Setting Pompeo Loose on the Concept of ‘Human Rights’ Is a Warning the US Is About to Violate a Lot More
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has unveiled what he calls a “moral foreign policy,” attempting to limit other nations’ power to declare unalienable human rights. The aim, as usual, is legitimizing the American empire’s abuses.
The 60-page preliminary report, released on Thursday, is the product of a year’s work from an advisory panel Pompeo appointed to devise “a moral foreign policy…grounded in [a] conception of human rights.” It calls for a dramatic reevaluation of what constitutes “human rights” and advises the international community to get off the Trump administration’s back regarding their enforcement.
It wasn’t hard to guess when the project was announced that where US policy and human rights were at odds, Washington would win out – Pompeo even acknowledged as much, warning that “loose talk of ‘rights’ unmoors us from the principles of liberal democracy” (translation: you have too many rights, don’t make us come over there and civilize you) in an op-ed published at the time. He confirmed it again on Thursday in a speech he gave to celebrate the report’s release, quoting the commission’s chair Mary Ann Glendon while complaining about the “proliferation of rights.”
A rapidly expanding catalog of rights…not only multiplies the occasion for risks of collision, but risks trivializing core American values.
The commission’s report even acknowledges that for the US to hold itself up as a beacon of human rights to the world while its police are beating peaceful protesters and shooting unarmed civilians might ruffle a few feathers. “The credibility of US advocacy for human rights abroad depends on the nation’s vigilance in ensuring that all its own citizens enjoy fundamental human rights,” a ‘prefatory note’ to the report reads, admitting “like all nations, the United States is not without its failings.”
As those failings become more and more obvious to the rest of the world, it’s clear Washington has two options – reform itself, or try to “level the playing field” by lowering expectations for what “human rights” entail. Despite paying lip service to the need for reform, the US empire has shown, through decades of waging illegal and destructive wars under false pretenses for which it is never punished, that it is utterly incapable of moral growth or self-discipline. Thus, other countries will have to suffer to bolster the American government’s image.
A master of doublespeak, Pompeo loves to bloviate about China as an “authoritarian regime” oppressing its people, spewing bleeding-heart rhetoric about the plight of the Uighur Muslims – even while the US military continues to systematically oppress and murder the inhabitants of majority-Muslim nations in the Middle East. His other favorite target, Iran, is run by a theocratic Islamic government, and while most minority religious leaders there deny they are persecuted, the US has long howled about Tehran’s (imaginary) enmity toward non-Muslims. It’s thus no surprise that “religious freedom” forms the hypocritical core of Pompeo’s commission’s reimagining of human rights. The US has religious freedom baked into its Constitution, which the commission spends half the report rhapsodizing about; therefore, it’s an ideal cudgel to wield against countries opposing its hegemony.
Indeed, while the commission admits that “dedication to rights and democracy does not confer the authority nor entail the obligation to forcibly change regimes or to otherwise coerce nations to accept the interpretation of unalienable rights favored by majorities in the United States,” it claims just a few paragraphs later that “the defense of freedom at home may require the United States to come to the aid of friends of freedom abroad in repelling the aggression of freedom’s enemies.” It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who those “enemies” are.
Pompeo has repeatedly threatened the International Criminal Court for approving a probe into alleged US war crimes in Afghanistan, calling the institution “reckless” and “renegade” for daring to challenge the country’s self-image as a paragon of virtue. Rather than attempt to deny war crimes had been committed, his State Department merely sanctioned members of the international body for having the indecency to point out illegalities in both the 20-year US occupation of Afghanistan and Pompeo favorite Israel’s own atrocities against the long-suffering Palestinians.
In fact, the Pompeo commission’s report ultimately reads like a lengthy defense against a hypothetical ICC human rights case (and the ICC does have jurisdiction over “crimes against humanity” that go unprosecuted by national governments), insisting that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not legally binding and should not be held against the US because it derives so much from the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. While there might be “good reasons to ‘legalize’ human rights in international law,” the report explains, the UDHR is more of a moral and philosophical suggestion. It also stresses the principle of “subsidiarity” means international bodies (like the UN Human Rights Council, the ICC, or others who might take a dim view of the US’ activities) should avoid judging individual societies’ application of human rights. The irony for a country that has howled about “human rights” to justify sanctioning and even invading its nemeses is truly gargantuan, but it’s easily explained by Pompeo’s unshakable (one might say delusional) belief in American exceptionalism.
“America is fundamentally good, and has much to offer the world, because our founders recognized the existence of God-given unalienable rights, and designed a durable system to protect them,” the diplomat explained in Thursday’s speech, capping off the report’s bold effort to both credit the US for the existence of human rights and absolve it from abiding by them.
There’s some good advice in the report, though it’s unlikely the US will follow it. “If human rights were to become only or even primarily instruments for legitimating state authority and intervention, they would betray their origin and become the playthings of every authoritarian government seeking to cloak its abuses in the language of human rights obligation,” the document reads, seemingly skewering NATO’s “responsibility to protect” doctrine, which was used to justify devastating invasions of Libya and Yugoslavia. However, a spirited critique of “humanitarian bombing” was probably not what the commission meant.
Ultimately, the goal of the report appears to be to strip away ‘unnecessary’ rights in order to bring the US’ oppressive policies – foreign and domestic – into line with its democracy-promotion rhetoric, which glistens with hypocrisy under the currently-accepted global definition of “human rights.” If the international community will swallow that, they’ll fall for anything.
By Helen Buyniski