The U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Partial Commendation

On July 8, 2019, the U.S. State Department launched the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights.[1] This new Commission deserves both commendation and criticism. Below are its positive points, and a subsequent post will discuss the many legitimate criticisms of this new institution.

U.S. Primary Sources for Human Rights

According to Secretary of State Pompeo, the Commission regards the U.S. Declaration of Independence from 1776 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 as pillars of U.S. dedication to human rights. As the Secretary said at the launch, “The Commission will focus on “human rights grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An American commitment to uphold human rights played a major role in transforming the moral landscape of the international relations after World War II, something all Americans can rightly be proud of. Under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights ended forever the notion that nations could abuse their citizens without attracting notice or repercussions.”[2]

In other statements the Secretary has asserted that freedom of religion and belief is the foundational and most important freedom. While that perhaps could be debated, it is clearly an important freedom.

Both of these declarations indeed honor human rights, and the inclusion of the Universal Declaration is an implicit admission that the U.S. alone does not have all the answers on this subject. Here then are some of the key points of these two documents that call for commending the Commission.

U.S. Declaration of Independence

These are the familiar words from the U.S. Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

On December 10, 1948, the U.N. General Assembly at a meeting in Paris, France adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by a vote of 48-0. Eight countries abstained: the Soviet Union, five members of the Soviet bloc (Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine and Yugoslavia), South Africa and Saudi Arabia. The other two U.N. members at the time were absent and not voting (Honduras and Yemen).[3]

Some of this Declaration’s words in its Preamble and 30 Articles are reminiscent of the language of the U.S. Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776. Here are some of the provisions of the U.N. document:

  • “[R]ecognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” (Preamble)
  • The “peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women.” (Preamble)
  • “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” (Art. 1)
  • “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” (Art. 2)
  • “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” (Art.3)
  • “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” (Art. 4)
  • “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” (Art. 5)
  • “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.” (Art. 7)
  • Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.” (Art. 8)
  • “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” (Art. 9)
  • “Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.” (Art. 10)
  • “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty . . . .” (Art. 11(1).)
  • “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” (Art. 14(1).)
  • “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.” (Art. 16(1).)
  • Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” (Art. 18) (Emphasis added.)
  • “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.: (Art. 19.)
  • “ Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” (Art. 20(1).)
  • “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family . . . .” (Art. 25(1).)

Other UDHR provisions, which have been overlooked in various comments about the Commission and which relate to its negative points to be discussed in a subsequent post, are the following: “[H]uman rights should be protected by the rule of law” (Preamble); U.N. “Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” (Preamble); “[E]very individual and every organ of society . . . shall strive . . . by progressive measures national and international, to secure . . . [these rights and freedoms] universal and effective recognition and observance”[Proclamation);[4] “The will of the people shall be the basis of authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage . . . .” (Art. 21(3).)

The importance and significance of these provisions were emphasized by the Commission’s chair, Mary Ann Glendon, in her book: A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (2001). The Preface says the UDHR “became a pillar of a new international system under which a nation’s treatment of its own citizens was no longer immune from outside scrutiny. . . . Today, the Declaration is the single most important reference point for cross-national discussions of how to order our future together on our increasingly conflict-ridden and interdependent planet.”   Her book’s Epilogue emphatically states:

  • “The Universal Declaration created a bold new course for human rights by presenting a vision of freedom as linked to social security, balanced by responsibilities, grounded in respect for equal human dignity, and grounded by the rule of law.”
  • “The Declaration’s principles, moreover, have increasingly acquired legal force, mainly through their incorporation into national legal systems.”
  • “One of the most basic assumptions of the founders of the UN and the framers of the Declaration was that the root causes of atrocities and armed conflict are frequently to be found in poverty and discrimination.”


The U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights indeed are major sources of human rights, and the Commission’s proclaiming them as important is an action to be commended.


[1] See these posts to Is Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights? (June 15, 2019); Other Reactions to State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 17, 2019); More Thoughts on Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 18, 2019); U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Developments (July 4, 2019);U .S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Is Launched (July 8, 2019); More Comments on Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 9, 2019); Additional Discussion About the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 18, 2019).

[2] State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo Remarks to the Press (July 8, 2019).

[3] U.N., Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Dec. 10, 1948), UN Gen. Assembly Res. 217A, Doc A/810 at 71; Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Wikipedia; Kenton, Human Rights Declaration Adopted by U.N. General Assembly; U.N. VOTES ACCORD ON HUMAN RIGHTS, N.Y. Times (Dec. 11, 1948). The history of the UDHR and its not being legally binding on U.N. members or other states are discussed in The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, (July 11, 2019).

[4] The U.S. has signed and ratified 19 multilateral human rights treaties in accordance with the Constitution’s Article II (2.2) requiring the “advice and consent” by two-thirds of the senators present at the vote. In addition, the U.S. has signed, but not ratified, nine other multilateral human rights treaties while at least seven significant human rights treaties that as of February 2013 had not been signed and ratified by the U.S. (See Multilateral Treaties Ratified by the U.S., (Feb. 9, 2013); Multilateral Treaties Signed, But Not Ratified, by the U.S., (Feb. 12, 2013); Multilateral Human rights Treaties That Have Not Been Signed and Ratified by the U.S. (Feb. 16, 2013).





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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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