GJC Public Comment - Commission on Unalienable Rights

Dear Members of the US State Department Commission on Unalienable Rights,

This past May, the Global Justice Center sent a submission regarding our concerns with respect to the Commission, its work, and the potential harm that a final report produced by the Commission may have on the international human rights framework, specifically as it pertains to the right to abortion. 

Now, we write to you again as part of the two week public comment period following the release of the Commission’s draft report on July 16, 2020. First, we wish to call attention to the fact this is an inadequate length of time for meaningful engagement, both by the public and by the Commission, before finalization of the report. There is little reason to believe that this report is even viewed as a draft version, since the Commission has already completed all of its meetings and there is no mention of “draft” in the text of the draft report itself. Having reviewed the July 16 “Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights” (“report”) and listened to Secretary Pompeo’s speech at its unveiling, as well as the following Commission meeting, we write again to express our concerns with the report and any final product that emerges from this Commission. More specifically, we are alarmed by the Commission’s flawed representation of the international human rights framework, its legal requirements, and its framing of abortion.


Download the full Public Comment 


Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Abortion Rights Groups Announce First-Ever Bill to Repeal 47-Year-old Anti-Abortion Policy

Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act would repeal the Helms Amendment, which bars U.S. foreign assistance funding for abortion, expanding abortion access globally

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), a Senior Chief Deputy Whip and Chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus Providers and Clinics Task Force, today introduced the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act. The Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act is the first-ever legislation to repeal the Helms Amendment,a 47-year-old policy rooted in racism that bans the use of any U.S. foreign assistance funds for abortion, putting an arbitrary line between abortion and all other global health services. Reps. Nita Lowey (D-NY), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jackie Speier (D-CA), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Diana DeGette (D- CO), and Norma Torres (D-CA) signed on as original co-sponsors.

Rep. Schakowsky announced the new legislationon a virtual press conference with reporters on Wednesday morning, discussing the Helms Amendment’s harmful history, its burden on global reproductive and economic freedom, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on access to reproductive health care around the world. Joining her on the call were Dr. Ernest Nyamato, a Kenyan doctor and Quality of Care global team lead at Ipas, an international reproductive health and human rights organization, and former director of the Ipas Africa Alliance in Kenya; and Lienna Feleke-Eshete, public policy associate at CHANGE, a U.S. nongovernmental organization that advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights for women and girls and others who face stigma and discrimination.

As the United States grapples with racism and barriers to racial justice, the Helms Amendment is yet another example of a systemic policy that has become commonplace in society.

“The Helms Amendment is a policy deeply rooted in racism. It imposes our arbitrary and medically unnecessary abortion restrictions on international communities, allowing the United States to control the health care and bodily autonomy of billions Black and brown people around the world. Just like the Hyde Amendment, the Helms Amendment puts reproductive and economic freedom out of reach for women of color. But enough is enough, and both amendments must fall if we want to realize true health equity and reproductive justice,” said Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. “I am proud that my sisters, Representatives Lowey, Lee, Speier, Pressley, DeGette, and Torres, are joining me to introduce the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act of 2020, which will finally repeal the Helms Amendment.Comprehensive reproductive health care, including safe, legal, and accessible abortion, is a human right.”

Dr. Nyamato explained how the Helms Amendment puts reproductive and economic freedom out of reach for millions around the world, including in Kenya and other African nations. He also discussed the impact of the restrictions on Kenyans who may already have limited access to critical health care services, noting the disconnect between the Helms Amendment and the needs of communities receiving U.S. foreign aid.

“While U.S. foreign aid has been critical for communities across Kenya, restricting funds for abortion has been harmful to the health and autonomy of people across the country. Because of these restrictions, too often, an unsafe abortion from someone without training becomes the only option,” said Dr. Ernest Nyamato, a Kenyan doctor and Ipas quality of care lead. “As someone who has worked in multiple roles in health and human rights, I see just how critical comprehensive health care, including abortion is, for people, their families, and their communities. Unfortunately, we are already seeing health inequities grow due to COVID-19 and people using the crisis to try to eliminate abortion access. Global support must help prioritize health care, not perpetuate barriers that make it harder for people to get the health care they need.”

Health systems worldwide are already overwhelmed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to a reduction in access to sexual and reproductive health care in many countries, despite the fact that abortion care is time sensitive. The Helms Amendment is poised to further exacerbate these disparities and put critical health care out of reach for millions across the globe.

“Having lived through other health crises, I know that women and girls often suffer disproportionately. COVID-19 has devastated many of the communities where I work, and now is not the time to further limit people’s options,” said Monica Oguttu, an international women’s rights advocate, Kenyan midwife with decades of experience, founder of Kisumu Medical and Education Trust in Kenya, and an Ipas board member. “My patients can’t afford more red tape right now, and I ask that the U.S. government help, not harm Kenyan people.”

Enacted in 1973, the Helms Amendment is housed in the Foreign Assistance Act and has been passed as part of Congressional appropriations bills every year for nearly five decades. The legislation was introduced by then Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), who was known for his anti-rights, racist efforts throughout his career. The amendment is related to, but distinct from, the global gag rule (also known as the ‘Mexico City policy’), an executive order that prohibits foreign organizations that receive U.S. global health assistance from using non-U.S. funding to provide abortion services, information, counseling or referrals and from engaging in advocacy to expand abortion access. Both policies are discriminatory and deeply unjust.

While this is the first introduction of a repeal bill, a broad coalition of global reproductive health and rights advocacy, research, and service delivery organizations has been working to mitigate and address the harms caused by Helms for years. Coalition members include Advocates for Youth, American Jewish World Service, Catholics for Choice, Center for Reproductive Rights, CHANGE (Center for Health and Gender Equity), Guttmacher, International Center for Research on Women, Ipas, International Women’s

Health Coalition, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Open Society Policy Center, PAI, Population Connection Action Fund, Population Institute, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Additionally, the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act is endorsed by more than 115 organizations and quotes from several groups can be found below for inclusion in media coverage. More information can be found at repealhelms.org.


