Why curtail the definition of human rights?

  • But why? Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, thinks it time to rethink human rights definitions (Photograph by Mandel Ngan/AP)

    But why? Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, thinks it time to rethink human rights definitions (Photograph by Mandel Ngan/AP)


In announcing plans for a major re-examination of human rights in foreign policy, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote in the Wall Street Journal that too many people have pursued an expansionist definition, accepting “new categories of rights,” “ad hoc rights” and “the proliferation of rights claims”. Pompeo suggested the United States should go back to fundamentals, to “unalienable rights”.

What is deeply puzzling is that Pompeo hasn’t really spelled out what he means, either in the Journal or in his comments last month announcing the new Commission on Unalienable Rights. Pompeo bemoaned “contrived rights for political advantage”, yet did not offer a single concrete example of what rights he wants to curtail.

From the outside, critics worry that Pompeo is quietly trying to rewrite the definitions to exclude women’s reproductive rights or LGBT rights. Certainly, there are conservative interest groups that regard these with disdain. But this year, the US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, said he wanted to launch a global campaign to decriminalise homosexuality worldwide.

Also, a State Department official told The Post’s Carol Morello that the commission “will not make any pronouncements on gay marriage and abortion”. If this is true, then Pompeo’s goals and intentions are even murkier. It is not at all clear why decades of US policy on human rights should be redefined or curtailed.

What’s quite clear is President Donald Trump does not adhere to principle on human rights. He and Pompeo have singled out abuses when it suits their purpose, such as pressuring Iran and Venezuela. But they have turned a blind eye towards the unsavory activities of regimes they favour.

Trump and Pompeo flirt with the leader of North Korea while he maintains concentration camps for his own people. They embraced the kingdom of Saudi Arabia despite the imprisonment of dissidents and the killing and dismemberment of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Grotesque abuses of human rights are unfolding in the Philippines and Egypt with barely a whimper from the White House.

While Trump has devoted much energy to trade negotiations with China, he has remained largely silent about the ongoing cultural genocide against the Uighurs and others in Xinjiang province. Trump refrains from even the slightest lament about violations of free speech and religion in Russia under President Vladimir Putin, including the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The ethnic cleansing by security forces in Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslim minority has hardly been noticed by Trump.

Pompeo says the time has come to “step back and reflect seriously”. Sure, a fresh look is always helpful, and human rights is just one of many factors in foreign policy. But rather than tweak definitions, Pompeo should start honestly speaking the truth about the world’s most frequent and serious rights violators.

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Published Aug 26, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Aug 25, 2019 at 11:41 pm)

Why curtail the definition of human rights?

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