Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington on June 24, 2020.
CNN  — 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued against a “proliferation” of human rights Thursday, claiming that “more rights does not necessarily mean more justice.”

His comments came at the unveiling of the draft report from his long-touted “Commission on Unalienable Rights” Thursday – an initiative that rights groups and advocacy organizations fear will have damaging effects on human rights abroad and the rights of women and LGBTQ people.

In a speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pompeo repeatedly referenced the founders of the United States, calling the Declaration of Independence “the most important statement of human rights ever written.”

And the top US diplomat appeared to fan the flames of division stoked by President Donald Trump, warning that “the very core of what it means to be an American, indeed the American way of life itself, is under attack” amid nationwide protests for racial justice and against police brutality.

Thursday’s draft report caps a year of work from the commission, unveiled by Pompeo last July, whose largely conservative commissioners were tasked with examining the supposed proliferation of rights and refocusing on which should be “honored.” The commission would focus on principle, not policy, the State Department said. The public will now have two weeks to comment on it before a final version is released.

Rights not worth defending

Pompeo said the report contains 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 top US diplomat said. “We are forced to grapple with the tough choices about which rights to promote and how to think about this.”

The report identified religious freedom and property rights as two rights that were “unalienable.”

The 60-page draft document concludes that “the United States should be open to, but cautious in, endorsing new claims of human rights.”

Rob Berschinski, the senior vice president for policy at Human Rights First, argued Thursday that the commission “has been an unnecessary political exercise designed by Secretary Pompeo to provide intellectual cover to an effort to recast American foreign policy in the mold of his personal religious and political views.”

“Secretary Pompeo’s claim that a nonexistent ‘proliferation of rights’ is leading to a ‘trivializing of core American values’ is wrong-headed,” Berschinski said.


The top US diplomat said that the “commission never intended to time the report’s release to the current societal upheavals roiling our country,” but noted that “today’s unrest directly ties to our ability to put our founding principles at the core of what we do.” While he acknowledged that it is “true that at the nation’s founding our country fell far short of securing the rights of all,” Pompeo claimed “the nation’s founding principles gave us a standard by which we could see the gravity of our early failings.”

The draft document references the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in police custody in Minneapolis, noting that his “brutal killing … and the subsequent civic unrest that swept the country underscore that much still must be accomplished.”

However, in his lengthy remarks, Pompeo seemed to castigate those who questioned the US’ historical commitment to equal rights for its citizens, saying, “Instead of seeking to improve America, too many leading voices promulgate hatred of our founding principles.”

He particularly cast ire on “The 1619 Project,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning initiative from the New York Times Magazine “that aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

“The New York Times’s 1619 Project – so named for the year that the first slaves were transported to America – wants you to believe our country was founded for human bondage. They want you to believe America’s institutions continue to reflect the country’s acceptance of slavery at our founding,” he said. “They want you to believe Marxist ideology that America is only the oppressors and the oppressed. The Chinese Communist Party must be gleeful when they see The New York Times spout their ideology.”

‘False doctrines’

“Some people have taken these false doctrines to heart. 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,” Pompeo said. “This is a dark vision of America’s birth. I reject it. It’s a disturbed reading of our history. It’s a slander on our great people.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth of our founding and the rights about which this report speaks,” he said.

Berschinski, who was a deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the Obama administration, called Pompeo’s speech “unbecoming of a secretary of state.”

“Secretary Pompeo’s speech today on the ‘Commission on the Unalienable Rights’ loosely clothed a foray into the culture wars under the seal of the US State Department,” Berschinski told CNN.

“His need to ground the relationship between citizens and their government in religious terms is both antiquated and alarming. His insistence on bashing major American news organizations during a speech about America’s foundational principles is cynical, if in keeping with the views of President Trump,” he said.

“His notion that religious liberty and property rights are inherently more important than, for instance, freedom from discrimination, is dangerous. And his assertion that President Trump stands opposed to those fomenting division in American society, rather than as a leading agitator of societal discord, is simply absurd,” Berschinski said.

‘That was then’

In his speech, Pompeo claimed that “too many human rights advocacy groups have traded proud principles for partisan politics.”

“Human rights advocates won great and laudable victories in our lifetimes, from the defeat of fascism, to the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, to the end of Apartheid,” Pompeo said. “But that was then. The great and noble human rights project of the 20th Century is in crisis”

Human rights organizations and Democratic lawmakers have long expressed concern about the commission’s mandate, the way it was established and operated and its implications on global human rights.

Several human rights organizations sued Pompeo and the State Department in March, alleging that the commission was created and operated in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, the 1972 statute that establishes guidelines to which such committees must adhere.

In a statement Thursday, those groups denounced the draft document as “a biased, pseudo-academic report that purports to clarify the grounding for US human rights advocacy abroad” but “fails in that objective.”

“The Commission has not only ignored federal law in its procedures, but has grossly wasted taxpayer resources. The report unveiled today is the fruit of a poisonous tree. Secretary Pompeo should be admonished for these failings, and neither he nor the State Department should be permitted to rely on the recommendations made by this unlawful Commission,” Democracy Forward, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, CHANGE (Center for Health and Gender Equity), Council for Global Equality and Global Justice Center said in a joint statement.

Rights advocates said it was clear early on that women’s reproductive rights and the LGBTQ community would likely suffer in the commission’s proposed vision.

“We definitely saw that idea coming through the commission’s five hearings,” Jayne Huckerby, a clinical professor of law at Duke University and director of the university’s International Human Rights Clinic, told CNN prior to the report’s release.

A false flag

“Commission members especially posited a conflict between religious freedom and women’s sexual and reproductive rights, using religious freedom to read down very important rights for women,” Huckerby said.

“When you look at what Pompeo and commission members are concerned with,” Huckerby said, referring to their argument that a proliferation of rights is weakening core rights, “what they’re really talking about is the extension of existing rights to groups that haven’t had them previously,” Huckerby said. “‘Proliferation’ is often a false flag.”

The human rights community worries about the ripple effect internationally, Huckerby added.

This shift toward a more limited and hierarchical view of human rights would put the US out of step with the international community’s approach, which “focuses on effectiveness and guaranteeing human rights for everyone,” Huckerby said. “Under international human rights law, religious freedom is not without limits – there’s a prohibition about using it to discriminate against women and the LGBTQ community.”

Pompeo’s vision would set human rights in the context of an earlier time, ignoring decades of social change.

“It’s a very static vision,” Huckerby said.

This story has been updated with more comments from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and responses to his speech.

CNN’s Michael Conte and Kylie Atwood contributed to this report.