The definition of human rights has "lost focus," according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who told reporters Monday that he's launching a new advisory committee to "review the role of human rights in American public policy."
He announced the new "Unalienable Rights" commission in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Sunday, lamenting that the ideal of unalienable human rights -- articulated in the Constitution as "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" -- needs to return to its roots.
"Every once in a while we need to step back and reflect seriously on where we are, where we've been and whether we're headed in the right direction," Pompeo told reporters. " I hope that the commission will revisit the most basic of questions: What does it mean to claim something is, in fact, a human right?"
A Senior State Department Official tells CBS News the panel will act like a "study group," examining the concept of universal human rights, where those rights come from and the difference between inherent rights and those prescribed by governments.
Preliminary paperwork filed in the Federal Register in May said the committee would explore "our nation's founding principles of natural law and natural rights."
The phrase "natural law" stirred concern among LGBT and pro-abortion rights advocates, as well as some career State Department employees, who feared the panel might be used to justify a rollback of progressive policies on social issues.
Well-known social conservative figures including Tony Perkins, David Webb and others were also briefed about the panel by a Senior State Department Official before its launch, according to agency sources.
But a Senior State Department official said individuals on all sides of the political spectrum, including democrats, were consulted prior to the announcement, and that any effort to paint the panel as against a certain group or issue is "ungrounded and regrettable."
"Unalienable rights are granted to everyone, everywhere, at all times," the official said. "It doesn't matter if you're straight or gay, or a man or a woman, or black, white, brown or purple."
The panel will be chaired by Harvard Professor and Human Rights scholar Mary Ann Glendon and will include Russell Berman, Peter Berkowitz, Paolo Carozza, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson, Jacqueline Rivers, Kiron Skinner, Meir Soloveichik, Katrina Lantos Swett, Christopher Tollefsen and David Tse-Chien Pan, and F. Cartwrite Weiland.
Glendon said she was deeply grateful to serve on the panel at a time when "human rights are being misunderstood and manipulated" by some of the world's worst perpetual violators. She has previously advised both Republican and Democratic administrations and once hired Pompeo as a research assistant during his time at Harvard. Glendon is also a staunch opponent of abortion rights and received an award from the National Right to Life Committee.
A senior state department official said topics like abortion and gay marriage will not be part of the panel's agenda.
"Women's rights or gay rights or healthcare rights, those are domestic issues," the official said, distinguishing them from unalienable rights. "At some point gay marriage might be considered one of those, but this is an issue that's being worked out on a nation-state level."
The panel will operate outside to the departments pre-existing bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and report directly to the Secretary. Pompeo told reporters in May that the commission would be "separate" but "deeply connected" to the work of that department. DRL staff, many of whom have spent their entire careers in the field, will brief panel members, according to a Senior State Department official.
Asked why the commission was launched at this time, the official said it's been a "personal project" of the secretary and something he wanted to do since he took the job more than a year ago.
"The commission's charge, is to point the way toward a more perfect fidelity to our nation's founding principles to which President Lincoln called us at Gettysburg and to which Dr. King called us standing in front to the Lincoln Memorial on the mall," Pompeo said Monday.
Neither he nor Glendon took questions from reporters.
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