Human Rights Post Vacant Despite Crises

Human rights activists press Senate to swiftly confirm Catholic University law professor

Robert Destro / Youtube
August 17, 2018

Human rights activists on both sides of the aisle are urging the Senate to swiftly confirm President Donald Trump's choice for a key State Department post charged with promoting freedom and democracy and protecting persecuted minorities around the world.

Trump nominated Robert Destro, a Catholic University law professor and civil rights attorney, to fill the post of assistant secretary of state for the bureau of democracy, human rights, and labor in June.

The key State Department human-rights position has been vacant for the entire first year and a half of the Trump administration even as top officials have called for more international attention to several dire global human-rights crises, which the office spearheads.

Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and several other administration officials have pressed for action to help streamline U.S. aid to assist Christians, Yezidis, and other minority victims of ISIS genocide in Iraq and have urged the U.N. Security Council to respond forcefully to the slaughter of thousands of Rohingya Muslims by state forces in Myanmar.

A draft report of a State Department investigation that found Myanmar's military exhibited "premeditation and coordination" ahead of the slaughter has yet to be finalized, Politico reported last week.

The issue, which falls under the purview of State's human rights bureau, will play a key role in whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will determine whether to declare the mass murders and persecution as "genocide."

Declaring a genocide means that the United States believes that a group or government is trying to wipe out an entire ethnic or religious group, and carries with it the responsibility that the United States would be obligated to intervene either with punitive measures or through military force to stop it.

Over the last month, top officials also have denounced the Chinese government over reports that it is detaining hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Uighur Muslims in so-called reeducation camps.

Destro, a former dean of Catholic University's law school who directs its interdisciplinary program in law and religion at Catholic University, has a long history of government service and human-rights advocacy, working with a diverse set of ethnicities and persecuted religious minorities.

He is well known and well respected in many Jewish, Muslim, and Christian circles, and has spent years working on fruitful dialogue between all three Abrahamic religions, supporters say.

Nathan Walker, a strong voice on the left who previously served as executive director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute, is enthusiastically backing his nomination.

"I had the honor of recruiting Professor Robert Destro to serve as a distinguished fellow at the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute," Walker said in a statement to the Washington Free Beacon. "He is a highly respected scholar of the law who uses his humor, charm, and diplomatic skills to collaborate with people who are usually litigating one another."

"He's a skillful negotiator, a de-escalator of conflicts, and most of all, a kind and compassionate man," he continued. "He will without a doubt serve the United States with honor and vigor."

Over the last several years, Destro played a critical legal role in pushing the Obama administration to formally recognize that the Islamic State had committed genocide against Christians, Yezidis, and other minorities in Iraq after months of equivocation on the issue.

After the mass slaughter of Iraq's religious minorities by ISIS began in 2014, Destro worked with the Knights of Columbus, one of the largest Catholic charities, and In Defense of Christians, a non-profit human-rights organization, and wrote a detailed legal brief that helped to eventually persuade then-Secretary of State John Kerry to declare the mass murders as genocide in early 2016.

Destro also worked closely with coalitions both in and out of Congress to push for a House resolution expressing the sense of Congress that ISIS had committed genocide against religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, (R., Neb.), who co-authored the resolution with Rep. Anna Eshoo (D., Calif.) and several others, is now urging Destro's swift confirmation.

"Bob Destro is a man of great integrity, empathy and professionalism," Fortenberry said in a statement to the Washington Free Beacon. "His sophisticated understanding of global affairs has proven to be a national asset and of great help to vulnerable communities around the world. He will serve the State Department and our country with distinction."

Destro's advocacy and legal work are not limited to protecting religious freedom around the globe.

As a former commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Civil rights in the 1980s, he spoke out against discrimination on the basis of disability, national origin and religion. He also initiated and held Commission hearings on the issue of medical care discrimination against AIDS patients during his tenure when the AIDS epidemic was at its peak and patients were experiencing widespread discrimination.

Destro, who also worked as a special counsel to the Ohio attorney general, also does not shy away from public controversy if he feels principled about the stakes.

He served as a pro bono attorney for Terri Schiavo's family in 2005 in their battle against the courts and Schiavo's husband to continue life support medical care for their daughter despite her husband's assertions that she wouldn't want to prolong life support without solid prospects for recovery.

The legal battles fueled intense national media attention as Washington lawmakers fiercely debated the issue on each side.

Former Rep. Frank Wolf (R., Va.,), who spent decades a human rights champion in Congress and is now serving as a senior fellow at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, said Destro has the experience and diplomacy desperately needed to address several ongoing global human rights crises.

"I think he will be an excellent assistant secretary of State," Wolf said. "He was very much involved in the Iraq Christian genocide issue, and he cares deeply about human rights all over the world. He wrote legal opinions and worked in [Iraq’s] Ninevah Plains. I have high confidence in his nomination, and it shows that the Trump administration is taking this post seriously."