Pompeo claims private property and religious freedom are ‘foremost’ human rights | US news


Mike Pompeo has sought to redefine the US approach to human rights by giving preference to private property and religious freedom as the foremost “unalienable rights” laid down by America’s Founding Fathers.

Pompeo, launching a draft report by a Commission on Unalienable Rights he established a year ago, also claimed that a proliferation of human rights asserted by different US and international institutions had the effect of diluting those rights he viewed as the most important.

“Many are worth defending in light of our founding; others aren’t,” Pompeo said at a launch ceremony in Philadelphia. He did not specify which rights he thought were superfluous, but the state department during his tenure has been aggressive in opposing references to reproductive and gender rights in UN and other multilateral documents.

In the report launched on Thursday, the authors – a mix of academics and activists – said they could not agree on the application of human rights standards to issues like “abortion, affirmative action, and capital punishment, to name a few”.

The state department presentation was quickly criticised by human rights activists for seeking to establish a hierarchy of human rights, in which some were more important than others, and for presenting human rights advocacy as distinctively American.

The Trump administration’s own human rights record has come under scrutiny for its policy of separating immigrant children from their parents and holding them in cages and its response to nationwide protests driven by anger over police treatment of black Americans. Donald Trump has also sought to intimidate journalists, frequently referring to the press “the enemy of the people”.

Pompeo did not mention freedom of the press in his remarks, but he repeatedly attacked the New York Times, accusing it of purveying Marxist ideology. The secretary of state has been rebuked by human rights groups for his selectivity in applying norms.

He has for example, been a staunch supporter of the Saudi monarchy, in the face of evidence of atrocities from its war in Yemen, its use of torture and the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The commission report refers to Saudi Arabia as a “flagrant human rights abuser”.

Pompeo, who is widely believed to harbour ambitions to run as a religious conservative candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, infused Thursday’s launch event with a heavily religious tone, beginning with an invocation by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.

“America is fundamentally good, and has much to offer the world, because our founders recognized the existence of God-given unalienable rights, and designed a durable system to protect them,” Pompeo said in his own remarks.

“As the report emphasises, foremost among these rights are property rights and religious liberty. No one can enjoy ‘the pursuit of happiness’ if you can’t own the fruits of your labor! And no society can retain its legitimacy – or a virtuous character – without religious freedom. Our founders knew faith was also essential to nurture the private virtue of our citizens.”

Pompeo acknowledged historical US failings, including slavery and the dispossession of Native Americans, but he argued that those wrongs had been remedied and was scornful of those who argued that they represented enduring flaws.

“The rioters pulling down statues thus see nothing wrong with desecrating monuments to those who fought for unalienable rights – from our founding to the present day,” he said in reference to a flurry of incidents involving the defacing and pulling down of monuments. The attacks have focused on leaders and symbols of the Confederacy but have sometimes targeted statues of other historical figures.

Human rights groups were critical of the attempt to give preference to some rights at the expense of others, pointing out that America’s Founding Fathers emphasised property rights at a time when that included owning other human beings, through slavery and 18th-century legal interpretations of marriage.

“There is this idea that there’s a proliferation of rights that undermines all rights, and that’s simply not the case,” said Amanda Klasing, acting director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “You’re not seeing a proliferation of rights; you’re seeing a fuller protection of all rights for all people. And I think that says something, that it is seen as threatening to Pompeo and the state department.

“In Pompeo’s speech he actually named-checked a press outlet in a threatening way several times,” Klasing added. “I don’t remember freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press in any way taking a significant role in his articulation of the most important human rights … and I find that worrisome and somewhat anachronistic.”

Tarah Demant, director of the gender, sexuality and identity programme at Amnesty International USA, said: “The US government cannot unilaterally redefine which human rights will be respected and which will be ignored.

“The US state department’s effort to cherry-pick rights in order to deny some their human rights is a dangerous political stunt that could spark a race to the bottom by human rights-abusing governments around the world.”



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