Secretary Pompeo’s Reactions to U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights’ Report     

On July 16, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo gave an immediate response [1] to the Report of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights that was summarized in a prior post.  Now we look at some of the significant points of Pompeo’s response.

Pompeo’s Introduction by Chair Glendon’s 

Chair Mary Ann Glendon said that the importance of the Commission’s work has been highlighted by several recent developments. First, Freedom House recently reported that “political and civil rights worldwide have declined this year for the 14th consecutive year and that half the world’s population – 4 billion people – currently live under autocratic or quasi-authoritarian regimes.”[3] Second, “some powerful countries are now openly challenging the basic premises of the great post-World War II human rights project, and by challenging the premises, they are undermining the already fragile international consensus behind the ideas that no nation should be immune from outside scrutiny of how it treats its own citizens and that every human being is entitled to certain fundamental rights simply by virtue of being human.” Third, “Another set of threats to human freedom and dignity are emerging in technological advances – artificial intelligence, biotechnology, data collection, sophisticated surveillance techniques.” Fourth, “millions of women and men are suffering arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and those women and men are looking to the United States as a beacon of hope and encouragement.”

Pompeo’s Speech

“These . . . unalienable rights . . . are a foundation upon which this country was built. They are central to who we are and to what we care about as Americans.”

“America’s founders didn’t invent the ‘unalienable rights,’ but stated very clearly in the Declaration of Independence that they are held as ‘self-evident’ that human beings were ‘created equal’  and ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights… among [those] are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.’”

The report emphasizes foremost among these rights are property rights and religious liberty. No one can enjoy the pursuit of happiness if you cannot own the fruits of your own labor, and no society – no society can retain its legitimacy or a virtuous character without religious freedom.” (Emphasis added.)

“Our founders knew that faith was also essential to nurture the private virtue of our citizens.”

George Washington, in “his now famous letter from 1790, . . .  to the Jews of Newport,. . .  proudly noted that the United States ‘gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.’” But “our founders also knew the fallen nature of mankind. [As] Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 10: ‘Men are ambitious, vindictive, rapacious.’ So in their wisdom, they established a system that acknowledged our human failings, checked our worst instincts, and ensured that government wouldn’t trample on these unalienable rights.”

“Limited government structured into our documents protects these rights. As the [Commission] report states, ‘majorities are inclined to impair individual freedom, and public officials are prone to putting their private preferences and partisan ambitions ahead of the public interest.’”

In 1838, Abraham Lincoln, then a 28-year-old lawyer, gave a moving speech to the local young man’s lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, when he said, ‘We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us.’

“This is still true of America today. America is fundamentally good and has much to offer the world, because our founders recognized the existence of God-given, unalienable rights and designed a durable system to protect them.”

“The . . . societal upheavals that are currently roiling our nation . . .directly ties to our ability to put our founding principles at the core of what we do as Americans and as diplomats all across the world.”

[We must admit, however,] “that at our nation’s founding our country fell far short of securing the rights of all. The evil institution of slavery was our nation’s gravest departure from these founding principles. We expelled Native Americans from their ancestral lands. And our foreign policy, too, has not always comported with the idea of sovereignty embedded in the core of our founding.”

“But . . . the nation’s founding principles gave us a standard by which we could see the gravity of our failings and a political framework that gave us the tools to ultimately abolish slavery and enshrine into law equality without regard to race. . . . From Seneca Falls, to Brown vs. Board of Education, to the peaceful marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Americans have always laid claims to their promised inheritance of unalienable rights.”

The New York Times’s 1619 Project – so named for the year that the first slaves were transported to America – wants you to believe that our country was founded for human bondage, that America’s institutions continue to reflect the country’s acceptance of slavery at our founding. . . [and] that Marxist ideology [correctly says] America is only the oppressors and the oppressed. [This 1619 Project] is a slander on our great people. Nothing could be further from the truth of our founding and the rights about which this report speaks.”  (Emphasis added.)

The Commission rejects these notions and “reminds us [of] a quote from Frederick Douglas, himself a freed slave, who saw the Constitution as a ‘glorious, liberty document.’”

“If we truly believe . . . that rights are unalienable, inviolate, enduring, indeed, universal, just as the founders did, then defending them ought to be the bedrock of our every diplomatic endeavor.”

