3.06.2020
By Francesca Chambers
McClatchy: Human rights groups sue Pompeo, try to disband State Department commission

A government watchdog organization said it filed a lawsuit on behalf of human rights advocates on Friday seeking to disband a commission that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set up within the State Department to review human rights issues.

The group leading the effort said the concern is that the commission will recommend that the Trump administration narrow the definition of “unalienable rights” to exclude reproductive rights for women and girls and LGBTQI protections.

The commission has not issued any reports to date, but the lead plaintiff in the case, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a nonprofit organization, says it is taking the proactive step of asking a judge to terminate the commission, based on Pompeo’s prior comments on human rights and the administration’s friendly relations with autocratic regimes.

RFK Rights President Kerry Kennedy told McClatchy in an interview that Pompeo’s stated belief that rights are “God-authored” invites abuse from foreign governments.

“The Trump administration is looking to strip away the universality of human rights and hand over who gets rights and who doesn’t to religious sects and autocrats,” Kennedy said. “And that is what we are fighting.”

RFK Human Rights and three other organizations that focus on gender equality and LGBTQI rights are asking a judge to effectively shut down the panel, formally known as the Department of State Commission on Unalienable Rights, and bar Pompeo from accepting any recommendations it might make.

They are suing Pompeo, in his capacity as secretary of state, in the Southern District of New York, as well as the State Department and its director of policy planning staff Peter Berkowitz, the executive director of the commission.

The other plaintiffs in the case are the Center for Health and Gender Equality, or CHANGE, the Council for Global Equality and the Global Justice Center.

Their lawsuit alleges members of the commission hold biased views, and they were selected by Pompeo to yield a predetermined outcome. It argues that the commission’s work is not in the public interest.

If the commission is allowed to continue its work it is likely to result in the formation of a “narrow set of rights” that would be discriminatory to certain groups of people and lead to potential violations of U.S. treaty obligations, the lawsuit states.

It accuses members of the commission of treating “with skepticism, or outright derision, rights claims” by LGBTQI individuals, “proponents of gender parity, and women and girls seeking access to sexual and reproductive health and rights,” and putting religious liberty above other human rights.

A spokesperson for the State Department declined to comment.

The commission held its first public hearing in October.

Liberal watchdog group Democracy Forward, an organization that was formed to act as a check on the executive branch after President Donald Trump was elected, is arguing the case on the organizations’ behalf.

A lawyer for Democracy Forward cited Pompeo’s role in the formation of the commission as a reason he is named in the lawsuit. “This is the Unalienable Rights Commission, but in many ways, this is Secretary Pompeo’s human rights commission. His fingerprints are very much on this,” said Ben Seel, an attorney at Democracy Forward.