Quotes from Coalition Partners and Endorsing Organizations

Anu Kumar, president and CEO, Ipas

Abortion is essential health care —including during a pandemic. Abortion is a time-sensitive health-care service that cannot be deferred without profound consequences for pregnant people and their families. With worldwide lockdowns, and health systems focused on managing Covid-19, contraception and abortion are becoming harder to access, particularly for individuals who already face poor reproductive health outcomes. The pandemic has laid bare deep inequalities, including in access to safe abortion care, and we must address these inequalities now and in a post-pandemic future. The Helms amendment has politicized abortion services since it was enacted nearly 50 years ago—the policy strips abortion away from basic reproductive health care and it is Black and brown women who bear the burden of this discriminatory and deeply unjust, racist policy abroad. U.S. policies like this are harmful to people all over the world, particularly those living in low-to-middle income countries. The Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act is a tremendous step in moving us all to the day when everyone, no matter where they live or how much money they make, can get the health care they need, including an abortion if they need one with dignity. We are thrilled to join Rep. Jan Schakowsky and the original cosponsors, Reps. Nita Lowey, Barbara Lee, Jackie Speier, Ayanna Pressley, Diana DeGette and Norma Torres, in pushing to end a U.S. policy that is rooted in racism and colonialism—it’s past time.

Serra Sippel, president, CHANGE (the Center for Health and Gender Equity)

It is unconscionable that the United States has accepted the Helms Amendment as status quo for more than 45 years. Today is a historic day because U.S. advocates and lawmakers for the first time are standing together to end this racist and neocolonial policy and ensure the U.S. government no longer turns its back on the health and human rights of people across the globe. As countries have lifted their own restrictions on abortion and prioritized the health and rights of women and girls, the Helms Amendment has dragged their progress backwards. The United States must stop dictating to other countries that they deny women, girls, families, and LGBTQIA+ communities access to life-saving health care. Congress must work to pass the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act and repeal the Helms amendment now.

Nicole Cheetham, international youth health and rights director, Advocates for Youth

Around the world, young people in need of abortion services face many challenges to accessing care, including legal barriers, lack of access to affordable services, long travel distances, and stigma. The Helms Amendment and its interpretation exacerbate these challenges by forbidding the use of foreign assistance funds for abortion, even in countries where legal. Such restrictions to services are harmful and put young people at risk because they may not be able to access the services that they need. The

Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act is a crucial step toward ensuring that young people have access to comprehensive reproductive health care services, including the provision of abortion services.

Abortion access is fundamental to ensuring young people's autonomy, health, and ability to plan for their future. U.S. foreign assistance should contribute to improving the sexual and reproductive health of young people and reducing maternal mortality and morbidity, not create added barriers that harm their health and well-being.

Rori Kramer, director of U.S. advocacy, American Jewish World Service

The Helms Amendment has long prevented individuals from getting the health care that they want and need. This legislation makes it clear that abortion is not only health care, but a human right. We are proud to stand alongside Reps. Schakowsky, Lowey, Lee, Speier, Pressley, DeGette, and Torres in the fight to put abortion access within reach for everyone, including the most vulnerable around the world.

Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, acting president, Catholics for Choice

Catholics for Choice is proud to stand with moral leaders like Rep. Jan Schakowsky to right the wrong of the Helms Amendment, an affront to our values as Americans and as Catholics—freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the Catholic call to care the marginalized of society. For more than four decades, the Helms Amendment has endangered the lives of the most vulnerable people in the world— depriving them of both moral autonomy and basic reproductive health care. It is unconscionable for this dangerous and unjust policy to continue. Congress should pass the Abortion is Healthcare Everywhere Act, now!

Dr. Herminia Palacio, president and CEO, Guttmacher Institute

The U.S. government can and must show global leadership in safeguarding reproductive health and rights. This is true especially with the COVID-19 crisis threatening the health of women and families across the world—including potentially a significant increase in unintended pregnancies and unsafe abortion. U.S. leadership includes repealing the harmful Helms amendment through the Abortion Is Health Care Everywhere Act. The Helms amendment is a deeply unjust and discriminatory policy that in effect prohibits the use of U.S. global health assistance to support for safe abortion services abroad. Like other abortion restrictions, this funding ban most harshly impacts people with the fewest resources, including those who have low incomes, are young, or live in rural areas. The evidence is clear and irrefutable: Abortion is an experience shared by millions of people worldwide, both in countries where abortion is highly restricted and where it is broadly legal. Our urgent call to action for policymakers is that they must recognize the basic human right of all people to decide freely whether and when to be pregnant.

Dr. Chimaraoke Izugbara, director of global health, youth and development, International Center for Research on Women (ICRW)

International Center for Research on Women applauds the introduction of the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act, which calls for the repeal of the Helms Amendment. For over four decades, the Helms Amendment has frustrated access to essential sexual and reproductive health services worldwide. Our research shows that people of all genders who have bodily autonomy are healthier, are more financially secure and are more empowered in their decision-making and participation in social and political life.

Particularly for women and girls, these benefits extend to healthier and economically secure families, communities, and societies. Abortion is an essential health care service and should be upheld as such, regardless of political climate, local or global crises, or funding challenges. Access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and wellness services is a human right.

