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Professor Rachel López Critiques Commission Launched by Secretary of State in Op-Ed Published in The Hill

Professor Rachel Lopez

August 01, 2019

A commission appointed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo aimed at reforming human rights discourse should raise alarms, Professor Rachel López argued in an op-ed essay published in The Hill on July 25.

Pompeo tasked the newly created Commission on Unalienable Rights with proposing “reforms of human rights discourse where it has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.”

Announcing the commission, López wrote, Pompeo claimed that the international human rights movement has blurred lines between God-given and man-made rights.

Pompeo’s “reference to natural rights harkens back to a time when legal scholars believed that God, not government, imbued humans with rights,” López noted.

“In line with the Trump administration’s general nostalgia for a time when religious, predominately Christian, values took precedence, Pompeo hopes that the commission will return primacy to God-given rights, thereby making human rights great again,” López said.

López observed that commission Chairwoman Mary Ann Glendon, a law professor at Harvard University, and two other commission members have previously written that requiring health insurance companies to cover contraceptives is a “grave violation of religious freedom.”

“As the very mandate of Pompeo’s commission demonstrates, one of the greatest ironies and dangers of ‘God-given’ rights is that they are defined by governments. And governments do not always agree. In the ‘good old days’ of natural rights, the nations with the most military might imposed their version of what was good and just through violence,” López observed. “This approach to international relations ushered in decades of wars and brutality in the name of God.”

World Wars I and II gave rise to modern international law that is more concrete and collective, making it harder for nations to act unilaterally while encouraging collaborations between nations to punish gross violations of the law of nations, López wrote.

A consensus has emerged that human rights violations are grave when universally condemned, done deliberatively, acutely harm a limited number of people or produce widespread, severe harm, Lopez noted, adding that the killing of journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi and the pillage of South Sudanese villages both fit that standard.

“Instituting a national commission that will unilaterally define a narrow set of God-given rights in line with the United States’ founding principles risks undercutting these recent advances,” López warned. “If the commission simply makes human rights up as it goes along, without grounding its work in international law, it will propagate the ‘loose talk’ of human rights that Pompeo detests.”