1. Letter

Hundreds Call on Sec. Pompeo to disband Commission on Unalienable Rights

July 23, 2019

FCNL joined 430 human rights, civil rights, faith, and professional organizations, leaders, and scholars in an open letter expressing deep concern about the State Department's recently announced Commission on Unalienable Rights. The signers object to the Commission’s stated purpose, which they believe is harmful to the global effort to protect the rights of all people.

July 23, 2019

We, the undersigned U.S. foreign policy, human rights, civil liberties, social justice, and faith leaders, experts, scholars, and organizations, write to express our deep concern with the Department of State’s recently announced Commission on Unalienable Rights. We object to the Commission’s stated purpose, which we find harmful to the global effort to protect the rights of all people and a waste of resources; the Commission’s make-up, which lacks ideological diversity and appears to reflect a clear interest in limiting human rights, including the rights of women and LGBTQI individuals; and the process by which the Commission came into being and is being administered, which has sidelined human rights experts in the State Department’s own Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL).

We urge you to immediately disband this body, and to focus your personal attention on the significant challenges currently facing the protection of human rights globally.

As you said when you launched the Commission and affirmed the importance of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), “the language of human rights has become the common vernacular for discussions of human freedom and dignity all around the world, and these are truly great achievements.” The UDHR begins by declaring that the recognition of the equal and inalienable rights “of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace.”

In the United States, the story of the past two and a half centuries is in many ways one of the as-of-yet unfinished recognition of these rights for African Americans and other minorities, women, LGBTQI people, people with disabilities, children, and other marginalized populations, often via immense struggle against those who would limit rights to a privileged few. Likewise, the story of the international human rights movement is one of the deepened recognition and protective reach of rights based on the painstaking work of social movements, scholars, and diplomats, through international agreements and law.

Given this history, we view with great misgiving a body established by the U.S. government aimed expressly at circumscribing rights through an artificial sorting of those that are “unalienable” and those to be now deemed “ad hoc.” These terms simply have no place in human rights discourse. It is a fundamental tenet of human rights that all rights are universal and equal. Governments cannot take or discard them as they choose. Like other governments, the U.S. government is bound to certain obligations codified in widely ratified international treaties. At best, an exercise seemingly geared toward objecting to this well-established fact presents a waste of time and energy better spent on actual human rights issues. More ominously, the reference to “ad hoc” rights resembles language used by autocratic and dictatorial governments, which frequently speak in terms of a hierarchy of rights.

We are likewise dismayed by the well-documented views of a significant majority of the Commission’s 10 members. Taken as a whole, 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.” Almost all of the Commission’s members have focused their professional lives and scholarship on questions of religious freedom, and some have sought to elevate it above other fundamental rights. The right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is a fundamental right, but one of among 30 such rights enshrined in the UDHR. No Commissioner focuses nearly as exclusively on any other issue of pressing concern contained with the UDHR, including the right to asylum, the right to be free from torture, the right to equal protection against any discrimination, or any of the UDHR’s enumerated economic, social, and cultural rights, among other topics.

Moreover, the Commission’s chair and members are overwhelmingly clergy or scholars known for extreme positions opposing LGBTQI and reproductive rights, and some have taken public stances in support of indefensible human rights violations. The Commission’s chair has stated that marriage equality undercuts the welfare of children. A Commission member has similarly stated that “the unavoidable message” of same-sex marriage “is a profoundly false and damaging one.” A third Commission member has argued against the use of contraception even when that use is meant to limit the spread of disease. A fourth has described questions of gender identity as “a matter of mental illness or some other pathology” and “a mark of a heartless culture.” A fifth has suggested that widespread outrage at the Saudi Arabian government’s premeditated murder and dismemberment of journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi is grounded in U.S. domestic political considerations. A sixth has described the government of the United Arab Emirates as one “committed to tolerance…committed to civil society,” despite that government’s egregious and well-documented human rights record at home and abroad.

These are deeply troubling positions, and it is our firm belief that individuals who hold such views have no place on a commission tasked with the promotion and protection of universal rights.

Finally, we are alarmed by reports and statements reflecting the fact that the Commission was established without the input of DRL, which is tasked by law with advising the Secretary of State, through its Assistant Secretary, on matters pertaining to democracy and human rights. We find the notion that the Commission will focus on “principles” but not “policy” to be a distinction without a meaningful difference. In this regard, we note that the office charged by you with supporting the Commission’s work is aptly named “Policy Planning.”

Taxpayer resources should simply not be wasted on this Commission. A body created by this administration, with the mandate and members you have made public, lacks real credibility. Its findings will have no weight or ability to redefine human rights.

Rather than continue with this Commission, we urge you to use the resources of your office to take action on the great many grave human rights issues facing the world today, including those—like the treatment of asylum seekers and administration rhetoric and policy supportive of some of the world’s leading human rights violators— you have the power to improve directly.
Thank you for your time and attention to this important matter.


Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Signatories

  1. Accountability Lab
  2. Advocacy for Principled Action in Government
  3. The Advocates for Human Rights
  4. Advocates for Youth
  5. Aemuni
  6. Afrolatinos Historical Society
  7. Agora International Human Rights Group (Russia)
  8. Amazon Watch
  9. American Atheists
  10. American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
  11. American Friends Service Committee
  12. American Jewish World Service
  13. American Psychological Association
  14. Amnesty International USA
  15. Anti-Defamation League (ADL)
  16. As the Spirit Moves Us
  17. Bayard Rustin Liberation Initiative
  18. Better World Campaign
  19. Beyond the Bomb
  20. Bridges Faith Initiative
  21. Build A Movement 2020
  22. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
  23. Campaign for Youth Justice
  24. Canadian Civil Liberties Association
  25. Cardozo Law Institute in Holocaust and Human Rights (CLIHHR)
  26. Catholics for Choice
  27. Center for American Progress
  28. Center for Constitutional Rights
  29. Center for Disability Rights Inc.
  30. Center for Gender and Refugee Studies
  31. Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE)
  32. Center for Justice and Accountability
  33. Center for Reproductive Rights
  34. Center for Victims of Torture
  35. Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) DC
  36. Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS)
  37. Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD)
  38. Coalition for an Ethical Psychology
  39. Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA)
  40. Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic
  41. Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute
  42. Columbia Law School Immigrants' Rights Clinic
  43. Corporate Accountability Lab
  44. Council for Global Equality
  45. CREDO
  46. Crude Accountability
  47. Dejusticia
  48. Detroit Jews for Justice
  49. DignityUSA
  50. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights
  51. Environment and Human Rights Advisory
  52. Equality Arizona
  53. Equality California
  54. Equality Maine
  55. Equality North Carolina
  56. Equality Now
  57. Equality Utah
  58. Equity Forward
  59. Fair Wisconsin
  60. Family Violence Appellate Project
  61. Feminist Majority Foundation
  62. The Feminist Wire
  63. Foreign Policy for America
  64. Four Freedoms Forum
  65. Freedom From Religion Foundation
  66. Friends Committee on National Legislation
  67. Georgia Peace & Justice Coalition
  68. Global Faith & Justice Project
  69. Global Fund for Women
  70. The Global Interfaith Network for People of All Sexes, Sexual Orientations, Gender Identities and Expressions
  71. Global Justice Center
  72. Global Justice Clinic, NYU School of Law
  73. Global Justice Institute, Metropolitan Community Churches
  74. Global Witness
  75. Government Accountability Project
  76. Habonim Dror North America
  77. Hawai'i Institute for Human Rights
  78. Heartland Alliance International
  79. Heartland Initiative
  80. Hip Hop Caucus
  81. Horizons Foundation
  82. Human Rights Advocates
  83. Human Rights Campaign
  84. Human Rights Educators USA
  85. Human Rights First
  86. Human Rights Law Centre
  87. Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center
  88. The Hunger Project
  89. Institute for Asian Democracy
  90. Institute for Policy Studies - New Internationalism Project
  91. interACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth
  92. International Action Network for Gender Equity & Law
  93. International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination (ICAAD)
  94. International Center for Not-for-Profit Law
  95. International Center for Rights and Justice
  96. International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
  97. International Women's Health Coalition
  98. Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL)
  99. Jewish Council on Urban Affairs
  100. Jewish World Watch
  101. Just Foreign Policy
  102. Justice in Motion
  103. Kent State Truth Tribunal
  104. Kenya Human Rights Commission
  105. Lambda Legal
  106. Latin America Working Group
  107. LatinoJustice PRLDEF
  108. Legal Resources Centre
  109. Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School
  110. LGBT Bar Association of New York
  111. Liberty
  112. MADRE
  113. Maryland Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild
  114. Minnesota Peace Project
  115. MPact Global Action for Gay Men's Health and Rights
  116. Muslims for Progressive Values
  117. NARAL Pro-Choice America
  118. National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd
  119. National Advocates for Pregnant Women
  120. National Association of Social Workers
  121. National Center for Lesbian Rights
  122. National Center for Transgender Equality
  123. National Council of Churches
  124. National Council of Jewish Women
  125. National Council on Independent Living
  126. National Equality Action Team (NEAT)
  127. National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty
  128. National Lawyers Guild International Committee
  129. National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies
  130. National Trans Bar Association
  131. National Women's Political Caucus
  132. #NatSecGirlSquad
  133. Never Again Coalition
  134. Open Society Foundations
  135. OutFront Minnesota
  136. OutRight Action International
  137. Oxfam America
  138. PAI
  139. PartnersGlobal
  140. PEN America
  141. People’s Health Movement USA
  142. PFLAG National
  143. Physicians for Human Rights
  144. Planned Parenthood Federation of America
  145. Population Connection Action Fund
  146. Population Institute
  147. Presbyterian Church (USA)
  148. Priority Africa Network
  149. Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)
  150. Project South
  151. Psychologists for Social Responsibility
  152. Rachel Carson Council
  153. Reconstructing Judaism
  154. Rights and Emocracy of Vermont and New Hampshire
  155. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
  156. Safeguard Defenders
  157. Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center
  158. Showing Up for Racial Justice - Montgomery County, Maryland
  159. Silver State Equality-Nevada
  160. SJSU Human Rights Institute
  161. The Solidarity Center
  162. Synergía - Initiatives for Human Rights
  163. Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International
  164. T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights
  165. Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
  166. United Nations Association of the USA
  167. University of Miami School of Law, Human Rights Clinic
  168. Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights
  169. US Human Rights Network
  170. V-Day and One Billion Rising
  171. Veterans for American Ideals
  172. Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
  173. Win Without War
  174. Winnemem Wintu Tribe
  175. Women for Afghan Women
  176. Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER)
  177. Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO)
  178. Woodhull Freedom Foundation
  179. World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law

To view the more than 250 individual signers, download the letter.