Ilyse Hogue, president, NARAL Pro-Choice America

For over 45 years, the Helms Amendment has blocked access to care for millions of women around the world. Every body should have access to safe, comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion care. Women and families everywhere deserve to make their own personal decisions about pregnancy without interference from politicians in Washington, DC. The Helms Amendment targets marginalized communities who already face too many obstacles to accessing care and remains a barrier to achieving economic and racial justice, which are inextricably linked to reproductive justice. Medical care should be determined by science—not an ideological agenda. For too long, the Helms Amendment has pushed time-sensitive, essential care out of reach for women across the globe. We must reverse this discriminatory policy and pass the Abortion is Healthcare Everywhere Act which will repeal the Helms Amendment and expand access to care.

Elisha Dunn-Georgiou, interim co-CEO, PAI

For more than four decades, the Helms Amendment has perpetuated and exacerbated health inequities around the world and compromised the effectiveness of the U.S.’ global health investments. Along with the global gag rule, funding restrictions that impede access to essential health care—including abortion—and prevent individuals from exercising their rights have no place in U.S. foreign policy. The repeal of the Helms Amendment is long overdue and we thank our Congressional leaders for clearing a path toward safe, legal and accessible abortion everywhere.

Brian Dixon, senior vice president for media and government relations, Population Connection Action Fund

For nearly 50 years, the Helms Amendment has made life harder for hundreds of millions of people around the world. It’s bad health policy. It’s bad foreign policy. It’s a disgraceful relic of a right-wing agenda that is utterly divorced from the reality of the lives of the people it hurts, and it is long past time for its repeal. We’re proud to endorse this important bill and are excited to help it pass into law.

Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO, Planned Parenthood Federation of America

Abortion is essential health care—period. Politicians in the United States should not be able to deny anyone’s access to health services, here in the United States, or abroad. The Helms Amendment has always been a coercive policy, pushing the extreme ideology of a vocal minority in the United States on people in many of the lowest income countries in the world—people in need of health care. The policy is a stark example of neocolonialism, taking advantage of the uneven relationship between the United States and the countries that receive aid. Planned Parenthood thanks Rep. Schakowsky and her original cosponsors for being champions for sexual and reproductive health care. And we’re calling on others in Congress to support their efforts to repeal the Helms Amendment.

Shilpa Phadke, vice president of the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress

We applaud the introduction of the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act and its goal to ensure women around the world can better access safe abortion. This bill’s historic introduction marks the beginning of a policy reversal that has been long overdue. For decades, women around the world, particularly in the Global South, have been denied access to the full range of reproductive health care as a result of the Helms Amendment, which has allowed politicians in the United States to place their

ideologies about abortion ahead of women’s autonomy. It is high time that we repeal and replace the Helms Amendment and protect women’s ability to make decisions that are best for them and their families. If we want to forge the best solutions for promoting health and well-being and expanding peace and security throughout the world, women must help shape our collective future – and that is only possible if we safeguard women’s autonomy and freedom.

Barbara Weinstein, director, Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism

Jewish tradition emphasizes the importance of kavod ha’briyot, or respect for individual dignity. The Helms Amendment violates this core value by limiting abortion access for the most vulnerable and perpetuating inequality in global health care. We are proud to endorse the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act, which would remove the Helms Amendment from statute and expand access to comprehensive reproductive health care worldwide.

Cristine Sardina, director, Desiree Alliance

As sex workers, accessing reproductive health without shame, stigma, or legal consequences, makes it harder to control and manage our health care choices. If we literally have to choose between our healthcare or losing our children because of economic and legal ramifications, we have to understand that the moral and carceral systems in which we are forced to abide by, is problematic at its very best.

Kenyora Parham, executive director, End Rape On Campus

End Rape On Campus is proud to endorse the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act because we believe that access to safe abortion is a fundamental human right for all individuals. Even more specifically, with respect to survivors of sexual violence, research shows that reproductive rights are intrinsically linked to intimate partner violence. We need to repeal this harmful policy that dismisses survivors' autonomy, high mortality rates, and instead uplift and empower survivors--regardless of how they identify across the gender spectrum and promote equality by also upholding their human right to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care access.

Grant Shubin, legal director, Global Justice Center

While less known than the Global Gag Rule, the Helms Amendment is the core of U.S. abortion restrictions abroad. It has been at the center of the United States’ denial of essential medical care for over 40 years. Its repeal is long overdue. Thanks to Helms and other U.S. abortion restrictions, the United States is in constant violation of international human rights laws protecting non-discriminatory medical care and freedom of speech and association. Helms must be abolished before it is allowed to inflict any more harm around the world.

Beverly Winikoff, president, Gynuity Health Projects

Access to essential medical care also means access to safe abortion. Repeal of the oppressive Helms Amendment is long overdue.

Paul Golin, executive director, Jews for a Secular Democracy

Judaism has never considered human life to begin at conception, and neither does science; anti-abortion laws inherently privilege one interpretation of one religion over all other religions and none, and that is by definition a breach of the American values enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Tara Romano, executive director, NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina

The Helms Amendment is nothing but an attempt by anti-abortion U.S politicians to cynically gain votes at the expense of the health and lives of women, especially women of color and Indigenous women, around the world. Organizations and advocates on the ground know what is needed for everyone in their communities to thrive, and receiving critical U.S aid should not be conditioned on accepting an anti-abortion ideology that is rooted in imperialist politics rather than medical science, health care, and gender equity. Sen. Jesse Helms' policies and positions often made it clear that he had no interest in supporting Black and Brown communities, women, and the LGBTQ community in North Carolina, and this global amendment that bears his name is an extension of that disregard. It needs to be repealed now.

Jody Rabhan, chief policy officer, National Council of Jewish Women

At the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), we know that abortion is safe, essential, time- sensitive health care and that health care is a basic human right. Our Jewish values teach us that every single person's health is unassailable and that all deserve fair treatment and access to the resources necessary to make their own decisions about abortion without political interference or economic coercion. The Helms Amendment has long turned this principle on its head, denying care to millions of individuals around the world and hindering the exercise of their fundamental reproductive rights by blocking use of US foreign assistance funds for abortion services. NCJW is proud to endorse the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act to repeal this dangerous policy and to support access to high-quality, comprehensive reproductive health care services worldwide.

