Secretary of State Tony Blinken on Tuesday formally dismissed the statements of a controversial Trump-era committee that argued that some rights may not be worthy of protection – an initiative that civil liberty groups and advocacy organizations feared would have damaging effects on human rights abroad and the freedoms of women and LGBTQ people.
Blinken did not reference former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights” by name, but his comments Tuesday represent a clear rejection of his predecessor’s cornerstone project.
Speaking at the State Department as he unveiled the annual reports on human rights conditions in countries around the world, Blinken declared that human rights are “co-equal; there is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others.”
“Past unbalanced statements that suggest such a hierarchy, including those offered by a recently disbanded State Department advisory committee, do not represent a guiding document for this Administration,” he said.
“At my confirmation hearing, I promised that the Biden-Harris administration would repudiate those unbalanced views,” Blinken said. “We do so decisively today.”
Blinken gave a veiled swipe at the prior administration, saying that “too often in recent years, these (human rights) defenders heard only silence from us,” and expressed concerns about worsening human rights trends around the world.
Commission on Unalienable Rights
Pompeo frequently touted the findings of the commission, which was headed by conservative law professor Mary Ann Glendon, saying in July 2020 that its report contained a framework “to ask the right questions, and a basis for thoughtful, rational debate” on human rights.
“Americans have not only unalienable rights, but also positive rights, rights granted by governments, courts, multilateral bodies. Many are worth defending in light of our founding; others aren’t,” the former top US diplomat said. “We are forced to grapple with the tough choices about which rights to promote and how to think about this.”
Human rights organizations and Democratic lawmakers expressed concern about the commission’s mandate, the way it was established and operated and its implications for global human rights. In July 2020, more than 200 human rights, social justice and faith-based organizations as well as individual experts signed a letter rejecting the findings of the commission.
The signatories of the letter, which was organized by Human Rights First, specifically “(rejected) the notion—fundamental to the Commission’s mandate—that a proliferation of rights claims has undermined the legitimacy and credibility of the human rights framework.”
They also repudiated “the manner in which the report promotes rights hierarchies through its emphasis on a certain subset of civil and political rights,” as well as “the report’s focus on so-called new rights and its criteria for recognizing them.”
In his remarks Tuesday, Blinken noted that “one of the core principles of human rights is that they are universal.”
“All people are entitled to these rights, no matter where they’re born, what they believe, whom they love, or any other characteristic,” he said.
The top US diplomat also said the Biden administration would once again document issues regarding reproductive rights in the State Department’s country reports on human rights. They are not included in the 2020 reports released Tuesday, but Blinken said he has instructed his team “to release an addendum for each country report later this year that will cover these issues.”
The section on these rights was removed during the Trump administration. The prior administration also reinstated and expanded the Mexico City Policy – also known as the Global Gag Rule – which prevented non-government organizations that provide abortions, give counseling about abortions, or advocate for safe access to abortion from receiving US funding. President Joe Biden rescinded that policy early in his presidency.
“Women’s rights – including sexual and reproductive rights – are human rights,” Blinken said Tuesday.
‘Stand against human rights abuses’
Blinken said Tuesday that “trend lines on human rights continue to move in the wrong direction” – and that those worsening trends are being exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
He specifically highlighted the genocide committed against Uyghrs and other ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang, China, and abuses committed in Russia, Uganda, Venezuela, Belarus, Syria, Yemen, the Tigray region of Ethiopia, and Myanmar.
The top US diplomat said that the Biden administration would “stand against human rights abuses wherever they occur, regardless of whether the perpetrators are adversaries or partners,” and made specific mention of the Khashoggi Ban as a means to hold those perpetrators accountable. Although a US intelligence report declassified by the Biden administration assessed that Saudi Crown Price Mohammed bin Salman was culpable for approving the brutal murder of the Saudi dissident journalist, the administration did not apply specific repercussions against him personally.
In his remarks, Blinken also noted that the United States was not without its own problems, but argued that the US’ “ability and willingness to confront our own shortcomings out in the open” is what separates it from autocracies.
“We know we have work to do at home. That includes addressing profound inequities, including systemic racism. We don’t pretend these problems don’t exist or try to sweep them under the rug. We don’t ignore them. We deal with them in the daylight with full transparency,” he said. “The way we confront our challenges at home will give us greater legitimacy in advocating for human rights abroad.”
CNN’s Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.