State Dept. disbands Trump-era commission that heightened importance of religious freedom

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the Biden administration's priorities for U.S. foreign policy on Capitol Hill on March 10, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the Biden administration's priorities for U.S. foreign policy on Capitol Hill on March 10, 2021, in Washington, D.C. | Ken Cedeno-Pool/Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has formally dismissed the findings of a controversial Trump-era Commission on Unalienable Rights, which sought to elevate the promotion of religious freedom worldwide.

Blinken, who vowed to promote LGBT rights worldwide during his confirmation hearings, only briefly alluded to religious persecution in a press conference unveiling the 45th State Department country reports on human rights practices last Tuesday. 

The annual human rights reports comprehensively cover internationally recognized individual, civil, political and worker rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements in nearly 200 countries and territories.

In his remarks during the press conference, Blinken referred indirectly to former Secretary Mike Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, which was a panel of experts formed in 2019 who argued in a report last July that religious freedom and the right to property were more important human rights.

Pompeo praised the report as one that “reorients us back to the foundational unalienable rights that we are bound to protect.”

"There is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others,” Blinken said. “Past unbalanced statements that suggest such a hierarchy, including those offered by a recently disbanded State Department advisory committee, do not represent a guiding document for this administration."

At the time, pro-abortion and pro-LGBT groups derided the commission as trying to devalue “women’s rights” and LGBT rights. Pompeo argued at the time that the commission was formed as “International institutions designed and built to protect human rights have drifted from their original mission.”

Travis Weber, vice president for policy and government affairs and director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Christian conservative activist organization Family Research Council, told The Christian Post that the repudiation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights is “an unfortunate development.” Weber argues that it diminishes religious freedom.

“This signifies the downgrading of the role of religious freedom in foreign policy and frankly, domestically as well because the commission had elevated the role of religious freedom and articulated its role as an important human right,” Weber said. 

“So, that’s a negative development in our view that the Biden administration is seeking to put all international human rights on the same level. Certain human rights are more important than others and religious freedom is one of them.”

The commission created in July 2019 sought to define human rights since the definition had “drifted” through the years to accommodate abortion and LGBT rights. Despite backlash from LGBT advocates, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom praised the commission.

In his press conference, Blinken said all human rights are “co-equal.”

“At my confirmation hearing, I promised that the Biden-Harris administration would repudiate those unbalanced views [of the previous administration],” he said. “We do so decisively today.”

Weber also pointed out how Blinken’s remarks failed to highlight religious persecution worldwide despite the serious issues.

“Christian girls in Pakistan [are] being forced to convert in forced marriages. The Uyghur community in China is certainly being persecuted. I am glad he mentioned that, but there’s also persecution of Christians in China, … and Christians and any others in North Korea,” Weber stressed. 

“The situation of many Muslim-majority countries around the world, including Iran, is very dire. Christians are being slaughtered in Nigeria almost weekly, it seems, and there is no mention of that. So, when we look at the horrific atrocities and human rights violations going on around the world, religious persecution is among them, and it’s totally disappointing that he’s not highlighting that [in his remarks].”

Weber said these are human rights violations that deserve President Biden’s attention. He hopes the administration “reverses its course.”

“By elevating other human rights on par with religious freedom, you’re diminishing the importance of religious persecution and sending the signal that it’s not that important when people are being slaughtered around the world because of their faith,” Weber said. “This is unfortunate because it is important, and it does deserve more attention than a lot of other concerns and rights when you look at the international sphere.”  

Matias Perttula, director of advocacy for International Christian Concern, a religious persecution advocacy organization based in the U.S., also expressed concern.

“We at ICC welcome the progress that the State Department has made on promoting religious freedom and human rights around the world,” Perttula said in a statement. “However, we remain concerned whether the Biden administration is still committed to putting religious freedom as a central principle in the United States’ foreign policy priorities. We look forward to working with the State Department in ensuring that this vital right is protected for all.”

Blinken did call out human rights violations in China through the “genocide” of Uyghur Muslims and ethnic and religious minority groups in the Xinjiang province. He also condemned the attack or imprisonment of opposition politicians, anti-corruption activists or independent journalists in places like Russia, Uganda and Venezuela.

His remarks also called out violence against protestors in Belarus, abuses afflicted in Yemen, atrocities committed in Ethiopia, the executions and tortures committed by the Syrian regime and widespread violations by Burma’s security forces, among human rights violations in other nations.

Blinken pointed out how some autocratic governments have used COVID-19 to further repress human rights, saying this disproportionately impacts racial and ethnic minorities, those with disabilities or LGBT individuals. Blinken also highlighted the heightened gender-based violence toward women and girls around the world due to lockdowns.

Blinken announced plans to add reproductive health back into the report after the Trump administration removed it. The Biden administration is taking steps to “promote women’s health … because women’s rights — including sexual and reproductive rights — are human rights,” he stated.

Weber said Blinken’s remarks signaled how the administration would advocate for expanded abortion access around the globe.

“The other development that stood out in [Secretary Blinken’s] announcements was the elevation of reproductive rights, which we know is code for abortion expansion,” Weber said. “We expect the Biden administration to push abortion in international policy, and I think he clearly signaled that in his press conference.”

Blinken also noted “profound inequities, including systemic racism” and said, “we have work to do at home.”

The administration will work with its allies and institutions like the United Nations Human Rights Council and Congress to demonstrate a commitment to promote human rights around the globe.

Blinken promised the administration would “redouble” its efforts to support journalists, human rights defenders, anti-corruption activists, labor union organizers and other advocates who “put everything on the line to defend human rights.”

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