Toni Van Pelt, president, NOW

NOW is proud to support the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act, which prioritizes the repeal of the Helms Amendment, an oppressive piece of legislation that denies women access to reproductive freedom. While it only bans the use of U.S. aid for abortion care as a method of family planning, every American president since its passing in 1973 has interpreted the ban to also prohibit aid for abortions in the case of rape, incest, and to save a woman’s life. Abortion care is health care and reproductive freedom should be available to ALL women – the United States must play its part in increasing access for women around the world.

Ben Jealous, president, People For the American Way

The United States provides health care aid in parts of the world where international assistance is critically needed. It is essential that this aid go to supporting the full spectrum of safe reproductive health care, including abortion care. For too long, the Helms Amendment has not only hampered our ability to support safe care, it has done harm by allowing unsafe practices to flourish. We fully support the Abortion Is Healthcare Everywhere Act because it appropriately puts gender equity, medical science, and human rights at the forefront of our foreign assistance priorities.

Dr. Kristyn Brandi, board chair, Physicians for Reproductive Health

As an ob/gyn who provides abortion care, I see every day how critical it is that people have access to safe, accessible abortion care where they live. While we continue to fight for equitable access to abortion care in the United States, Congress must pass the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act to extend the reality of access to safe comprehensive maternal and reproductive health care, including abortion care, around the world.

Renee Bracey Sherman, executive director, We Testify, an organization dedicated to the leadership and representation of people who have abortions

The Helms Amendment is an outdated, xenophobic and racist policy that forces people of other nations to abide by horrific American anti-abortion beliefs. The Helms Amendment is unjust and colonialist at its core. The We Testify abortion storytellers will not stay silent as our loved ones in other countries are barred from the freedoms we're afforded in the constitution. We've had abortions and we know the powerful impact safe access has had on our lives. It's time for the United States to end its imperialist reign on the world and repeal the Helms Amendment to ensure everyone has access to abortion care, no matter where they live.

Elicia Gonzales, executive director, Women’s Medical Fund

We at Women’s Medical Fund believe abortion must be accessible for anyone, for any reason, by any method, at any stage of pregnancy. We support all efforts that expand abortion access.

Pompeo Says Human Rights Policy Must Prioritize Property Rights and Religion

Excerpt of article from New York Times that quotes GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan.

But human rights scholars cautioned that this could set a global precedent for other nations to define human rights on their own terms, undermining diplomatic efforts to stop the persecution of religious minorities in places like China, or the promotion of women’s rights in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

“You’re seeing the rise of autocrats across the world,” said Akila Radhakrishnan, the president of the Global Justice Center, an international human rights organization. “You’re giving a gift to those people, and not only taking away U.S. leadership, but giving them and feeding them arguments they’ve long been making as well.”

Read the article

Pompeo says protesters and mainstream media are attacking American way of life

Excerpt of article from Washington Post that quotes GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan.

Some human rights groups immediately criticized Pompeo’s remarks and the report.

“There’s a tone-deafness for the moment we’re in,” said Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Center. “This is yet another tool in the arsenal of U.S. attacks on multilateralism. This is about all the other things the Trump administration has done to undermine and decimate the human rights system because they don’t like where it’s going.”

Rob Berschinski, vice president of policy for Human Rights First, said Pompeo is trying to recast American foreign policy in line with his personal religious and political views.

“Secretary Pompeo’s speech today on the Commission on the Unalienable Rights loosely clothed a foray into the culture wars under the seal of the U.S. State Department,” he said. “It should rightfully be seen as a political speech unbecoming of a secretary of state.”

Read the article

Sec. Pompeo and State Dept.’s Unlawful Commission Flouted Federal Law — Their New “Human Rights” Report Must Be Set Aside

Human Rights Groups Issue Statement in Response to Today’s Release of the Commission on Unalienable Rights’ Report

Washington, D.C. — This afternoon, Secretary Pompeo and his Commission on Unalienable Rights released their report on human rights at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, despite the health concerns of holding an in-person event during the coronavirus pandemic. The report is the product of a Commission that was unlawfully formed with a narrowly chosen membership made up of academics with little human rights experience and long records of opposition to the rights of women and the LBGTQI community. The Commission also unlawfully shut the public out of its work, leading Democracy Forward and four human rights organizations to file a lawsuit against the State Department.

In response to today’s release of the report, Democracy Forward, joined by Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, CHANGE (Center for Health and Gender Equity), Council for Global Equality, and Global Justice Center, issued the following statement:

Secretary Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights has produced a biased, pseudo-academic report that purports to clarify the grounding for U.S. human rights advocacy abroad. It fails in that objective, neither laying the groundwork for better human rights advocacy nor explaining why the Trump administration has done so little to stand on principle against human rights denials by other countries.

From day one, the Secretary and his Commission have flouted federal law. The State Department unlawfully stacked the Commission with members hostile to LGBTQI and sexual and reproductive rights, excluded career diplomats and mainstream human rights groups, and denied the public a meaningful opportunity to engage with the Commission and follow its work. Indeed, the report claims that abortion and same-sex marriage are not rights but “divisive social and political controversies.”

The Commission has not only ignored federal law in its procedures but has grossly wasted taxpayer resources. The report unveiled today is the fruit of a poisonous tree. Secretary Pompeo should be admonished for these failings, and neither he nor the State Department should be permitted to rely on the recommendations made by this unlawful Commission.

Learn more about the unlawful Commission and our suit to shutter it here.

