The pandemic and human rights: State Department's CUR is not the cure

The pandemic and human rights: State Department's CUR is not the cure
© Greg Nash

The COVID-19 pandemic has generated unprecedented health and economic challenges, in this country as elsewhere. Some governments around the world are using this very real global crisis as an excuse to assert or further consolidate authoritarian power. 

Decades of progress in global respect for human rights and democratic norms are at stake. 

Much has been reported of the sweeping emergency powers Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is using to restrict civil society and freedom of speech. In Uganda, security forces have raided a shelter for homeless LGBT youth and denied legal access for detainees on grounds of the COVID-19 pandemic. Authorities in Russia and China have silenced doctors and journalists who sounded early warnings about the virus. 


The U.S. faces its own missteps in responding to COVID-19, of course. President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dead at 77 Biden, Democrats losing ground with independent and suburban voters: poll Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE’s factual misstatements and relentless attacks on the media, before and during this crisis, have emboldened other leaders around the world to follow suit. 

The Trump administration needs to set a better example and also do a better job of speaking out against violations of human rights norms and democratic principles. Instead, the United States’s human rights focus has been overshadowed by a months-long inquiry into what Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoSunday shows preview: US reaffirms support for Ukraine amid threat of Russian invasion Pence to deliver keynote at fundraising banquet for South Carolina-based pregnancy center Russia suggests military deployments to Cuba, Venezuela an option MORE has condemned as a “proliferation” of human rights protections. 

Organized under Pompeo’s direction and launched before the coronavirus outbreak, the Trump administration’s Commission on Unalienable Rights (CUR) has been charged with providing “fresh thinking about human rights,” an unsubtle dig at those in the State Department who work daily on these issues. The commission’s mandate is to propose “reforms of human rights discourse where it has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” 

This runs counter to the long-established U.S. position that human rights are universal, as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948. The declaration forms the basis upon which governments worldwide are held to account when it comes to human rights norms. 

The commission's members are known primarily for their advocacy of religious freedom. We strongly support continued U.S. advocacy to protect this fundamental right. For more than 40 years, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, which each of us led, has guided the U.S. government’s efforts to promote freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association and religion. The commission’s work would have been better served by having appointees representing expertise in these and other human rights areas, in addition to religious freedom. 

The writings of many commissioners reveal a lack of concern for LGBTQI, gender and reproductive rights. The application of human rights policy to these fundamental rights should be welcomed, not disparaged. Evolution of legally protected rights is inevitable and vital as our country continues its timeless search for “a more perfect union.” 

The Trump administration’s failed human rights policies reflect the president’s apparent attraction to authoritarian leaders. Trump “fell in love,” in his words, with North Korea’s Kim Jung Un and, while waiting to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, asked: “Where’s my favorite dictator?” He refuses to criticize Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinSenators huddle on Russia sanctions as tensions escalate Schumer requests Senate briefing on Ukraine amid Russia tensions Biden rushes to pressure Russia as Ukraine fears intensify MORE’s abysmal human rights record in Russia and covers for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. 

The commission’s framing, composition and mandate suggest its recommendations may end up buttressing claims by Russia, China, Iran and others that human rights should be filtered through their own history, culture and religious traditions. Embracing this line of thinking would fatally undermine any U.S. policy to press all countries to uphold their universal obligations, thereby eroding U.S. interests and the protections our citizens and those of other countries deserve. 

Now more than ever, the world needs strong affirmation that universal and indivisible human rights reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights must be protected for all. The Trump administration ought to shut down the commission and, instead, lead by example by devising strategies to reaffirm a broad range of democratic practices and human rights norms vital to our national security interests. 

The authors served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor — John Shattuck from 1993 to 1998; Harold Hongju Koh, from 1998 to 2001; David J. Kramer, from 2008 to 2009; Michael Posner, from 2009 to 2013; and Tom Malinowski, from 2014 to 2017.