“Our dedication to unalienable rights doesn’t mean we have the capacity to tackle all human rights violations everywhere and at all times. Indeed, our pursuit of justice may clash with hard political realities that thwart effective action.”

“Americans have not only unalienable rights, but also positive rights, rights granted by governments, courts, multilateral bodies. Many are worth defending in light of our founding; others aren’t.”

Prioritizing which rights to defend is also hard. [According to a research group, there are] 64 human rights-related agreements, encompassing 1,377 provisions, between the United Nations and the Council of Europe alone. That’s a lot of rights. And the proliferation of rights is part of the reason why this report is so important.” This report “has provided us the [following] essential questions to ask:

  • Are our foreign policy decisions rooted in our founding principles?
  • Are the decisions consistent with our constitutional norms and procedures?
  • Are they rooted in the universal principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR]?
  • Does a new rights claim . . .represent a clear consensus across different traditions and across different cultures, as the Universal Declaration did, or is it merely a narrower partisan or ideological interest?”

The great and noble human rights project of the 20th century, [however.] is in crisis. Authoritarian regimes perpetrate gross human rights violations every day, all around the world. Too many human rights advocacy groups have traded proud principles for partisan politics. And we see multilateral human rights bodies failing us. The United Nations Human Rights Council does the bidding of dictators and averts its gaze from the worst human rights offenses of our times. [In addition,] international courts too have largely abandoned unalienable rights. The International Criminal Court is training its sights on Americans and Israelis, not the ayatollahs of the world. And the incurious media rarely examines any of these failings.”(Emphasis added.)

“The vital 20th century human rights project has come unmoored, and it needs a re-grounding. The Commission’s work marks an important contribution to America’s effort to address this human rights crisis, and it’s a good time to do so.”

[As the report says,] “we must cultivate the ‘seedbeds of human rights.’ Free and flourishing societies cannot be nurtured only by the hand of government. They must be nurtured through patriotic educators, present fathers and mothers, humble pastors, next-door neighbors, steady volunteers, honest businesspeople, and so many other faithful, quiet citizens.” (Emphasis added.)

We have the responsibility to educate and advocate. Our diplomatic posts all over the world have human rights officers working to promote American values. We can shine a light on abuses, and as we do when we issue our annual reports, we take stock of the world’s efforts on religious freedom, on human rights, and on human trafficking.” (Emphasis added.)

We too can empower the people of other nations to further their social and economic rights. Our USAID does this essential work, as does our W-GDP program, which helps women flourish as entrepreneurs. Women, sadly, suffer the most human rights abuses. We can help them do better.” (Emphasis added.)

“We can work productively too with other nations. We’ve done that. We’ve worked with 60-plus nations to help the Venezuelan people recover democracy from the Maduro dictatorship.”

We also “ have punitive tools too, such as sanctions that we’ve levied on human rights abusers in Iran and in Cuba, and a recent advisory that we put out about Xinjiang and companies doing business there. We want to make sure that no American business is knowingly benefiting from slave labor.” (Emphasis added.)

“But to do so effectively, we must insist on the rightness and the relevance of America’s founding principles. Surely, if America loses them, she loses her soul and our capacity to do good around the world.”

“I am confident that the American star will shine across the heavens, so long as we keep a proper understanding of unalienable rights at the center of our unending quest to secure freedom for our own people and all of mankind. The report that you worked on will ensure that we have a better chance to accomplish that.”

Glendon-Pompeo Conversation

Immediately after Pompeo’s speech, Chair Glendon and Pompeo had a brief conversation.  One of her questions was: “Why is human rights advocacy is such an important part of our national interest?”

Pompeo responded, “Our capacity to have influence around the world . . . stems from our confidence in ourselves and our deep commitment to the fact that this nation is exceptional, because we rallied around this idea of unalienable rights. [We have developed annual ministerial meetings to gather] religious leaders of all faiths from all around the world. It’s the largest gathering of religious leaders every year to talk about these set of rights and religious freedom. . . . Some two-thirds of the people in the world live in places that are extremely challenged with the absence of religious freedom and religious liberty, the simple chance to exercise their conscientious views on faith.” (Emphasis added.)

Yet Another Pompeo Speech

On July 17th (the very next day after the above speech], Pompeo and his wife were in West Des Moines, Iowa for a speech—”My Faith, My Work, My Country”[3]— at the Family Leader Summit.[4] Here a few things he said.