US Supreme Court Upholds Speech Restriction on NGOs

NEW YORK — The United States Supreme Court today ruled that foreign affiliates of American non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can be required to oppose sex work as a condition of funding. The ruling therefore holds that these affiliates, and the Americans who speak through them, have no First Amendment rights.

The policy upheld today is similar to other ideology-based US policies like the Global Gag Rule and the Helms Amendment, which prohibit US-funded NGOs from speaking about abortion.

Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Center, had the following response:

“With today’s ruling, the Supreme Court is putting its stamp of approval on yet another US policy that limits the human rights to free speech and association. Whether on abortion rights or sex work, the US is using the power of its purse to impose its own regressive ideology on the world. This has real world harms, as it devastates the critical work of NGOs, who are forced to choose between US funding, free speech, and the pursuit of work based on evidence and human rights. Today’s ruling from the Supreme Court further entrenches the ability of the US government to impose ideology over evidence.”

Coalition of Groups File Brief in Support of Lawsuit Challenging Sec. Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights

Amici Charge The Commission Is Unlawful, Misunderstands Human Rights Law, and Will Harm the Marginalized Groups They Work On Behalf Of

Ongoing Lawsuit Seeks to Shut Down the Unlawful Commission Ahead of Expected July 4th Report

New York, N.Y. — Six human rights organizations submitted a “friend of the court” brief in support of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s unlawful formation and operation of the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights. Chartered by Sec. Pompeo to conduct a “profound reexamination” of the human rights landscape, the Commission has violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) by operating behind closed doors and with a membership stacked with academics hostile to reproductive rights and the rights of the LGBTI community. The plaintiffs — four human rights advocacy groups represented by Democracy Forward — are now joined by amici in raising concerns that the Commission is poised to issue recommendations that will change America’s stance on fundamental tenets of human rights law, including by prioritizing religious liberties over other rights, and that it will do so in violation of federal law. Sec. Pompeo has said that he expects to receive the Commission’s final report around July 4th.

In their brief, Human Rights Watch, American Jewish World Service, the Center for Reproductive Rights, Human Rights Campaign, Human Rights First, and the International Women’s Health Coalition write that they “are deeply troubled by the Commission’s apparent intent to undo decades of progress — repeatedly affirmed in multilateral treaties which the United States has signed and, in some cases, ratified — by replacing authoritative interpretations of international human rights law with those of the Commission’s members.”

The amici concur that the State Department has violated federal transparency law in its creation and operation of the Commission. In particular, the groups are concerned by the Commission’s biased membership, which “includes no advocates for the rights of LGBTI individuals to equal treatment under the law or the right to access reproductive health care.” Although federal law requires that outside advisory committees include a fair balance of viewpoints, the Commission is stacked with members who have openly opposed these rights. It is chaired, for instance, by former Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon, a staunch abortion opponent who has also argued that marriage equality is not a civil right but “a bid for special preferences.”

The amici further contend that the Commission will cause concrete and widespread harm to the communities on whose behalf they advocate. “Religious refusals,” the groups argue, “could be used to deny services — including housing, employment, education, health, and commercial services — to LGBTI individuals.” “The Commission,” the organizations write, “begins from the premise that gains made by marginalized groups represent a ‘proliferation’ of new rights that undermine ‘fundamental’ rights such as freedom of religion. But marginalized groups do not seek special rights; they seek rights to which everyone is entitled: privacy, autonomy, dignity, and equal treatment under the law.”

On Tuesday, concerns about the Commission were also raised by members of Congress. Rep. Jamie Raskin, Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and Rep. Joaquin Castro, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, sent a letter to the Commission expressing grave concern that its “upcoming report will undermine our nation’s ability to lead on critical issues of universal human rights, including reproductive freedom and protections for millions of people globally in the LGBTI community.” Their letter is but the latest in a string of objections raised by members of Congress since the Commission was announced. A group of 20 Senators recently expressed their concern with the Commission in a letter sent on May 20.

The amicus brief was filed on June 9 in the U.S District Court for the Southern District of New York. Read the full brief here.

Ahead of Expected July 4th Report, Human Rights Orgs Advance Case to End Sec. Pompeo’s Unlawful Commission on Human Rights

Commission Appears Poised to Reshape American Foreign Policy, Recommend Stripping Protections for Women, LGBTQ+ Communities Abroad Under Guise of Religious Freedom

In Response to Litigation, Trump Admin Releases Limited Commission Meeting Records; Continues to Shield Commission from Public View

Washington, D.C. — A coalition of human rights organizations advanced their suit against Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for unlawfully creating and operating the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). The Commission is expected to send its recommendations to Secretary Pompeo by July 4, 2020. The new filing comes on the heels of President Trump’s Executive Order on Advancing International Religious Freedom.

Four groups represented by Democracy Forward — Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), the Council for Global Equality, and the Global Justice Center  sued the Trump administration for stacking the Commission with members who have staked out positions that run counter to fundamental human rights principles and threaten LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights. Excluded from the Commission are the perspectives of mainstream human rights groups, as well as career diplomats within the State Department. The Commission has also operated without the transparency required by federal law.

The Commission, which was announced at a press event last July, is a project of particular and special interest to Secretary Pompeo. Its membership — comprised largely of religious liberty scholars — suggests that its true purpose is to provide the Secretary with a roadmap for prioritizing religious freedom rights over all others, a move that could lead to restrictions on reproductive freedom and the discrimination of LGBTQ+ individuals.

As the groups have argued, the Commission’s goals are “harmful to the global effort to protect the rights of all people.” In this latest filing, they further assert that: “The Commission has been unlawful since its inception. At every step of the way, the State Department has failed to operate the Commission in accordance with FACA’s requirements.”

“Accordingly,” the groups argue, “the State Department should be barred from relying on any recommendations the Commission has produced in secret.”

