(New York) — PEN America today joined a coalition of civil society leaders calling for the immediate disbandment of the U.S. State Department’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights,” due to serious concerns over the commission’s purpose, process, and membership. The limited ideological range of commissioners and the relegating of certain rights to “ad hoc” status reflect a clear interest in limiting certain rights, in contravention of the fundamental meaning of human rights, said PEN America.

The commission was ostensibly formed to examine how the existing international consensus on human rights aligns with an interpretation of the American “founders’ ideas of individual liberty and constitutional government,” Secretary of State Pompeo said when announcing its creation earlier this month. In a letter—signed by 179 non-governmental organizations and 251 individuals, including former senior government officials, faith community leaders, scholars, educators, and advocates—PEN America calls on Secretary Pompeo to immediately disband the body.

“As Secretary Pompeo himself stated, the discourse on human rights can be co-opted for ulterior purposes. By appointing commissioners focused almost exclusively on religious rights, many of whom have made clear their hostility to contemporary understandings of LGBTQI and reproductive rights, the Trump administration has made abundantly clear that it intends to do just that,” said PEN America Washington Director Thomas O. Melia. “This ersatz commission seems clearly designed to subjugate the rights of vulnerable populations, and it could easily provide this administration—and abusive regimes around the world—with a basis to deny the rights of certain groups as they see fit. All those who stand in defense of universal and equal human rights must speak out against the risks this commission poses.”

The letter details various statements made by the ten commissioners in support of “indefensible” human rights violations. For example, one commission member described gender identity as “a matter of mental illness or some other pathology;” another has argued against the use of contraception “even when that use is meant to limit the spread of disease.” 

In addition to the ideologically slanted makeup of the Commission, the letter also addresses the purpose of the commission. “It is a fundamental tenet of human rights,” the letter states, “that all rights are universal and equal.” The creation of a hierarchy of rights is a common tactic for autocratic regimes seeking to limit rights. Signatories encourage Pompeo’s office to instead use their resources to act on the many pressing human rights issues plaguing us at home and abroad.

The letter, which was covered by NBC and The Hill, expresses concerns similar to another signed Tuesday by 22 senators. 


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org

CONTACT: Stephen Fee; PEN America Director of Communications; sfee@pen.org; +1 202 309 8892