Pompeo’s Quest to Redefine Human Rights Draws Concern at U.N.

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is trying to drum up support at the United Nations for a new vision of human rights that prioritizes religious liberty and property rights, but European allies are concerned and showing little support for his doctrine, U.N. diplomats and human rights experts familiar with the matter said.

In the run-up to the 75th United Nations General Assembly, an annual gathering of member states now underway, State Department representatives reached out to the European Union and other allies like Britain to rally support for Mr. Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, officials familiar with the matter said. The commission has come under scrutiny in recent months over fears that it could erode protections for women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The response among European nations has been very skeptical, according to U.N. diplomats who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. They noted that Mr. Pompeo’s human rights commission had drawn concern among European countries for its heavy emphasis on religion and for advancing a concept that there could be too many human rights.

In response, diplomats said State Department representatives had rebranded their outreach efforts and would instead ask U.N. members on Wednesday to affirm their commitment to a human rights document passed by the body in 1948 — a core tenet of Mr. Pompeo’s commission.

U.N. diplomats and human rights experts said that effort was equally worrisome, believing it was a cryptic way to ignore decades’ worth of treaties since 1948 that enshrined protections for racial minorities, same-sex couples and women around the globe.

“It’s moving backward,” said Louis Charbonneau, the United Nations director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s returning us back to some kind of ‘Leave It to Beaver’ world where the international protections against racial discrimination, against discrimination against women, people with disabilities and L.G.B.T. people don’t exist.”

A State Department spokeswoman said the United States supported the landmark 1948 document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which calls for a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”

In 2019, Mr. Pompeo, an evangelical Christian, created the Commission on Unalienable Rights to provide a new vision for human rights policy that would more closely align with the “nation’s founding principles” and uphold religious freedom as America’s most fundamental value. Human rights scholars have criticized the panel since its inception, noting that it is filled with conservatives who were intent on promoting views against abortion and marriage equality, and fearing that it could have repercussions more broadly on human rights around the globe.

In July, Mr. Pompeo released a draft of a report by the commission with a divisive speech in Philadelphia. He attacked “too many leading voices,” including organizations like The New York Times, saying they were advancing the “hatred of our founding principles.” He also asserted God’s importance in American society.

“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,” Mr. Pompeo said.

The report, made final in August after a two-week public comment period, stated that the United States should “vigorously champion human rights in its foreign policy.” But critics point out that it focuses on religious liberty and property rights and seems to shrink away from many other rights.

“There is good reason to worry that the prodigious expansion of human rights has weakened rather than strengthened the claims of human rights,” the report states. “More rights do not always yield more justice.”

Experts have said Mr. Pompeo’s desire to create a tiered set of human rights with some rights getting priority over others could set a global precedent for other nations looking to define human rights on their own terms. They say it could undermine 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.

Critics also note that Mr. Pompeo’s efforts could embolden countries that persecute same-sex couples or deny women access to reproductive health services for religious reasons.

“For Pompeo, ‘unalienable rights’ comes from God,” said Jayne Huckerby, a law professor at Duke University, who has closely tracked the commission’s work. “It’s shorthand for erasing subsequent rights guarantees for L.G.B.T.I. persons and rights guarantees for sexual and reproductive health.”

Shortly after the report’s release, 230 human rights organizations, religious groups, activists and former U.S. government officials wrote a letter to Mr. Pompeo and his commission objecting to the vision laid out in its report.

The report “will undermine American commitments to human rights and provide cover for those who wish to narrow certain categories of rights protections, resulting in a weakening of the international human rights system and its protections in the process,” the letter said.

Language from Mr. Pompeo’s report has already made its way into rule making within government agencies. In August, the United States Agency for International Development released a draft update to its gender policy, put out in 2012, that contained references to “unalienable rights” while eliminating mention of transgender people.

Serra Sippel, the president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity, said in a statement that the changes were “part of a concerted effort by the Trump administration to restrict access to reproductive health care and basic human rights” for women and L.G.B.T. people.

Mr. Pompeo has expressed confidence that the panel will create a document that enshrines religious freedom as a central tenet of American human rights policy, which diplomats could refer to for “decades to come.”

The panel is grounded in the vision of Robert P. George, a Princeton professor and leading proponent of “natural law” theory, a term human rights scholars say is code for “God-given rights” and is commonly deployed in fights to roll back rights for women and L.G.B.T. people.

The commission is led by Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard professor emeritus and former ambassador to the Vatican, who has garnered controversy for statements like The Boston Globe’s receiving the Pulitzer Prize for its investigation into child abuse by priests “would be like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.”

Several human rights organizations have asked a federal court to prevent the State Department from relying on the report’s recommendations, saying the commission violates laws requiring advisory panels to be “fairly balanced” and transparent.

But as Mr. Pompeo seeks to gather global support for his renewed vision of human rights, critics say the resistance to his push highlights a central truth of the Trump administration.

“It exposes how out of step the U.S. effort to unilaterally define human rights is,” Ms. Huckerby said. “It’s really exposing the degree to which the U.S. has moved away from global norms.”