established human rights for women and the LGBTQIA+ community. Disturbingly, this Commission includes members who have loudly opposed women’s rights and sexual and reproductive rights, but excludes the voices of those who would forcefully advocate for these rights,” said Serra Sippel, President of CHANGE. “CHANGE objects to this unlawfully biased Commission, and is proud to join this lawsuit to hold the U.S. accountable to its commitments to human rights and sexual and reproductive health and rights.”
“Secretary Pompeo often argues that the modern proliferation of human rights claims cheapens the currency of human rights,” noted Mark Bromley, Chair of the Council for Global Equality.“But it is this illegal Commission, with its warped use of religious freedom and natural law to deny rights, that cheapens the very notion of religious freedom and our country’s proud tradition of standing up for the rights of those who are most vulnerable.”
“Secretary Pompeo’s illegal Commission is part of the Trump administration’s wider attack on a human rights system that has firmly established access to safe abortion as a protected right under international law,” said Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Center.
Secretary Pompeo established the Commission with the predetermined goal of recasting human rights based on what the State Dept. called the “founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” This terminology has previously been employed to justify curtailing human rights and, in particular, restricting reproductive freedom and rejecting equal treatment for LGBTQI individuals. Proponents of this view, like Secretary Pompeo, assert that historically marginalized communities’ successes in claiming their rights have led to a “rights proliferation,” which they claim has diluted the very meaning of rights and caused unworkable tension and chaos within the international legal system. Secretary Pompeo has crudely dismissed the rights of historically marginalized groups as rewards for political “pet causes.”
The Federal Advisory Committee Act requires any outside advisory group that provides recommendations or advice to a federal agency to maintain a balanced membership, fulfill a public interest need, and operate transparently. The Commission is violating all these requirements. It is unlawfully:
- Stacked with members who have staked out positions hostile to LGBTQI and reproductive rights, such as the belief that marriage equality is “nonsensical,” homosexuality is “one of the signs of the End Times,” and that women should not be given contraceptives to prevent transferring the Zika virus to newborns
- Sidelining mainstream human rights groups, as well as career diplomats within the State Department, who have advised administrations of both political parties about U.S. human rights commitments and the role they should play in foreign policy
- Holding closed door meetings to conduct significant Commission business outside of the public’s view and scrutiny, including efforts to redefine human rights terminology and commitments
- Failing to provide adequate notice of meetings and to release key documents to the public
Since assuming office, the Trump administration has made clear its intention to reduce the United States’ role in human rights protection overseas. The establishment of the Commission is yet another means of achieving this retreat from global human rights leadership.
This is all the more concerning in the context of Secretary of State Pompeo’s speech to Concerned Women for America at the Trump Hotel, where Pompeo professed his personal belief that human rights should be grounded in religion rather than law: “I know where those [human] rights came from. They came from our Lord, and when we get this right, we’ll have done something good, not just I think for the United States but for the world.”
The Commission has also spurred both concern and action from Congress. In response to the administration’s May 2019 announcement of its intent to establish the Commission, five members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations raised alarms about the Commission’s membership. The next month, more than 20 U.S. Senators wrote to Secretary Pompeo in July 2019 seeking information “as part of Congress’ role in ensuring compliance with FACA.” That same month, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel, and more than 50 other Members of Congress wrote to Secretary Pompeo questioning why the Commission, which has a mission duplicative of the State Department’s own human rights office, is even necessary. Last summer, the House of Representatives passed an amendment sponsored by Rep. David Cicilline that would block the State Department from expending funds on this Commission.
The Trump administration has a record of illegally outsourcing federal policymaking. Democracy Forward obtained a court order that prevents the Department of the Interior from relying on recommendations provided by a committee — stacked with oil and gas industry insiders — that was established in violation of FACA. Similarly, Interior disbanded the International Wildlife Conservation Committee — a deceptively named trophy hunting council stacked with trophy hunters, donors to the Trump administration, and firearms manufacturer — after Democracy Forward challenged the unlawfully established advisory panel.