On July 8, at a press conference at the State Department, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the creation of a new Commission on Unalienable Rights, a bipartisan group of 10 scholars and experts in the fields of human rights, law, and political theory. Their mission, according to Pompeo, is to lay the groundwork for what he hopes will be “one of the most profound reexaminations of the unalienable rights in the world” since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the UN.
Still more, Pompeo expects the commission, which will be chaired by the conservative Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon, to provide advice that is “deeply informed by the timeless truths in the American founding with a view to guiding our nation’s foreign policy.”
The choice of Glendon to chair the new commission is telling. In recent years, Glendon, who served as US ambassador to the Vatican under George W. Bush, gained notoriety for refusing to participate in the 2009 commencement ceremony at the University of Notre Dame because the university planned to honor then–President Barack Obama with an honorary degree. In a letter explaining her reason, she cited a 2004 letter from US bishops that requested US Catholic institutions “not to honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”
Glendon has long been an advocate of aligning US human rights policy with Catholic orthodoxy. As a member of the Ramsey Colloquium in the late 1990s, Glendon was part of an effort led by the late Catholic convert Fr. Richard John Neuhaus to provide the 1948 UN Declaration with “a more secure grounding in religious, philosophical, and moral reason.” Among other things, the Ramsey Colloquium expressed its concern that the concept of “universal human rights” was being diluted by a multiplying “number of interests, goods and desires that are elevated to the status of rights.” In other words, progressive concerns over the right to health care, access to abortion, and LGBTQ and other minority rights.
A piece Glendon published in the Christian-conservative First Things in 2016 gives an even better sense of what animates her thinking on human rights. “Today,” she writes, “the post World War II dream of universal human rights risks dissolving into scattered rights of personal autonomy…. a range of novel sexual liberties might one day become the bread and circuses of modern despots—consolation prizes for the loss of effective political and civil liberties.”
Yet Glendon’s angst over those “novel sexual liberties” does not seem to extend to those “liberties” taken by the priests of the Boston archdiocese. When The Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its work in exposing the decades-long child abuse and sex scandal and cover-up, Glendon said that “if fairness and accuracy have anything to do with it, awarding the Pulitzer Prize to The Boston Globe would be like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.”
Today, Glendon frets that “basic human rights are misunderstood by many, manipulated by many, and ignored by the world’s worst human rights violators.” To which she might have added, “of which we are one.” Consider not only the record of our interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Niger, and Yemen, but the fact that the United States is not a signatory to the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, nor to the 1999 Ottawa Convention on the use of land mines; nor is it a party to the International Criminal Court, which Secretary Pompeo’s State Department hit with visa bans earlier this year.
So what is this really all about?
The Pompeo Commission is just another in a long line of efforts by Christian conservatives to weaponize human rights in the service of their own parochial agenda. The Jesuit writer Fr. Drew Christiansen suspects that the goal of the commission might be to “remake international human rights in the American mode, narrowing their scope to reflect an exceptionalist American view of human rights.”
On Monday, over 400 former US officials, scholars, and civic and religious organizations voiced their objection to the formation of the commission. In a letter to Pompeo, the group, which includes former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice, expressed their dismay regarding “the well-documented views of a significant majority of the Commission’s 10 members.” “Taken as a whole,” the letter continues, “the Commission clearly fails to achieve the legal requirement that a federal advisory committee ‘be fairly balanced in its membership in terms of the points of view represented and the functions to be performed.’”
The effort to weaponize human rights in the service of promoting Christian fundamentalism can be traced back to 1998 when Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act, which mandated that the State Department issue annual reports on the state of religious freedom around the world. The latest IRFA report, overseen by Pompeo’s fellow Kansan and hard-line Christian conservative Sam Brownback, reads like a neoconservative wish list of countries they would like to see in America’s crosshairs. Iran, China, and Nicaragua lead the list of alleged wrongdoers.
Clearly, a new approach is needed, but not this one. A better approach would be one that places our global obligations (to not torture, indiscriminately slaughter civilians, wage preventive wars, or degrade the environment) at its center. This would entail a shift away from the American crusading mentality hidden under the rubric “human rights” toward a long-overdue reconsideration of our own conduct abroad. This, not another hectoring human rights commission, is what US foreign policy sorely needs at this moment.