Secretary Pompeo’s Commission violates FACA’s requirements that outside groups that advise federal agencies on policy are in the public’s interest, have balanced membership, and make their records available to the public. Specifically:

  • Secretary Pompeo failed to articulate why the Commission is necessary and not duplicative of other government resources, like the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, which has the authority to advise the secretary on human rights policy.
  • The Secretary excluded the voices of mainstream human rights groups and career diplomats in favor of eleven academics with records of opposing LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights. Commission members have, for instance, argued that marriage equality is “nonsensical,” that homosexuality is “one of the signs of the End Times,” and that women should not have access to contraceptives to prevent transferring the Zika virus to newborns.
  • The Commission has also shielded its records from public view, making it more difficult to track its activities and know what the Commission will recommend when it sends its report to Secretary Pompeo next month.

State Department records produced in response to this litigation further substantiate how State has violated the law, including by shielding the commission from public oversight. The State Department, for instance, withheld witness remarks and video recordings of the public meetings, providing them only after this lawsuit was filed. This belated disclosure does not resolve the violation as the public lacked the benefit of the Commission’s records while it was continuing to meet publicly.

More than 20 U.S. Senators and 50 members of Congress objected to the Commission’s formation and mission. They questioned why the Commission is necessary given the Department’s internal human rights experts. Members of the Senate reiterated these concerns on May 20 and, with the anticipated July release of the Commission’s report, encouraged Secretary Pompeo to ensure the Commission’s work reaffirms the U.S.’ commitment to human rights.

The Trump administration has a long record of illegally outsourcing policymaking to outside groups in violation of federal law.

The motion for summary judgment was filed on June 2, 2020, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Read the Plaintiffs’ full brief here.

US demands removal of sexual health reference in UN's Covid-19 response

Excerpt of article from The Guardian that quotes GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan.

Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Centre, said the letter was “a disgraceful and dangerous attack on essential health services at the worst possible time”.

“No matter what the US government says, abortion is a fundamental human right and reproductive care is always essential, including during a pandemic. At a time when countless lives are at risk, the US has yet again decided to put its efforts into restricting healthcare instead of expanding it.”

She said Guterres should be commended rather than “bullied” by the US administration.

Read the article

Submission to the Commission on Unalienable Rights

Dear Members of the US State Department Commission on Unalienable Rights,

As a human rights non-governmental organization, we write to express our deep concern with the Commission, its work to date, and the potential harm that a final report produced by the Commission, in line with its mandate and the views expressed by several of its members, may have on the international human rights framework.

In particular, based on comments made by members of the Commission during public hearings, we are concerned that the Commission’s final report will aim to reinterpret the agreed-upon international human rights framework in a manner that regresses on clearly recognized and protected rights, including through the establishment of interpretations that are at odds with those from human rights bodies, experts, and courts, and may seek to establish a false and preferential hierarchy of rights. Any hierarchy that privileges some human rights - such as the freedom of religion - to the exclusion of others - such as sexual and reproductive rights, is fundamentally contrary to the framework of modern human rights, including as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”). Finally, we have strong concerns with regards to the Commission’s approach to sexual and reproductive rights, which is the particular focus of this submission.

With this letter we wish to reiterate that the international human rights law framework already adequately defines human rights; in particular, within that framework access to safe abortion has become firmly entrenched as a protected right.

Download the Full Submission

'Disgraceful': US accused of using coronavirus to promote 'pro-life' agenda in letter telling UN abortion is not 'essential'

Excerpt of article from The Independent that quotes GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan.

Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Centre, called the USAID's demands "a disgraceful and dangerous attack on essential health services at the worst possible time".

"No matter what the US government says, abortion is a fundamental human right and reproductive care is always essential, including during a pandemic," Ms Radhakrishnan said in a statement. "At a time when countless lives are at risk, the US has yet again decided to put its efforts into restricting healthcare instead of expanding it."

Read the article

USAID Chief Demands Abortion be Removed from UN COVID-19 Response Plan

NEW YORK — Acting Administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), John Barsa, sent a letter to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres yesterday requesting references to sexual and reproductive health be removed from the UN’s Global Humanitarian Response Plan to fight COVID-19.

Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Center, had the following response:

“This is a disgraceful and dangerous attack on essential health services at the worst possible time. No matter what the US government says, abortion is a fundamental human right and reproductive care is always essential, including  during a pandemic. At a time when countless lives are at risk, the US has yet again decided to put its efforts into restricting healthcare, instead of expanding it.

“Administrator Barsa’s attack on abortion care during COVID-19 is an extension of the longtime US strategy to hold millions of dollars in lifesaving global aid hostage to serve its extreme anti-abortion agenda. Policies like the Global Gag Rule and the Helms Amendment that restrict funding to abortion services have devastated global health for decades. Now, they’re opportunistically using a pandemic to further their efforts.

“UN Secretary-General Guterres should be commended for recognizing the importance of reproductive rights in COVID-19 response plans. Instead, he’s being bullied by a US administration hellbent on decimating reproductive health and bodily autonomy at all costs.”

Submission to the Group of Independent Experts: The Need to Center Gender in the Review of the International Criminal Court and Rome Statute System


Gender permeates the planning, commission, and resolution of criminal acts within the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction. It is woven into perpetrators’ planning and commission of crimes, as well as victims’ (individual and collective) experience and recovery of acts committed against them. Accordingly, gender must be a central criterion in the group of independent experts’ review of the International Criminal Court (“ICC” or “the Court”) and the Rome Statute system. Laudably, the Rome Statute was among the first international treaties to extensively address sexual and gender-based violence. Moreover, from the beginning of her term ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has made it a priority to close the gender justice gap, as evidenced by her Policy Paper on Sexual and GenderBased Crimes, the first ever such policy for an international court or tribunal. Despite these foundational pillars and priorities, in the 18 years of the Court’s operation there has only been one standing conviction on sexual violence. This submission highlights avenues for improving gender justice at varying stages of a case. It identifies opportunities for progress regarding staffing and prosecutorial strategies on case selection, prioritization, and investigation that hinder access to justice in these cases. Until gender is mainstreamed throughout all stages of ICC cases, the Court will be limited in its capacity to deliver justice.

