One of the U.S. State Department’s biggest challenges across the world is advocating for human rights, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, and in doing so, America must push for the unalienable rights upon which this country was founded.
As K-State’s 190th Landon lecturer, Pompeo told a crowd of about 900 people at K-State’s McCain Auditorium Friday morning that in his role as secretary of state, he’s been committed to recovering “a proper understanding” of the American tradition of unalienable human rights as they are enumerated in the Declaration of Independence.
“The tradition of unalienable rights sits at the core of our nation’s founding,” Pompeo said. “It’s the beating heart of who we are, as an American body, as Americans.”
He said that while the United States was the first nation in the world to organize under those rights, its national mission must be to protect them around the world. He also cited Kansas’ founding as a territory in 1854 with the nickname Bleeding Kansas as a prime example of protection of rights.
“Fueled by the promise of popular sovereignty, pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers alike were flooding in, and often, violently clashing,” Pompeo said. “This brewing fight over slavery was, in essence, a fight over unalienable rights. The people of Kansas knew this.”
Around the world, Pompeo said the U.S. has had an imperfect record, but it’s been driven by those primary rights in its mission, specifically referencing the United States’ role in creating and adopting the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which he said was inspired by the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
“Unalienable rights are at the core of who we are as Americans,” Pompeo said. “We abhor violations of these rights, whenever and wherever they are committed. That’s why I always speak out on behalf of the people of Iran, of Venezuela, of China, and people of all other nationalities. They deserve their God-given freedoms just as much as we do.”
He said the tradition of unalienable rights has been under attack at home. He blamed the media for what he called attempts to rewrite the country’s history as one of racism and misogyny, rather than an imperfect experiment.
He also said politicians have blurred the line between what constitutes a right and the politicians’ pet causes. Worldwide, there have been 64 human rights-related agreements that encompass 1,377 provisions, which he implied is too many.
“This is an imperfect analogy, but the 13th ice cream cone isn’t better than the 12th,” Pompeo said. “With respect to unalienable rights, more, per se, is not always better. When rights proliferate, we risk losing focus on core, unalienable rights. There is far too little agreement anymore on what an unalienable right truly is. Just because a treaty or law says something is a right doesn’t make it an unalienable right.”
Pompeo said countries such as China have abused the concept to actually remove rights. A Chinese-initiated U.N. resolution to emphasize “genuine dialogue and cooperation based on mutual respect” was simply a covert effort to establish silence on the country’s human rights abuses, he said. The U.S. was the only country on the Human Rights Council to vote against the resolution.
In May, Pompeo launched a State Department commission on unalienable rights. He said that the bipartisan commission will be grounded in the nation’s founding principles and the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.
Several prominent K-State and Kansas officials were in attendance at the lecture, including former Kansas Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker, daughter of the lecture’s namesake, Alfred Landon, who served as Kansas governor between 1933 and 1937 and was the 1936 Republican nominee for president.
Pompeo took several questions at the end of the lecture, which he said his team had advised him not to do. A physics professor asked if Pompeo supported the suppression of scientific research, citing an exodus of physicists and chemists from the federal government because of a perceived suppression of research on climate change.
Pompeo disputed that assertion, saying that the Trump administration has relied on science more than any previous administration. He said the department has not seen “higher turnover, just the opposite,” with more foreign officers working than at any time in history in the state department. He said he leads a team of 70,000 state personnel, and while there are disagreements in the department from time to time, he said the department’s professionals try to deliver the best fact-based analysis they can.
Another questioner claimed that Pompeo’s security team had harassed and surrounded a middle-aged woman protesting outside the lecture and wanted to know how Pompeo could advocate for human rights abroad if his security team would not allow freedom of protest in America’s heartland. Pompeo rebutted that question as well.
“I have not been sheltered from protesting,” Pompeo said. “I’m pretty sure I know exactly what people think about our policies.”
He said he’s been faced by protesters, including the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church Friday, and while he may find its ideas abhorrent, he said he’s always encouraged people to voice their opinions loudly at home and advocated for that right in other countries as well.
On the Trump administration’s stance on abortion, Pompeo said state department policy has been unambiguous, and he’s worked to remove federal dollars from organizations internationally that support abortions while still supporting women’s health.
Pompeo’s Friday lecture and other appearances in Kansas have raised speculation that he’ll run for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat that Sen. Pat Roberts is vacating in 2020.
Pompeo has said that a run is “off the table,” but he has made visits to his home state, where he served as a four-times-elected representative for Kansas’s 4th Congressional District. Pompeo also reportedly has met with several high-level Republican donors.
Also running for the Republican nomination are former Secretary of State Kris Kobach; Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle; Dave Lindstrom, a former Kansas City Chiefs player; and Bryan Pruitt, a gay, conservative commentator who recently moved to Manhattan.
Some people have speculated that Rep. Roger Marshall also may run for the seat, with “major announcement” on his political future scheduled for Saturday at the state fair in Hutchinson.
Pompeo would be a favorite on the GOP ticket, and several Republican officials like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran said they wouldn’t be surprised with a Pompeo campaign for the seat.
On the Democratic side, Barry Grissom, a former U.S. attorney, former Rep. Nancy Boyda, and Manhattan city commissioner Usha Reddi are in the race.