“We [at the State Department] have a responsibility to keep you all safe. We advocate too for American businesses abroad, and help create jobs in every state in the union. And we represent your principles. We’ve executed a foreign policy that American families in Des Moines, in Dubuque, and in Davenport can believe in. It’s a pro-national security foreign policy focused on America. It’s a pro-religious freedom foreign policy. And it’s a 100 percent pro-life foreign policy.” (Emphasis added.)

Later, he added, “America sets the tone for the rest of the world in this respect, and our administration has defended the rights of unborn like no other administration in history. Abortion quite simply isn’t a human right. It takes a human life. You all – you all know this. The Psalmist says in Psalm 139: ‘You knit me together in my mother’s womb.’ This is when life begins, full stop. So we’ve reinstated the Mexico City Policy, so that not a single dime of American taxpayer money will ever go to a foreign NGO that performs active abortions anywhere in the world. In the fall of last year, . . . Secretary Azar at Health and Human Services and I, we mobilized 20 countries to deliver a joint statement at the UN criticizing pro-abortion language in UN documents. This has not happened before. We said clearly that “there is no international right to an abortion.” (Emphasis added.)

He also had extensive negative comments about China and Iran and positive words about Israel.

=====================================

[1] State Dep’t, Pompeo Speech: Unalienable Rights and the Securing of Freedom (July 16, 2020)[“Pompeo Speech”].  (The above post highlights some points for discussion in a subsequent post.) See also Pompeo, American diplomacy must again ground itself in the nation’s founding principles, Wash. Post (July 16, 2020); Assoc. Press, Pompeo Says US Should Limit Which Human Rights It Defends, N.Y. Times (July 16, 2020)

[2]  Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2020: A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy..

[3] State Dep’t, Pompeo Speech: My Faith, My Work, My Country (July 17, 2020). 

[4] The Family Leader, which is based in Urbandale IA, is an organization that is focused on marriage as “a permanent lifelong commitment between a man and a woman;” on sanctity of life for “protection of life from conception to natural death;” on affirming “ sexual relations within the bond of marriage, and oppose distortions of sexuality or special rights to those practicing distorted sexual behavior.” (The Family Leader, Issues we are focused on.)

 

Human Rights Commentaries by Mary Ann Glendon, Chair of the Commission on Unalienable Rights

A prior post reviewed the limited public record (to date) of the first meeting on October 23 of the Commission on Unalienable Rights.

To gain a better understanding of what to expect from the Commission, this blog will examine two recent commentaries on human rights by, and an interview of, the Commission’s Chair, Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School, the author of a major book about the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) [1] and a prominent Roman Catholic who was U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican in the George W. Bush Administration. The Conclusion will evaluate her comments and those made by others at the first meeting.

Reclaim Human Rights (August 2016) [2]

Glendon began this article by acknowledging that she had been a participant in the Ramsey Colloquium’s 1998 affirmation of the UDHR as “the most available discourse for cross-cultural deliberation about the dignity of the human person” and as making “possible a truly universal dialogue about our common human future.” [3] She also affirmed she was “a longtime supporter of the cautious use of rights language, and a frequent critic of its misuses.”

Nevertheless, Glendon said that a 2016 criticism of human rights by R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, [4] caused her to “ponder whether the noble post-World War II universal human rights idea has finally been so manipulated and politicized as to justify its abandonment by men and women of good will.”

According to Glendon, by “1998, governments and human-rights organizations alike were ignoring the fact that the UDHR was constructed as an integrated document whose core fundamental rights were meant to be ‘interdependent and indivisible.’ [However, by 1998, the] sense of the interdependence among rights and the connections between rights and responsibilities was fading.” Moreover, “a host of special-interest groups [were inspired] to capture the moral force and prestige of the human-rights project for their own purposes. . . .[The] core of basic human rights that might be said to be universal was being undermined by ‘multiplying the number of interests, goods, and desires that are elevated to the status of rights.”

As a result, by 2016, she argues, “the post-World War II dream of universal human rights risks dissolving into scattered rights of personal autonomy.”

Reno’s criticism of human rights, Glendon continues, emphasizes “the way that human rights as an ideology detracts from the difficult and demanding work of politics.” This is especially true in the U.S., she says, as “judicially-created rights have displaced political judgements that could and should have been left to the ordinary processes of bargaining, education, persuasion, and voting.” This has damaged “the American democratic experiment” by making it more difficult to correct an unwise judicial decision, intensifying “the politicization of the judicial selection process,” depriving “the country of the benefits of experimentation with different solutions to difficult problems” and accelerating “the flight from politics.”