Download the Full Submission

Abortion is a human right. A pandemic doesn't change that

Excerpt of CNN op-ed co-authored by GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan.

Access to abortion is an essential service and a fundamental human right. Period. The denial of it, including in times of global crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

In the United States, the Trump administration's colossal failure to help keep people healthy and to slow the pandemic-driven implosion of the economy shouldn't come as a surprise to much of the public. He has delayed acknowledging the severity of Covid-19, prematurely hinted at an end to social distancing and over the course of his term in office, attempted to slash funding for the WHO, the CDC, and other preparedness agencies that are tasked with the monitoring of such epidemics. The list goes on and on.

Read the Op-Ed

Human Rights Orgs Sue Sec. Pompeo for Unlawful Commission Designed to Redefine Human Rights, Undercut Universal Protections for Women, LGBTQI Individuals and Others

Unalienable Rights Commission Intent on Privileging Religious Freedom Over Other Rights, Appears Set to Provide Trump Administration Roadmap to Deny Equal Rights for All
Slanted Membership, Withheld Records and Closed Door Meetings Violate Federal Law

New York, NY — Today, a coalition of international human rights organizations sued the Trump administration for creating and operating the State Department's Commission on Unalienable Rights in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unlawfully created the Commission in July 2019. Since then it has been working behind closed doors to articulate a definition of human rights that is grounded in certain religious traditions and that will eliminate rights for LGBTQI individuals, restrict sexual and reproductive health and rights and remove protections for other marginalized communities across the globe. The Commission's establishment — and its mandate to fundamentally reconsider the U.S.’s commitment to human rights — represents yet another way in which the Trump administration has eroded U.S. human rights commitments and practices, both domestically and abroad. 

Democracy Forward filed today’s lawsuit on behalf of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), the Council for Global Equality, and Global Justice Center. 

“The Trump administration’s agenda is on display at the Supreme Court this week for all to see,” said Kerry Kennedy, President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “Our lawsuit is bringing light to their attempts to export their misogynistic and homophobic policies around the world—policies which would deny women basic reproductive health rights like access to contraceptives, would deny LGBTQI people recognition as rights holders, and would hand over who gets rights and who doesn’t to religious sects and autocrats.”  

“The Trump administration is continuing its pattern of illegally outsourcing policymaking to hand-picked groups to reach pre-determined outcomes,” said Democracy Forward Executive Director Anne Harkavy. “This time, Secretary Pompeo seeks to use an unlawful advisory committee to redefine human rights and undercut protections for women and the LGBTQI community across the globe, so we are suing to stop him.” 

“The State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights is just another stepping stone in the White House’s agenda to roll back well-established human rights for women and the LGBTQIA+ community. Disturbingly, this Commission includes members who have loudly opposed women’s rights and sexual and reproductive rights, but excludes the voices of those who would forcefully advocate for these rights,” said Serra Sippel, President of the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE). “CHANGE objects to this unlawfully biased Commission, and is proud to join this lawsuit to hold the U.S. accountable to its commitments to human rights and sexual and reproductive health and rights.”

“Secretary Pompeo often argues that the modern proliferation of human rights claims cheapens the currency of human rights,” noted Mark Bromley, Chair of the Council for Global Equality. “But it is this illegal Commission, with its warped use of religious freedom and natural law to deny rights, that cheapens the very notion of religious freedom and our country’s proud tradition of standing up for the rights of those who are most vulnerable.”

“Secretary Pompeo’s illegal Commission is part of the Trump administration's wider attack on a human rights system that has firmly established access to safe abortion as a protected right under international law,” said Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Center.

Secretary Pompeo established the Commission with the predetermined goal of recasting human rights based on what the State Dept. called the “founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” This terminology has previously been employed to justify curtailing human rights and, in particular, restricting reproductive freedom and rejecting equal treatment for LGBTQI individuals. Proponents of this view, like Secretary Pompeo, assert that historically marginalized communities’ successes in claiming their rights have led to a “rights proliferation,” which they claim has diluted the very meaning of rights and caused unworkable tension and chaos within the international legal system. Secretary Pompeo has crudely dismissedthe rights of historically marginalized groups as rewards for political “pet causes.”

The Federal Advisory Committee Act requires any outside advisory group that provides recommendations or advice to a federal agency maintain a balanced membership, fulfill a public interest need and operate transparently. The Commission is violating all these requirements. It is unlawfully:

  • Stacked with members who have staked out positions hostile to LGBTQ and reproductive rights, such as the belief that marriage equality is “nonsensical,” homosexuality is “one of the signs of the End Times,” and that women should not be given contraceptives to prevent transferring the Zika virus to newborns. 

  • Sidelining mainstream human rights groups, as well as career diplomats within the State Department, who have advised administrations of both political parties about U.S. human rights commitments and the role they should play in foreign policy.

  • Holding closed door meetings to conduct significant Commission business outside of the public’s view and scrutiny, including efforts to redefine human rights terminology and commitments.

  • Failing to provide adequate notice of meetings and to release key documents to the public.

Since assuming office, the Trump administration has made clear its intention to reduce the United States’ role in human rights protection overseas. The establishment of the Commission is yet another means of achieving this retreat from global human rights leadership. 

This is all the more concerning in the context of Secretary of State Pompeo’s speech to Concerned Women for America at the Trump Hotel, where Pompeo professed his personal belief that human rights should be grounded in religion rather than law: “I know where those [human] rights came from. They came from our Lord, and when we get this right, we’ll have done something good, not just I think for the United States but for the world.” 

