As things stand, the U.S. State Department already has a bureau that focuses on human rights. It's called the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and it's led by an undersecretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights. This system has been in place since 1977 and it's never been especially controversial.
Politico reported yesterday, however, that the Trump administration wants a separate human rights panel, which will apparently be expected to look at the issue in a different way.
The Trump administration plans to launch a new panel to offer "fresh thinking" on international human rights and "natural law," a move some activists fear is aimed at narrowing protections for women and members of the LGBT community.The new body, to be called the Commission on Unalienable Rights, will advise Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to a notice the State Department quietly published Thursday on the Federal Register.
According to the State Department's notice, this new commission "will provide fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation's founding principles of natural law and natural rights."
At face value, the idea of introducing "fresh thinking" may seem relatively benign. After all, there's nothing inherently wrong with challenging preconceived ideas and thinking anew about old debates.
But it's nevertheless hard to have confidence in Trump administration initiatives like these, especially given how little this president and his team have cared about human rights since taking office.
For one thing, there's been no meaningful explanation of why the State Department needs two bureaus to work on the same issue. David Kramer, who served as the assistant secretary of State for human rights in the Bush/Cheney administration, told Politico he's glad to see Team Trump take an interest in the issue, but he's "not sure what this commission is supposed to do that the human rights bureau doesn't already do."
For another, there's even less clarity on the direction the new Commission on Unalienable Rights is supposed to take. The administration apparently believes the current "discourse" on human rights has "departed from our nation's founding principles."
And then, of course, there was the reference to "natural law," which is a phrase the far-right has been known to use to dismiss the rights of women and the LGBTQ community.
Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who led the State Department's human rights bureau through much of Barack Obama's second term, added, "I don't think this is the advisory committee for expanding rights."
Given everything we know, it's tough to disagree.