Glendon concludes by urging “church leaders and people of good will to make every effort to connect the human-rights project to an affirmation of the essential interplay between individual rights and democratic values. We should insist on the connection between rights and responsibilities. And we should foster an appreciation of the ultimate dependence of rights upon the creation of rights-respecting cultures.”

 “Renewing Human Rights” (February 2019) [5]

“When Eleanor Roosevelt and a small group of people gathered at the behest of the U.N. in early 1947 to draft the world’s first ‘international bill of rights’” (the subsequent UDHR), the “idea that some rights could be universal—applicable across all the world’s different societies—was controversial.”

“Yet in the decades that followed, the UDHR . . . successfully challenged the view that sovereignty provided an iron shield behind which states could mistreat their people without outside scrutiny.”

“But now . . . the international human rights idea is in crisis, losing support both at home and abroad. Good intentions, honest mistakes, power politics, and plain old opportunism have all played a role in a growing skepticism, and even a backlash.”

As Glendon sees it, “there were three stages” to this change: [1] a pick-and-choose attitude toward rights initiated by the two superpowers in the Cold War era [U.S. and U.S.S.R.]; [2] an over-extension of the concept once the human rights idea showed its moral force; and [3] a forgetfulness of the hard-won wisdom of the men and women who had lived through two world wars.”

“The end of the Cold War increased the influence of human rights. American predominance, Western ideological ascendancy, a series of atrocities and conflicts, and a growing role for the United Nations and other international actors spurred the rapid growth of human rights activism in the 1990s. By the 2000s, there were many human rights organizations, including specialists, activists, agencies for monitoring and enforcement, and academic journals.”

These changes brought about “an interventionist approach, backed by Western—especially American—power. . . .  The establishment of state-like institutions such as the International Criminal Court (which the United States ultimately did not endorse), and doctrines such as the ‘Responsibility to Protect,’ reflected this shift. They increased the human rights field’s ability to frame the international agenda and set global standards. . . .  This encouraged an expansion in the number of basic rights.”

“Given that individual rights were gaining ascendancy, the role of social institutions and non-­individualistic values were deemphasized. A one-size-fits-all approach triumphed over the idea of a common standard that could be brought to life in a variety of legitimate ways. The indivisibility and inter­dependence of fundamental rights were ­forgotten.”

Some states now object to “uniform methods of interpreting and implementing” human rights treaties and to “supra­national institutions. They are remote from the people whose lives they affect. They lack public scrutiny and accountability, are susceptible to lobbying and political influence, and have no internal checks and balances.”

According to Glendon, the following “four major principles that the UDHR’s framers followed [in 1947-48] can reinvigorate the human rights idea in our own time:”

  • Modesty concerning universality. “The framers wisely confined themselves to a small set of principles so basic that no country or group would openly reject them. This was essential not only in order to gain broad political support within the U.N., but also to ensure that the Declaration would have deep and long-lasting support across vastly different cultures, belief systems, and political ideologies.”
  • Flexible universalism.” The UDHR framers “understood that there would always be different ways of applying human rights to different social and political contexts, and that each country’s circumstances would affect how it would fulfill its requirements.” For example, . . . [UDHR’s] Article 22 provides: ‘Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international cooperation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.’ (Emphasis added.) Another example is Article 14, which states, ‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution,’ but is silent on how that right should be protected.
  • Interdependence of basic rights.” The UDHR makes it clear “that everyone’s rights depend on respect for the rights of others, on the rule of law, and on a healthy civil society. . . . The framers of the [UDHR] did not expect uniform management of tensions or conflicts between rights. . . . [and instead] assumed that communities must balance the weight of claims of one right versus another before determining the best course of action.” Only a few rights do not allow such variation: “protections for freedom of religion and conscience” as well as “prohibitions of torture, enslavement, degrading punishment, . . .retroactive penal measures, and other grave violations of human dignity.”
  • “Subsidiarity.” Emphasis on “the primacy of the lowest level of implementation that can do the job, reserving national or international actors for situations where smaller entitles are incapable.” This principle, as stated in the UDHR’s Proclamation, also calls on “every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms.”

