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Pompeo's Vision Of Human Rights May Hurt LGBTQ, Women's Rights, Critics Say


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a report today outlining a new vision for human rights in foreign policy. The report is the work of the Commission on Unalienable Rights that Pompeo pulled together last year. He spoke today in Philadelphia about its release.


MIKE POMPEO: And it reorients us back to the foundational unalienable rights that we are bound to protect. This grounding in our founding principle also helps us to judge when other nations are violating the rights that we care most about.

MCCAMMON: Some are concerned the document limits which human rights U.S. diplomats can promote. NPR's Jackie Northam was monitoring Pompeo's speech and joins us now.

Hi, Jackie.


MCCAMMON: You've been reading the report on unalienable rights. What's the takeaway here?

NORTHAM: Well, you know, this was supposed to be a fresh rethink on human rights in the 21st century, and yet the first thing you see in the report is a picture of the Founding Fathers. You know, in fact, there are many pictures of the earliest presidents. And the whole thing - the whole document just feels steeped in the earliest days of this country. There's no sense of how human rights have moved on, evolved to reflect a modern society.

But, Sarah, you know, harking back to the country's founding principles is what Secretary Pompeo was after. He said that he was alarmed by the profusion nowadays of human rights claims and that human rights advocacy had become an industry that was diluting the original meaning. So when Pompeo set up this special commission a year ago, the tools he wanted the commission to use were the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

MCCAMMON: And human rights activists were critical of the decision to even set up this commission. What's the reaction been to the report now that it has been released?

NORTHAM: Right. Well, I mean, one of the biggest concerns was that the commission - which, by the way, is made up of conservative members - would recommend placing religious freedoms above all else and, you know, thereby endangering, say, women's rights to abortion or equality in marriage. And I spoke with Andrea Prasow, and she's the acting director of Human Rights Watch here in Washington. And she says the document doesn't explicitly say women don't have rights to reproductive care or LGBTQ people don't have rights; you know, she says it's more subtle than that.

ANDREA PRASOW: It sets out a framework that's designed to prioritize some rights over others, suggests that what many of us consider to be well-recognized human rights - and the international community does - are just, allegedly, political preferences.

NORTHAM: So, you know, Prasow says, in other words, the overall sense from this report is that things like abortion are political rights, rather than human rights.

MCCAMMON: OK, Jackie, this report has been a year in the making, delivered today to an audience in Philadelphia during a pandemic, of course. What happens now?

NORTHAM: Well, there's a two-week window for public comment on the document, which really isn't that long considering, you know, the importance of it. The writers do suggest that the U.S. gets its own house in order and highlighting the protests after the killing of George Floyd. But more broadly, Pompeo says he wants new, young diplomats to be able to take this document wherever they travel in the world to show what the U.S. stands for. However, Prasow from Human Rights Watch says, you know, she doesn't feel the same way. She says that she hopes this is just a two-day news story and that the document will be forgotten after that.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Jackie Northam.

Thanks so much, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Sarah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.