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QUESTION: Secretary, welcome back to Washington Watch.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Tony, it’s great to be with you again. Thanks for having me on the show today.

QUESTION: Absolutely. I want to thank you for having the courage to move forward with something I think is foundational to our foreign policy, but not everybody thinks so. You’ve gotten a lot of pushback on the creation of this commission.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Tony, we have, and it’s unfortunate. This is a commission that has a set of commissioners from a broad political perspective, different faith traditions, all aimed at something that I think every American can agree to, which is our conception that our founders put in place of the protection of human life and dignity is central to America’s wellbeing and our exceptionalism as a nation, and indeed, are a beacon for the entire world. And what we’re hoping to do is to take this idea of rights, which sometimes becomes confusing or turns into simply personal or political preferences, and reground it – reground it in the history and tradition of the United States so that we are moored to something more than someone’s fancy of the moment and we come to understand that these incredible cherished, fundamental rights are at the very core of the American experience.

QUESTION: I mean, as I see this, Mr. Secretary, I mean, there are times – over a certain period of time you may need to recalibrate this to make sure that your compass points to true north, and I think what you’re doing is you’re pointing back to these founding documents and tying our foreign policy to a foundation that goes back to the very beginning. And there have been times in our nation’s history where we’ve deviated from that, and it’s important that we come back.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Tony, that’s absolutely the case. It’s the – among the purposes of this commission. We have deviated from time to time. We’ve become confused, not just here in the United States, but around the world. You see something as hypocritical as the Government of Venezuela being appointed a seat on the UN Human Rights Commission.


SECRETARY POMPEO: I mean, this is – this is untethered to anything, left, right, center, and America would understand as decent and right and protecting human dignity. If you observe what’s going on in Venezuela today, you can see that it’s the antithesis of the protection of individual liberty and freedom and the rights that we all know. And so we’re trying to cut back to the – cut back to the roots to make sure that everyone is grounded in this tradition, and I will tell you, around the world, people are watching the work that our commission is undertaking. There is a thirst for this work, and I think this will be a document that is prepared – a commission chartered by the United States Department of State, but one that I think citizens all around the world will be able to hold up. When their human rights, when their fundamental rights are being challenged, they’ll be able to hold up this document and point to this important work that’s been done.

QUESTION: I want to go back to something you just said a moment ago, because you made this point in a speech yesterday at the Heritage Foundation where you talked about how there has been a perversion of the word “right” for nefarious means, that people have taken that and, in my words, not your words, but use it like silly putty, stretched it and distorted it to use for things that it was never intended to be used for.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Tony, it’s true, and this has at least two outcomes that are bad. One is that you’ll end up with people asserting rights that we all know are fundamentally at odds with the most fundamental ideas that come out of not just Christianity but all the Abrahamic faiths, but that’s the first problem. The second one is that when other rights are added into the mix, when you use the word “right” for something that is a mere preference, then there’s focus and attention and energy applied to preserving and protecting that thing called a right, and that comes almost necessarily at the expense of the fundamental rights. If you’re enforcing and protecting everything all the time, you lose sight of the focus and the things which are truly central to human dignity: the capacity for individuals to express their own conscience, and the things that you and I and I think nearly every American has come to understand as those rights which are most fundamental, just simply as a result of our humanness.

QUESTION: So, I mean, in essence what you do is you dilute your strength, your power, your ability to focus on those essential rights, and as a result, everyone suffers.

SECRETARY POMPEO: That’s it. You have it precisely right.

QUESTION: Let me talk for a moment in terms of the outcome. You made reference you want a document that people can hold up not just here in the United States, but around the world and point to this document of unalienable rights. What’s the timeframe and what is the anticipated outcome?

SECRETARY POMPEO: So the process started with our first public meeting today, although the commissioners have been reading and preparing for today in the anticipation of what we would kick off. There’ll be a handful of other meetings. They’re public. We welcome everyone to join us for these meetings, and there’ll be an opportunity for the public to speak at many of them as well. So there will be a transparent, open process where I think the world will see how thoughtful we consider the work that we do.

We’re hoping to wrap up by the middle of next year. And when we do that, we’ll have a document. We will have this tangible expression of what it is the commission concludes are indeed these fundamental human rights and why they matter so much to America, and I think, then, others in the world will see it benefits them as well. But we will also then go out and share this, and share this vision with people all across America and all across the world so they can come to understand that this exceptional nation here in the United States is not embarrassed by the fact that we cherish those fundamental rights which our creator has provided for us.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, one of those fundamental human rights is one that this administration and you as Secretary of State have been very diligent to both protect and promote, and that is the issue of religious freedom. It has become a top foreign policy initiative of this administration led by the President, the Vice President, and you as Secretary of State. I was watching you last week when you were with the Vice President in Turkey negotiating the ceasefire, and was encouraged by both your comments and by the Vice President’s comments when it pertained to religious freedom and religious minorities in northeast Syria. And I want to get your sense of that – what was taking root there in northeast Syria was unique in the Middle East, true religious freedom, the ability to not just worship as you choose, but to choose your faith and to live it out. What are the prospects for that continuing to prosper in that region of the world?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Tony, I’m glad you asked about this. This is – the problem set in northeast Syria is, as you know, incredibly complicated, but one of the things that the President had directed and then Vice President and I worked diligently on as part of our effort to convince the Turkish leadership to stop their incursion into northeast Syria. One of the things we were very focused on – if you read the joint statement, you’ll see that it was agreed to – was to ensure that there was, in fact, the very protections that you described. And that’s good. That is important. It’s a good start. We need to make sure that we have the words and the commitments on paper.

But as you know, Tony, something that this administration has worked very hard on is the rights not just in northeast Syria but throughout the Middle East, in Iraq in the north where Yezidis and Christians are incredibly challenged, in the cradle where Christianity has a long and deep history. It’s under threat. It’s under attack. We’ve appropriated a great deal of money and the State Department works tirelessly on behalf of protecting the rights of religious minorities in Syria, in Iraq, and throughout the Middle East. There’s a lot of work left to be done. We’ve made some progress, but there remain many challenges.

QUESTION: Well, it’s certainly one that will not only be a focus of foreign policy, but I hope for Americans a source of prayer, because I think those folks there are looking to America for encouragement and for strength. And it was a source of hope to see that light of freedom burning there in the Middle East.

And Mr. Secretary, I know your time’s short, you’ve got to go, but I do want to just, again, thank you. And as I’ve talked to the President the week before last, just appreciate the continued focus on religious freedom and its fundamental and essential part that it plays in both our domestic and foreign policy.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Tony, thank you. We’re committed to it. It’s something that we work on each and every day. It’s something that we know advances America’s values all around the world and makes lives all around the world just a little bit better each and every day.

QUESTION: All right. Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Tony, thank you, sir. So long.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future