Glendon concludes by arguing for a new human rights goal: “the systematic elimination of a narrow set of evils for which a broad consensus exists across all societies. This would at least include “protections against genocide; slavery; torture; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; retroactive penal measures; deportation or forcible transfer of population; discrimination based on race, color, sex, language, religion, nationality, or social origin; and protection for freedom of conscience and religion.”

Glendon Interview [6]

On August 3, 2019, Glendon was interviewed by Jack Goldsmith, another Harvard Law School professor of international law. Here are her comments that were not already expressed in the above articles.

She said there was confusion and crisis in human rights with roughly half of the world’s population without any rights and exasperated by disappointing performance of international human rights institutions.

Socrates said that definition of terms was the beginning of wisdom, and this is especially important since human rights are now important parts of U.S. foreign policy.

The concept of “unalienable rights,” which the printer of the original Declaration of Independence substituted for Thomas Jefferson’s draft’s use of “inalienable,” has evolved with the U.S. Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) and the words of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

While the U.S. Declaration of Independence talked about “laws of nature” or pre-political rights, the UDHR is grounded in the world’s religious and philosophical traditions.

Glendon emphasized the civil and political rights in the UDHR were interdependent with economic and social rights and pointed to the New Deal and the preambles of many U.S. statutes on economic and social issues as expressing this interdependence. This also is stated in Article 22 of the UDHR: ‘Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.’” (Emphasis added.) This provision rejected the Soviet Union’s position that the state was solely responsible for such rights with Eleanor Roosevelt saying during the deliberations over the UDHR that no one had figured out how to do that without loss of freedom.

Another emphasis of Glendon was on the UDHR Proclamation’s words: ‘every individual and every organ of society, Keeping the [UDHR] constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of [U.N.] Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.” Or as Judge Learned Hand said, ‘The spirit of liberty will die if not in the hearts of the people.’

Reactions

 Glendon’s primary focus in these two articles and interview is the UDHR, which is mentioned as one of two  guiding authorities for the Commission on Unalienable Rights, but Glendon has less to say about the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which is the other guiding authority for this Commission.

We all should seek to follow her emphasizing the UDHR’s interdependency of civil and political rights with economic and social rights and the importance of every individual and every organ of society striving by teaching and education to promote respect for human rights and freedoms.

The UDHR indeed is an important international human rights instrument. But it is a declaration adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948. It does not by itself establish legal obligations on any nation state or other person.

In any event, Glendon says nothing about another provision of the UDHR’s Proclamation: “every individual and every organ of society , keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive . . . by progressive measures, national and international, to secure [these rights and freedoms] universal and effective recognition and observance.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, the UDHR itself contemplated that there should be additional measures, including national legislation and international treaties, to secure the rights and freedoms articulated in the UDHR and, by implication, that these other measures will include “rights” language. Moreover, under the principle of “flexible universalism,” a developed and wealthy country like the U.S. could well find ways to secure the rights mentioned in the UDHR that are more complex than those in other countries.

A similar principle for the Commission exists in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.  It says, as the Commission emphasizes, “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.” But the very next sentence of the U.S. Declaration says, but the Glendon and the Commission ignore, “That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, the U.S. Declaration contemplates that the not yet established U.S. government subsequently will enact statutes that protect the unalienable rights, only three of which are specifically mentioned in the Declaration.[7] These are not “ad hoc” rights as Secretary Pompeo likes to say.

As a result, after the 1948 adoption of the UDHR, various U.N. organizations have drafted and adopted many international human rights treaties,[8] and the U.S. federal and state governments have adopted many human rights statutes and regulations.

This obvious point is surprisingly overlooked by Glendon when she lauds UDHR’s Article 14 on the right to asylum as an example of flexible universalism because it does not say how that right should be protected. But the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees that entered into force on April 22, 1954, defines”refugee” and specifies many conditions for that protection while limiting reservations under Article 42. Presumably she is not arguing that this treaty was a mistake.

