Five Questions about the State Department’s New “Commission on Unalienable Rights”

by HRC Staff

The U.S. State Department will hold the first public meeting of its new “Commission on Unalienable Rights” on Oct. 23.

Post submitted by former Senior International Policy Advocate Jeremy Kadden

The U.S. State Department will hold the first public meeting of its new “Commission on Unalienable Rights” on Oct. 23. We and other human rights advocates -- and members of Congress -- have raised a number of concerns since the commission was originally announced, none of which have been satisfactorily addressed to date. 

As we head into the first meeting of this commission on October 23, here are just a few of the troubling questions that the State Department needs to address in order to grant the commission any legitimacy: 

1. What are the “unalienable” rights in the commission’s title?  

The commission’s supporters have suggested that the U.S. has gotten away from its principles around human rights and started talking about “ad hoc” rights. The commission’s definition of “ad hoc” rights is unclear — and we are concerned that if LGBTQ rights and/or reproductive rights are placed under this definition, it will indicate that the commission views some rights as less important than others.

2. Why is the commission necessary? 

Its purpose has never been clear. The commission's charter suggests that it will provide “advice and recommendations on human rights to the Secretary of State, grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the 1948 Universial Declaration of Human Rights,” but it is not a response to any articulated need, nor have any specific goals have been outlined in the charter or elsewhere. 

3. Will the commission take a broad approach that includes human rights for all people, no matter who they are or whom they love? 

The commission is made up almost entirely of experts and scholars on religious liberty, so there are concerns that its focus will be narrowly tailored to religious freedom. While religious freedom is a crucial human right, it must not be the commission’s exclusive focus and must not be viewed in conflict with the rights of LGBTQ people.

4. Will this commission give the Trump-Pence administration and its allies around the world more fuel for attacking vulnerable populations, such as the LGBTQ community? 

The terms “natural law” and “natural rights,” which were used in an earlier version of the commission’s charter but removed in the most up-to-date charter released in July, have often been used as a dog whistle to suggest that LGBTQ people are “unnatural” in order to restrict their human rights. The intense focus on religious freedom mentioned above is also concerning, since that has also been used as an excuse to undermine LGBTQ human rights.

5. Why isn’t the U.S. government’s primary body for advancing international human rights at the table?

Notably missing from the commission is anyone from the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, which has the most experience in these issues - and is specifically authorized by Congress to lead on human rights. 

These questions -- and many more -- must be answered.