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U.N. General Assembly Splits On U.S. Human Rights Policy Reevaluation


The week-long U.N. General Assembly usually gives countries a chance to show their priorities to a world stage. That's a bit tougher when it's done over video chat. But today Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted a virtual event to highlight one of his projects to reevaluate U.S. human rights policy. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The event was advertised as a rededication to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


MIKE POMPEO: We must defend unalienable rights today because the international human rights project is in crisis.

KELEMEN: A commission Pompeo set up puts priority on property rights and religious freedom.


POMPEO: Many multinational organizations have lost their way, focusing on partisan policy preferences while failing to defend fundamental rights. And even many well-intentioned people assert new and novel rights.

ROB BERSCHINSKI: What Secretary Pompeo brought to the United Nations today was a wolf in sheep's clothing.

KELEMEN: That's Rob Berschinski, a former State Department official who's now with the advocacy group Human Rights First. In a statement to NPR, he says Pompeo, an evangelical Christian, is promoting a narrow conception of human rights based on his own religious beliefs.

BERSCHINSKI: The commission's final report claimed, with essentially no evidence, that America's historical tradition supports the prioritization today of religious liberty while referring to reproductive rights and LGBT rights as what the commissioners called political controversies.

KELEMEN: And if the U.S. can pick and choose which human rights to support, others will want to as well.

BERSCHINSKI: Repressive foreign leaders want nothing more than to hear from the U.S. government that human rights are negotiable and that some are probably more important than others. In that regard, today's event at the U.N. was a gift-wrapped present to dictators and abusive governments around the world.

KELEMEN: Just look who signed up for it, says Lou Charbonneau of Human Rights Watch.

LOU CHARBONNEAU: The list of countries endorsing the U.S. initiative to a certain extent reads like a virtual who's who of rights abusers. It includes countries like Bahrain, Burundi, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, the Philippines, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates.

KELEMEN: Most European countries are skeptical. The European Union's ambassador to the U.N. says human rights are a priority. But Olof Skoog wrote on Twitter, quote, "Just as we don't discriminate between people, we cannot pick and choose in our respect for these rights."

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROYKSOPP'S "BOYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.