Indeed, we should all celebrate, not complain as Secretary Pompeo likes to do, that there has been such proliferation or in Glendon’s words, “too much contemporary emphasis on ‘rights’ language. These arguments by Pompeo and Glendon can be seen as underhanded ways to cut back or eliminate rights that they do not like, which I assume would include abortion and LGBQ rights. Such rights constantly are criticized by her church (Roman Catholic) and by the Commission’s creator, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, and others in the State Department.[9]

Criticism of Glendon’s apparent adherence to traditional Roman Catholic teachings on some of these issues comes from her successor as U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican in the Obama Administration, Miguel Diaz, along with 128 Catholic activists and leaders, in a letter opposing the Commission. [10] They said, “Our faith and our commitment to the principles of democracy require us to view every person on earth as a full human being. We staunchly support the fundamental human rights of all people and proudly carry on the long tradition in our country of advocating for expanding human rights around the world. Our concern is that this Commission will undermine these goals by promoting a vision of humanity that is conditional, limiting, and based on a very narrow religious perspective that is inconsistent with the beliefs and practices of billions in this country and around the world. Our faith and our commitment to the principles of democracy require us to view every person on earth as a full human being. We staunchly support the fundamental human rights of all people and proudly carry on the long tradition in our country of advocating for expanding human rights around the world,” they write. “Our concern is that this Commission will undermine these goals by promoting a vision of humanity that is conditional, limiting, and based on a very narrow religious perspective that is inconsistent with the beliefs and practices of billions in this country and around the world. Of most urgent concern is that the composition of the Commission indicates that it will lead our State Department to adopt policies that will harm people who are already vulnerable, especially poor women, children, LGBTI people, immigrants, refugees, and those in need of reproductive health services. This is being done “in the name of a very partial version of Christianity that is being promoted by the current Administration.” “All human beings,” however, “have been created in God’s image and all have been endowed by their Creator with the fundamental right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. No person speaking in the name of government or in the name of God can do so to undermine or to deny this right.”

Nor does Glendon discuss how to resolve conflicts among rights. For example, the U.S. Declaration’s mention of “life” as one of the “unalienable rights” is taken by some, and probably Glendon, as a basis for arguing there should be no right to an abortion. But an abortion may be necessary to protect an expectant woman’s right to “life” or her “pursuit of happiness.”  How are those conflicts resolved? That is why we have federal and state and international courts and agencies to resolve these conflicts or disputes.

The previously cited “four major principles” of the UDHR are worthy of remembering and guiding future human rights, internationally and domestically.

Glendon, however, fails to acknowledge the continued use of the “flexible universalism” principle in human rights treaties that allow for their ratification by nation states with reservations for at least some of the treaty’s provisions. And, of course, a state may chose not to ratify a treaty and thereby not be bound by any of its provisions. [11] Moreover, there are mechanisms for other states and international agencies to address these reservations and non-ratifications. For example, in the U.H. Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process, the Council and other states may, and do, make recommendations for states to withdraw reservations or ratify certain treaties. The same was done by the Council’s predecessor, the U.N. Human Rights Committee.[12]

The words of Professor Michael McConnell from the Commission’s first meeting should also be remembered in this evaluation of its ongoing work. He warned that the term “‘unalienable rights,’ which comes to us from our country’s protestant reform traditions, has never had a common or precise definition. The phrase identifies a philosophical concept, rather than a concrete set of rights.  And while the concept often prioritizes freedom of religion, McConnell cautioned that our founders were ultimately more concerned with freedom of conscience, which includes but is not limited to a narrow understanding of religious freedom.”

“McConnell also recognized the implicit failures of this philosophical approach.  While the term ‘unalienable rights’ makes for inspirational prose, the philosophical concept behind it embraced our country’s original sin of slavery and denied women full standing in society. Concepts of equal protection could not, and did not, exist at this time, under this philosophical tradition.”

Andrea Schmitt of the Center for American Progress who attended  the Commission’s first meeting also had words of wisdom for the Commission. She said, “It is simply wrong-headed and ultimately self-defeating to create an artificial human rights hierarchy — one that strips away the universality of human rights and puts a limited number of political and religious rights above all others.  Indeed, this enterprise stands to harm religious freedom itself, as it gives philosophical justification to theocratic governments and religious majority populations who are, by far, the leading persecutors of religious minorities around the world.”

We all should thank Professor Glendon for her expertise and willingness to serve as Chair of the Commission. Those of us interested in international human rights need to carefully follow the Commission’s deliberations and eventual reports and express our agreements and disagreements with respect and reasoned arguments.

==================================

[1] Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Random House 2001); The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (July 11, 2019).

[2] Glendon, Reclaim Human Rights, First Things (Aug. 2016).

