The Persistent Danger of Trump’s Definition of “Unalienable Rights”

The State Department’s newly formed Unalienable Rights Commission held its third public meeting today. It’s been six months since the commission was first announced in July 2019 by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but it’s important to not lose sight of the dangers this commission poses. 

(Marc Nozell / Flickr)

To start, the very existence of this group as a way to determine and define human rights fundamentally distorts and misunderstands the very nature of human rights—they cannot be limited based on the views of a single government. Further, we should be most alarmed at its obvious intent: to erode long-established human rights in service of a regressive agenda, with clear antagonism toward abortion rights in particular.

At the outset, the commission is working under a seriously flawed premise. Universal human rights norms exist to hold states accountable: they cannot be defined or redefined based on the demands of an individual administration. Especially an administration like Trump’s, which has systematically disengaged from, rejected and attempted to erode the human rights system since its inauguration.

In June, the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the U.N. Human Rights Council and, for the first time since 1995, an American candidate nominated to the Human Rights Committee was not elected, which many rightly saw as a referendum on the U.S. commitment to human rights. The U.S. has also failed to submit overdue reports to U.N. treaty bodies, including to the Committee against Torture and the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and in July, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley called a U.N. report on poverty in the U.S. “patently ridiculous” and waste of U.N. and U.S. resources, asserting that those resources would be better spent on other countries such as Congo, Burundi or Venezuela.

Human rights, as it were, are not for Americans. Yet, with this commission, the Trump administration is claiming to know what “true” human rights are. This ignores decades of international treaties and agreements, which, despite the current viewpoints of one government in Washington, have firmly entrenched access to safe abortion as a protected right under international human rights law.

Under human rights standards, states “have an obligation to refrain from the use of criminal law to punish women for ending a pregnancy, as well as to repeal restrictive laws and policies which put women and girls’ health, safety and lives at risk.” Several international treaties have recognized this, seeing abortion access as part of a multitude of human rights to health, life, non-discrimination, privacy, and to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Some human rights experts have gone further. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, for example, has found that absolute abortion bans can amount to a gender-based arbitrary killing by a state.

In the face of this established consensus, the Trump administration has repeatedly violated this human rights obligation. Offending policies include state abortion bans and the presidentially-imposed Global Gag Rule, which imposes abortion restrictions on foreign non-governmental organizations that receive U.S. global health funding. The administration is also undermining human rights by erasing reproductive rights from human rights reports and other documents. Earlier this year, it successfully gutted a U.N. resolution protecting victims of rape in war because it contained references to reproductive health.

Clearly, the Trump administration has made flouting the right to abortion a cornerstone of its policy agenda. Enter Secretary Pompeo’s commission: In line with the administration’s pattern of retrenchment from and attacks on the human rights framework, the commission aims to build support for the wholesale elimination of sexual and reproductive rights from the human rights system.

How do we know this? Just look at who Secretary Pompeo put on the commission. Despite commission charter provisions mandating that the commission would be “bipartisan” and represent “diverse points of view,” the body is overwhelmingly represented by believers in conservative theology with a history of hostility to abortion rights.

The chair of the commission, Mary Ann Glendon, has a long history of anti-abortion advocacy, once receiving a lifetime achievement award for “heroes of the pro-life movement.” Glendon also led the Holy See’s delegation to the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, before which  it was noted that she had sometimes taken positions that were “more conservative than the Pope’s.” Another commission member, Christopher Tollefsen, once compared state-sponsored embryonic research to “Nazi science.”

Given the commissioners’ views, of which these examples represent only a few, this commission is more than likely to continue the Trump administration’s assault on reproductive rights. To protect hard-fought gains securing abortion access as a human right, we must not lose sight of the commission’s dangerous intent and continue to push back. However, we must go beyond calling for the dissolution of the commission. The U.S. must take seriously and engage meaningfully with its own human rights obligations, which is something both conservative and liberal administrations have failed to do.

Until our country treats human rights—including access to safe abortion—as a fundamental obligation, our rights, and those of people around the world, remain vulnerable. 


Elena Sarver is a legal advisor at the Global Justice Center, where she works to ensure legal protection for sexual and reproductive rights and accountability for sexual and gender-based violence.