New Human Rights Panel Raises Fears of a Narrowing U.S. Advocacy

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday that he was installing a human rights advisory panel in the State Department, and named a conservative law professor as its chairwoman, to review and tighten the agency’s definition of human rights and ensure it is grounded in the “nation’s founding principles” and a 1948 United Nations declaration.

The State Department already houses an internal bureau that oversees human rights issues. But the new panel, which Mr. Pompeo said would examine “the role of human rights in American foreign policy,” will not be managed by the bureau and was created without substantial input from its experts and officials.

“International institutions designed and built to protect human rights have drifted from their original mission,” Mr. Pompeo said. “As human rights claims have proliferated, some claims have come into tension with one another, provoking questions and clashes about which rights are entitled to gain respect.”

The announcement, along with a blunt commentary by Mr. Pompeo that was published in The Wall Street Journal on Sunday, raised worries among human rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers that Mr. Pompeo is moving to curtail State Department advocacy for some rights, particularly ones related to women’s health and reproduction and gay and transgender issues.

Some House Democrats are pushing a measure that would block State Department funding from being used for the commission, which falls under the agency’s policy planning office.

“This commission risks undermining many international human rights norms that the United States helped establish, including L.G.B.T.Q.I. rights and other critical human rights protections around the world,” said Representative Eliot L. Engel, Democrat of New York and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mr. Pompeo is an evangelical Christian who is open about how his religious beliefs help shape actions and policies. In March, Mr. Pompeo said the United States would withhold funding from foreign nongovernmental organizations that give money to foreign groups that perform abortions. The announcement was an expansion of a 2017 administration announcement that reinstated an anti-abortion policy from 1984 that critics call the “global gag rule.”

Some American diplomats say there has already been a rollback of gay rights advocacy at the State Department. Last month, officials in Washington told some American embassies not to fly gay pride flags after diplomats had asked to do so. By contrast, in 2011, Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, proclaimed in a speech that “gay rights are human rights.”

On Monday, Mr. Pompeo said: “What does it mean to say or claim that something is, in fact, a human right? How do we know or how do we determine whether that claim that this or that is a human right, is it true, and therefore, ought it to be honored?”

Mr. Pompeo said the new panel, called the Commission on Unalienable Rights, would be led by Mary Ann Glendon, a conservative Harvard Law School professor and former ambassador to the Vatican. She said the panel had been asked to examine principles, not policy.

Plans for the panel have been in the works for months. Mr. Pompeo said human rights advocacy had become too broad over the years, but he did not give details on what would be curtailed, and he and Ms. Glendon did not take questions from reporters after making the announcement.

The American Jewish World Service denounced the creation of the commission because of what it said was a religious bent to the panel.

Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that Mr. Pompeo’s argument for a new human rights panel was absurd and that the Trump administration “has taken a wrecking ball to America’s global leadership on promoting fundamental rights across the world.”

The Trump administration is being widely criticized for human rights abuses related to the poor conditions under which immigrants are being held in federal detention centers near the border between the United States and Mexico. Critics also point to, among other things, President Trump’s steadfast support for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, both accused of rampant human rights violations.

Rob Berschinski, a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor during the Obama administration, said well-established principles for advancing human rights already existed and did not need to be revamped.

“Much of the criticism from human rights advocates concerning this administration centers on its violations of those rules,” said Mr. Berschinski, now the senior vice president for policy at Human Rights First.

He added that most of the 10 people named to the new panel viewed human rights through the lens of religious freedom. “At first blush,” he said, “the commission certainly seems to reinforce the perception that the administration and State Department under Secretary Pompeo uniquely emphasize religious freedom amongst universal rights.”

Next week, Mr. Pompeo plans to convene the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, a three-day forum in Washington.

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