Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has set up a panel to take a look at the US approach on human rights
Washington (AFP) - Charging that human rights advocates have deviated from core principles, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday named a staunch abortion opponent to lead a new panel to set the future direction for the United States.
Pompeo, an evangelical Christian who often speaks of his faith, announced the creation of a State Department commission on "unalienable rights" that has already drawn suspicions among gay and women's activists.
Quoting Czech anti-communist icon Vaclav Havel as saying that "words like 'rights' can be used for good or evil," Pompeo said that the panel will "revisit the most basic of questions -- what does it mean to say, or claim, that something is in fact a human right?"
"It's a sad commentary on our times that more than 70 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, gross violations continue throughout the world, sometimes even in the name of human rights," Pompeo said without elaborating.
"International institutions, designed and built to protect human rights, have drifted from their original mission as human rights claims have proliferated," he said.
Pompeo named as head of the commission Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard Law professor under whom he studied, who is one of the intellectual leaders of the anti-abortion movement.
Many US conservatives take issue with mainstream human rights groups, faulting their advocacy of issues such as women's reproductive health, gay rights and income equality, and instead call for an emphasis on God-given "natural law."
Amnesty International criticized the panel, saying that US administrations regardless of party have supported the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN document adopted after World War II that enshrined individual liberty.
"This politicization of human rights in order to, what appears to be, an attempt to further hateful policies aimed at women and LGBTQ people, is shameful," said Joanne Lin of Amnesty International USA.
The Family Research Council, which vigorously opposes the acceptance of homosexuality, applauded the panel as "historic."
"Other special interest groups have sought to expand the definition of a 'human right' to include virtually anything. If everything is a human right then the term begins to have little meaning," said the group's president, Tony Perkins.
- Blocking 'bizarre' panel -
The Democratic-led House of Representatives in its latest appropriations bill voted to prohibit funding for the commission.
Eliot Engel, who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the "bizarre" panel risked "undermining many international human-rights norms that the United States helped establish."
"There is no place for this at our State Department, which should be a leading voice around the world in protecting and promoting human rights for all," he said.
Trump has already downplayed human rights, using the issue as a cudgel against adversaries such as China and Iran but treading lightly with allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
"President Trump's personal affection for gross human rights violators has stained America's moral fabric. No Trump administration commission can erase that," said Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who also vowed to ensure oversight.
- Rights 'manipulated' -
Glendon, chair of the 10-member commission, said in brief remarks to reporters that human rights "are being misunderstood by many, manipulated by many, and ignored by the world's worst human rights violators."
The scholar represented the Vatican at the 1995 UN conference on women in Beijing -- where then US first lady Hillary Clinton, later secretary of state, gave a landmark speech in which she declared "women's rights are human rights."
Glendon later criticized the conference's push on sexual and reproductive health, accusing foundations of "forging a link between development aid and programs that pressure poor women into abortion, sterilization and use of risky contraceptive methods."
Pompeo's panel is not without diverse voices. It includes Katrina Lantos Swett, a Democrat who has worked to preserve the legacy of her father, late congressman Tom Lantos, an outspoken critic of oppressive regimes.
Other members include Hamza Yusuf Hanson, an Islamic scholar who advised former president George W. Bush, and Jacqueline Rivers, a Harvard sociologist of African American religious life who is outspoken against abortion.