Several human rights organizations sued Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the State Department on Friday over the Commission on Unalienable Rights.
Pompeo unveiled the commission in July 2019, saying it would be tasked with examining the role of human rights in foreign policy and refocusing on which rights should be “honored.” Lawmakers and human rights organizations had expressed concerns that the initiative was an effort to roll back protections for women, LGBTQ groups and minorities.
On Friday, Democracy Forward filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of New York on behalf of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights, the Center for Health and Gender Equity, the Council for Global Equality and the Global Justice Center. It targets Pompeo, the State Department and the department’s director of policy planning staff, Peter Berkowitz.
The groups allege that the commission was created and operated in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, the 1972 statute that establishes guidelines that such committees must adhere to.
“FACA requires that committee membership be ‘fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented,’ and advice provided by committees be objective and accessible to the public,” according to a Congressional Research Service report about the act. “Additionally, FACA requires nearly all committee meetings be open to the public.”
In a joint press release, the organizations allege that the commission, which was created by Pompeo in July 2019, is “stacked with members who have staked out positions hostile to LGBTQ and reproductive rights,” is “holding closed door meetings to conduct significant Commission business outside of the public’s view and scrutiny, including efforts to redefine human rights terminology and commitments” and is “failing to provide adequate notice of meetings and to release key documents to the public.”
CNN has reached out to the State Department for comment on the lawsuit.
“The Commission on Unalienable Rights’ discriminatory work must be stopped, quickly. Without action we risk the destruction of decades of progress by the human rights movement and emboldening oppressive regimes everywhere,” Kerry Kennedy, the President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, said in a letter to supporters Friday.
“Secretary Pompeo often argues that the modern proliferation of human rights claims cheapens the currency of human rights but it is this illegal Commission, with its warped use of religious freedom and natural law to deny rights, that cheapens the very notion of religious freedom and our country’s proud tradition of standing up for the rights of those who are most vulnerable,” Mark Bromley, the chair of the Council for Global Equality, said in a statement.
Upon unveiling the initiative last summer and in subsequent media interviews, Pompeo argued that the definition of human rights has grown overly broad and that was “dangerous,” as he told Hugh Hewitt.
“When everything is a right, these most fundamental, foundational rights are neglected,” he claimed.
News of the commission’s creation drew scrutiny and concern from stakeholders on Capitol Hill and in the foreign policy and human rights community.
A group of 50 House Democrats, including House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel of New York, sent a letter to Pompeo on July 18, 2019, saying they were “deeply concerned that (his) plan to establish a Commission on Unalienable Rights is an attempt to make an end run around career experts, statutorily established State Department structures, and widely accepted interpretations of human rights law to push a narrow, discriminatory agenda that decides whose rights are worth protecting and whose rights the Administration will ignore.”
A group of more than 250 human rights organizations, former government officials, faith leaders, academics and advocates wrote a letter Pompeo on July 23, 2019, expressing their “deep concern” with the commission.
“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),” the letter said.
A State Department spokesperson said at the time that the commission had “no hidden agenda.”
The commission held its first meeting in late October. Representatives from human rights organizations who were in the room for the hourslong meeting called it “odd,” “sort of farcical” and “intensely academic.”
“I think yesterday confirmed some of our worst fears about the commission,” Bromley told CNN at the time.
CNN’s Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.