SALT LAKE CITY — On July 8, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally launched a new advisory committee on "unalienable rights," condemning widespread human rights violations around the world and promising bold action to build a better world.
"The commission's charge is to point the way toward more perfect fidelity to our nation's founding principles to which President Lincoln called us at Gettysburg and to which Dr. King called us while standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial," he said.
Sounds inspiring, right? So why were so many Democratic leaders and human rights activists so mad?
New York Rep. Eliot Engel, Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, called the commission a "bizarre effort."
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, warned it might take a "sledgehammer to the principles of universal human rights."
The heads of organizations like Human Rights Watch and Freedom House characterized the move as an attack on abortion rights and the LGBTQ community.
Is this new group — which will only meet about once a month and has no policy-making authority — really that big of a deal?
Pompeo says yes, but in a positive sense. During a press conference, he described the Commission on Unalienable Rights as an exciting opportunity to help world leaders speak with a unified voice on human rights once again.
"Democracies have a tendency to lose sight of the big picture in the hurly-burly of everyday affairs. Every once in a while, we need to step back and reflect seriously on where we are, where we've been and whether we're headed in the right direction," he said.
His critics don't reject that idea, but they're concerned about who's expressing it. The Trump administration's past actions undermine current efforts to champion human rights around the world, Menendez said in his statement.
"The Trump administration continues to support despotic governments abroad while simultaneously ignoring the abuses and rights of children and families on our border," he said. "We need this president and this secretary to actually champion human rights by standing up for America's values."
As Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, put it, "the Trump administration's human rights agenda has (previously) not been ambitious."
Since taking office, President Donald Trump has repeatedly defended authoritarian regimes over the objections of Congress and, at times, his own foreign policy experts. Last summer, he withdrew the U.S. from the United Nations Human Rights Council.
In light of these moves, this effort to correct other governments' human rights-related missteps seems misguided, if not laughable. It might even be dangerous, said Mark Bromley, chairman of the Council for Global Equality, which advocates for LGBTQ rights around the world.
"I really do worry that this is an attempt to create a new hierarchy of rights" and champion certain rights, like religious freedom, at the expense of others, including protections for the LGBTQ community, he said.
So do many Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives. They've already passed an amendment to the 2020 foreign affairs budget that would prohibit funding for the commission. The Senate has yet to take up their spending bill.
"It feels like this administration is trying to put religious freedom work on steroids," Bromley said, noting that, while he's not against efforts to address religious persecution, he fears that the Trump administration overlooks how protecting gay people also benefits people of faith.
"Religious minorities, ethnic minorities and LGBT people are targeted by the same forces of intolerance," he added.
Pompeo fueled Bromley's fears with his July 8 remarks and an op-ed published by The Wall Street Journal a day earlier. He implied that disagreements over more controversial rights claims have made the world a scarier place.
"After the Cold War ended, many human-rights advocates turned their energy to new categories of rights. These rights often sound noble and just. But when politicians and bureaucrats create new rights, they blur the distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights," Pompeo wrote in the Journal.
Interpreted generously, Pompeo seems to be saying that the U.S. needs to go back to the basics on human rights — don't murder anyone, don't outlaw certain religions — before it pushes for more robust protections for the LGBTQ community or more freedom for women. He might be trying to set a new baseline that the U.S. can defend consistently, Drezner said.
"This could be a positive contribution. We should certainly be open to that possibility," he said.
Similarly, Gayle Manchin, vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, encourages people to focus on the good this advisory group could do. She said early critics are "grabbing at straws."
"It's way too early to start having dismay over this new commission," Manchin said. "The important thing is there will be one more body of people in this country advocating for human rights."63 comments on this story
And they'll be well qualified to do so. The group will be made up of "human rights experts, philosophers and activists, Republicans, Democrats and independents of varied background and beliefs," according to Pompeo.
The initial list of participants includes a prominent rabbi, a famous Muslim scholar and a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. Each brings years of experience working in academic or political settings.
"I think we can be hopeful that something productive can be done," Drezner said.
Bromley offered a less inspiring message. He's rooting for the new advisory group to fade into obscurity.
"It could either be potentially damaging or completely innocuous," he said.