The president of the United States makes racist comments against members of Congress. He puts kids in cages. Attempts to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Praises dictators.
It has long been abundantly clear that Donald Trump has no respect for human rights. Now, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, wants to build a new intellectual framework to justify the administration’s rollback of human rights protections.
That is the only way to understand Pompeo’s new Commission on Unalienable Rights. In launching the group Pompeo explicitly stated that the purpose of the commission is to start from scratch in defining human rights. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Pompeo described part of the commission’s mandate: It will “address basic questions: What are our fundamental freedoms? Why do we have them? Who or what grants these rights?”
But it seems clear the intention is to both narrow the definition and application of rights. Pompeo said that the commission’s goal is to exclude “ad hoc” rights. While he does not elaborate on what “ad hoc” rights are, he attacks “politicians and bureaucrats” who “create new rights”, and many of the members of the commission appear to have been selected in no small part because they also want to roll back human rights.
As journalist Ali Rogin reported, one commissioner praised Saudi Arabia and defended it over the murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, while another commissioner praised the United Arab Emirates and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s autocratic power grab. The commission chair, Mary Ann Glendon, opposes reproductive rights and marriage equality.
While the Trump administration seeks to redefine human rights, it is clearly ignoring the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which itself built on the fundamental freedoms enshrined in America’s own bill of rights. Developed by a commission composed of members from around the world and chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the declaration was forged in the wake of the second world war and adopted without dissent by the UN general assembly. A truly historic breakthrough – with countries of all political leanings and cultures backing a common definition of rights – the declaration has been a global north star ever since.
Of course, there are some very real debates about human rights. One of them revolves around economic and social rights – such as the right to housing – enshrined in the UDHR and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (which the US has not ratified), but which the US ascribes to only unevenly. And there has long been a debate about the best way to secure human rights at home and abroad. But the arc of American history has trended towards increased protection for human rights at home and a growing recognition of supporting human rights around the world.
Trump administration has been actively attempting to undermine human rights at home and abroad
But the Trump team doesn’t appear to want to participate in these debates in good faith. Trump has a very clear anti-human rights agenda, and the Trump administration has been actively attempting to undermine human rights at home and abroad. The administration has worked to roll back protections for LGBTQ individuals. It has attacked the reproductive rights of women. It has treated – and spoken about – migrants and refugees as less than human. It is trying to revoke protections for those who want to apply for asylum in the US. It launches dangerous attacks on the media and free speech. Trump personally defends the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s brutal repression. The list goes on and on and on.
What’s more, the Trump administration wants to gaslight Americans into believing that this new commission is necessary because the fight to expand rights protections somehow gives cover to other countries to abuse the language of human rights to defend their repression. Pompeo speciously said: “Rights claims are often aimed more at rewarding interest groups and dividing humanity into subgroups. Oppressive regimes like Iran and Cuba have taken advantage of this cacophonous call for ‘rights’, even pretending to be avatars of freedom.” You read that right: the secretary of state is blaming people who work to protect human rights for supposedly helping authoritarian regimes.
And this is the Orwellian goal of the Trump administration. They want everyone to believe that what they are doing is in support of laudable goals – freedom, democracy, security, choose your own lofty noun. They make racist and antisemitic comments against others while claiming that they are somehow fighting antisemitism and defending Israel. They tear away children from their parents and place them in cages and claim that it is all a deterrent to protect those same migrants from the dangers of the journey to the United States.
In his novel about a fictional totalitarian regime, 1984, George Orwell memorably wrote that one of the regime’s mottos is: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” The Trump administration is doing its best to make this kind of gaslighting a reality in America. Don’t be surprised if one of the conclusions of this new commission is “human rights is repression”.