The Commission has also spurred both concern and action from Congress. In response to the administration’s May 2019 announcement of its intent to establish the Commission, five members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations raised alarms about the Commission’s membership. The next month, more than 20 U.S. Senators wrote to Secretary Pompeo in July 2019 seeking information “as part of Congress’ role in ensuring compliance with FACA.” That same month, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel and more than 50 other Members of Congress wrote to Secretary Pompeo questioning why the Commission, which has a mission duplicative of the State Department’s own human rights office, is even necessary. Last summer, the House of Representatives passed an amendment sponsored by Rep. David Cicilline that would block the State Department from expending funds on this Commission.

The Trump administration has a record of illegally outsourcing federal policymaking. Democracy Forward obtained a court order that prevents the Department of the Interior from relying on recommendations provided by a committee — stacked with oil and gas industry insiders — that was established in violation of FACA. Similarly, Interior disbanded the International Wildlife Conservation Committee — a deceptively named trophy hunting council stacked with trophy hunters, donors to the Trump administration, and firearms manufacturer — after Democracy Forward challenged the unlawfully established advisory panel.

Complaint - Unalienable Rights Lawsuit

A coalition of international human rights organizations sued the Trump administration for creating and operating the State Department's Commission on Unalienable Rights in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unlawfully created the Commission in July 2019. Since then it has been working behind closed doors to articulate a definition of human rights that is grounded in certain religious traditions and that will eliminate rights for LGBTQI individuals, restrict sexual and reproductive health and rights and remove protections for other marginalized communities across the globe. The Commission's establishment — and its mandate to fundamentally reconsider the U.S.’s commitment to human rights — represents yet another way in which the Trump administration has eroded U.S. human rights commitments and practices, both domestically and abroad. 

Democracy Forward filed the lawsuit on behalf of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), the Council for Global Equality, and Global Justice Center


Read the Complaint 


Illegal US Abortion Restrictions: Key Points for the Universal Periodic Review of the United States


During the United States’ (US) second-cycle Universal Periodic Review (UPR), multiple states made recommendations concerning US abortion restrictions on foreign assistance, including the Helms Amendment. In addition to donor and recipient countries, these restrictions have also been the subject of concern for human rights bodies and experts. The US has failed to take any action on these state recommendations; in fact, in 2017 the Trump administration further entrenched and expanded the scope of these policies with the reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule (GGR).

The restrictive abortion policies include those imposed by the US Congress – the Helms and Siljander Amendments (Helms-related restrictions) – as well as the Presidentially imposed GGR. The restrictions impact different pools of money: the Helms-related restrictions dictate how US foreign aid can be spent and apply to all foreign assistance funds, while the GGR limits how funds from any donor can be spent if a foreign non-governmental organization receives US global health assistance. These restrictions not only ignore the US’s own obligations under international law, but violate a broad array of women’s rights, deny them essential services, and put their lives and well-being at risk.

The Global Justice Center’s full submission highlights continuing concerns over these US policies which impose blanket prohibitions on abortion services and speech, in violation of US obligations under international humanitarian law, international human rights law, customary international law, and UN Security Council Resolutions. It is long past time for the US to repeal these regressive and harmful policies, direct their aid to pursue positive health outcomes for women, and to realize women’s fundamental rights under international human rights and humanitarian law

Download Fact Sheet 

Faith-Based Organizations are Undermining Nepal’s Progressive Abortion Policy

By Nishan Kafle

Nepal has one of the fastest-growing Christian populations in the world thanks to the multitudes of missionary organizations — both Nepali and international — operating in every nook and cranny of the country. While proselytizing isn’t problematic in and of itself, Christian missionaries in Nepal are also bringing their anti-LGBT and pro-life worldview to their work. This is especially pernicious in a country where patriarchy is dominant and a new law guaranteeing safe and legal abortion services is in desperate need of protection.

Nepal, a predominantly Hindu country, set the standard in women’s health in Asia by legalizing abortion in 2002 when the 11th amendment bill became law. Before 2002, women in Nepal receiving abortions were subject to punitive punishment by the government and had to endure social ostracism. But even after abortion was legalized, many Nepali women, fearing social stigma, preferred to have their abortion done surreptitiously by untrained maids rather than going to state-run health clinics. Others decided not to get an abortion altogether, owing to lack of awareness, inaccessibility to clinics in remote areas and, and, in a recent development, propaganda from anti-abortion missionaries.

The Persistent Danger of Trump’s Definition of “Unalienable Rights”

Excerpt of Ms. Magazine op-ed by GJC's Elena Sarver.

The State Department’s newly formed Unalienable Rights Commission held its third public meeting today. It’s been six months since the commission was first announced in July 2019 by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but it’s important to not lose sight of the dangers this commission poses.

To start, the very existence of this group as a way to determine and define human rights fundamentally distorts and misunderstands the very nature of human rights—they cannot be limited based on the views of a single government. Further, we should be most alarmed at its obvious intent: to erode long-established human rights in service of a regressive agenda, with clear antagonism toward abortion rights in particular.

At the outset, the commission is working under a seriously flawed premise. Universal human rights norms exist to hold states accountable: they cannot be defined or redefined based on the demands of an individual administration. Especially an administration like Trump’s, which has systematically disengaged from, rejected and attempted to erode the human rights system since its inauguration.

Read the Op-Ed

"That's Illegal" Episode 12: The Commission to Undermine Human Rights

GJC's Elena Sarver and Merrite Johnson dive into the Trump administration’s new “Commission on Unalienable Rights.” The commission is stacked with socially conservative ideologues with a history of hostility to abortion rights and LGBTQ rights. Its goal? To remake human rights in the image of Trump and his regressive agenda.

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