Pompeo launches commission to study human rights role

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday launched a panel to re-examine the role of human rights in U.S. foreign policy, drawing criticism from lawmakers and activists who said it was an attempt to minimize abortion and gay rights.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a news conference on human rights at the State Department in Washington, U.S., July 8, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Pompeo named Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, to head the Commission on Unalienable Rights.

Pompeo, who did not take questions from reporters, said international institutions built to protect human rights had drifted from their mission.

“As human rights claims have proliferated, some claims have come into tension with one another provoking questions and clashes about which rights are entitled to gain respect,” he said.

“The time is right for an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy.”

Rights groups have criticized the Trump administration for not making human rights a priority in its foreign policy.

Critics argue that it sends a message that the administration turns a blind eye to human rights abuses in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Egypt.

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“This politicization of human rights in order to, what appears to be an attempt to further hateful policies aimed at women and LGBTQ people, is shameful,” Amnesty International USA’s Joanne Lin said in a statement.

Jamil Dakwar, director of the human rights program at the American Civil Liberties Union, said any attempts to unveil the commission as a way to protect America’s founding principles “are absurd.”

“The Trump administration couldn’t play by the rules so now it has decided to try to change the rules themselves,” Dakwar said.

After being introduced by Pompeo, Glendon said the commission would “do our very best to carry out your marching orders and to do so in a way that will assist you in your difficult task of transmuting principle into policy.”

Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized Pompeo’s argument that the commission was needed because basic human rights are misunderstood and manipulated.

“These claims are absurd, particularly from an administration that has taken a wrecking ball to America’s global leadership on promoting fundamental rights across the world,” Menendez said.

The focus of the commission on “natural law” was language sometimes used to justify policies that discriminate against marginalized populations, he said.

Tom Malinowski, a Democrat and former chief human rights diplomat in the Obama administration, said the panel was the idea of an administration that “seems eager to cozy up and justify the action of the worst dictators in the world.”

The Trump administration has stepped up an anti-abortion push at the United Nations since cutting funding in 2017 for the U.N. Population Fund.

In April a U.S. threat to veto U.N. Security Council action on sexual violence in conflict was averted after a phrase was removed because the Trump administration saw it as code for abortion, diplomats said.

Last year, Washington tried to remove language on sexual and reproductive health from several U.N. resolutions, then failed in a similar campaign in March during the annual U.N. Commission on the Status of Women meeting.

Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Additional reporting by Michele Nichols at the United Nations and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Bill Trott