By CONOR FINNEGAN, ABC NEWS
(WASHINGTON) — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unveiled a new report on “unalienable rights” Thursday, defining human rights in a narrow scope and condemning what he called an “assault” on “tradition” by recent U.S. protesters and the media.
In a speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the nation’s top diplomat presented the findings of his Commission on Unalienable Rights, which he convened last year to define human rights and how they should be promoted in U.S. foreign policy.
But he took the occasion to wade deep into America’s culture wars, denouncing “rioters pulling down statues [who] see nothing wrong with desecrating monuments to those who fought for our unalienable rights” and disparaging the New York Times’s 1619 project on the history of slavery in the U.S. as “Marxist ideology” that makes the Chinese Communist Party “gleeful.”
Pompeo’s commission has been controversial since its start, facing a lawsuit from a group of human rights organizations, opposition from a bipartisan group of former assistant secretaries of state for human rights, and an investigation from House Democrats.
Alarmed by its founding charter and original members, critics have expressed concern it would set forth a more limited definition of rights that could exclude protections for minorities, like LGBTQ persons.
“Without major changes to promote and protect the full realization of human rights for vulnerable communities, including women, girls, and LGBTQ persons, this report will serve as a stain on America’s moral fabric and a wrecking ball to America’s global leadership,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a vocal critic of Pompeo.
Pompeo didn’t address those issues directly, but he condemned the “proliferation of rights” and argued that the rights to property and religious freedom should be “foremost.”
Other “positive rights granted by governments, courts and multilateral bodies” may be “worth defending,” he added, but shouldn’t necessarily be promoted overseas, particularly if a “new rights claim” doesn’t “represent a clear consensus across different traditions and cultures.”
Critics took that as an implicit argument against U.S. efforts to decriminalize homosexuality, for example, or promote equal opportunities for women or minorities.
“The administration is seeking to create a hierarchy of rights, where it gets to decide which rights are ‘unalienable’ and which rights are what it calls in the report ‘divisive social and political controversies,’ a category which predictably includes sexual and reproductive rights and LGBTI rights,” Tarah Demant of Amnesty International said in a statement to ABC News.
Rori Kramer, who served as a senior human rights official under President Barack Obama, said that idea “could have been written in Beijing” because it also could allow governments “to interpret human rights in accordance with its ‘national traditions’,” creating “an excuse to restrict civil liberties.”
Pompeo was introduced by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, and Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard professor who led the commission and warned that “some powerful countries are now openly challenging the basic premises of the great post-World War II human rights project.”
Shots at the Chinese government like that were one of the implicit points of Thursday’s events. Pompeo warned that foreign counterparts had manipulated the meaning of “rights” to a laughable point, while global bodies like the United Nations Rights Council or the International Criminal Court had “largely abandoned unalienable rights” and were “failing us.”
In his speech, at times sharply political, Pompeo defended America’s human rights record, acknowledging that Native Americans were forced from their land and Black people were enslaved.
But he argued the U.S. “political framework gave us the tools to ultimately abolish slavery and enshrine in law equality without regard to race. You don’t always hear these ground truths today, nor do you hear about the greatest strides our nation has made to realize the promise of our founding and a more perfect union.”
“Instead of seeking to improve America, too many leading voices promulgate hatred of our founding principles,” he added.
But as protests across the country seek to do just that — reckon with where issues of equality stand today and find paths to progress — Pompeo seemed dismissive of any criticism.
“We must and do serve as an exemplar at home as well, and I challenge anyone in the world to best our robust democracy, our vigorous debates, our constant striving to be better,” he said.
Specifically, Pompeo attacked the Times’s 1619 project for wanting “you to believe that our country was founded for human bondage. They want you to believe America’s institutions continue to reflect the country’s acceptance of slavery at our founding. They want you to believe that Marxist ideology that America is only the oppressors and the oppressed. The Chinese Communist Party must be gleeful when they see The New York Times spout this ideology.”
He continued: “Some people have taken these false doctrines to heart. The rioters pulling down statues thus see nothing wrong with desecrating monuments to those who fought for our unalienable rights, from our founding to the present day.”
Some protests across the U.S. have resulted in the removal of monuments to Confederate leaders, who seceded from the union and fought to keep Black people enslaved, while a handful have also targeted figures like the Founding Fathers, some of whom owned slaves.
“This is a dark vision of America’s birth. I reject it. It’s a disturbed reading of history. It is a slander on our great people,” Pompeo said.
It’s unclear where the Commission’s report will go next. Pompeo cast it as a now-fundamental document for the agency’s Foreign Service officers around the world, but it doesn’t include specific policy recommendations, just guiding principles on how “unalienable rights” should inform U.S. foreign policy.
In many ways, Pompeo has been doing that since the beginning of his tenure — opposing even passing references to “sexual rights” in U.N. documents; expanding the so-called “Mexico City policy” by blocking U.S. funds for any aid group that works with anyone who promotes abortion; at times pulling punches publicly on the human rights records of U.S. partners like Saudi Arabia or Egypt; and stopping embassies from flying LGBTI pride flags or promoting the Black Lives Matter movement, according to Bloomberg News.
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