[3] The Ramsey Colloquium apparently published reflections about early Christianity’s treatment of homosexuality. (Graeser, The Ramsey Colloquium and Other First Things Resources, Mars Hill Audio (June 29, 2001).

[4] Reno, Against Human Rights, First Things (May 2016). Reno is a former professor of theology and ethics at Creighton University, a Jesuit institution until 2010 when he became the editor of First Things. In 2004 at age 45 he left the Episcopal Church to join the Roman Catholic Church and  describes himself as a theological and political conservative. First Things, which describes itself as“America’s most influential journal of religion and public life,” is published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and educational 501(c)(3) organization. The Institute was founded in 1989 by Richard John Neuhaus and his colleagues to confront the ideology of secularism, which insists that the public square must be ‘naked,’ and that faith has no place in shaping the public conversation or in shaping public policy.” The Institute’s mission is to articulate a governing consensus that supports: a religiously pluralistic society that defends human dignity from conception to natural death; a democratic, constitutionally ordered form of government supported by a religiously and morally serious culture; a vision of freedom that encourages a culture of personal and communal responsibility; and loyalty to the Western tradition that provides a basis for responsible global citizenship.”

[5]  Glendon & Kaplan, Renewing Human Rights, First Things (Feb. 2019) The co-author, Seth D. Kaplan, is a professorial lecturer at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University. He is a consultant to organizations such as the World Bank, USAID, State Department, United Nations and African Development Bank.

[6] Howell, The Lawfare Podcast: Mary Ann Glendon on Unalienable Rights, Lawfare (Aug. 3, 2019).

[7] See The U.S. Declaration of Independence’s Relationship to the U.S. Constitution and Statutes, dwkcommentaries.com (July 5, 2019).

[8] As of 2009, there were at least the following significant multilateral human rights treaties: (1) U.N. Charter; (2) International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; (3) First Optional Covenant to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; (4) Covenant on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; (5) Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees; (6) Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees; (7) International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; (8) Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; (9) Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; (10) Convention on the Rights of the Child; (11) Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the elimination of the death penalty; (12) International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families; (13) Statute of the International Court; and (14) International Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities. (Weissbrodt, Ni Aoláin, Fitzpatrick & Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process at 33-35 (Lexis/Nexis 4th edition 2009).)

[9] See, e.g.,  U.S. Opposition to “Abortion” and “Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights” at U.N. High-Level Meeting, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 25, 2019).

[10] White, Former U.S. envoy to Vatican opposes new commission headed by predecessor, Crux (Jul. 23, 2019).

[11] Under international law, “A State may, when signing, ratifying, accepting, approving, or acceding to a treaty, formulate a reservation unless (a) the reservation is prohibited by a treaty; (b) the treaty provides that only specified reservations, which do not include the reservation  in question, may be made; or (c) in cases not falling under sub-paragraphs (a) or (b), the reservation is incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty.” (Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, arts. 19 (1980); id. Arts. 2(1) (d),20, 21, 22 )  See also,e.g., these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Multilateral Treaties Signed, But Not Ratified, by the U.S., dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 12, 2013); Multilateral Human Rights Treaties That Have Not Been Signed and Ratified by the U.S., dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 16, 2013).

[12] See, e.g., these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: U.H. Human Rights Committee’s Review of U.S. Human Rights (April 19, 2014); U.N. Human Rights Committee’s Hearings About U.S. Human Rights (April 21, 2014); U.N. Human Rights Committee‘s Concluding Observations on U.S. Human Rights (April 24, 2014); Cameroon’s Human Rights Record Being Subjected to Universal Periodic Review by U.N. Human Rights Council: Background (June 12, 2018); Cameroon’s Human Rights Record Being Subjected to Universal Periodic Review by U.N. Human Rights Council: The Pre-Hearing Papers (June 12, 2018); Cameroon’s Human Rights Record Being Subjected to Universal Periodic Review by U.N. Human Rights Council: The UPR Hearing (June 16, 2018); U.N. Human Rights Council’s Final Consideration of Cameroon’s Universal Periodic Review (Sept. 20, 2018).

 

 

 

Another Speech About Unalienable Rights by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo

On September 6, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo returned to his home state of Kansas to deliver the Landon Lecture at Kansas State University, entitled, “In Defense of the American Rights Tradition.” Here are highlights of what he had to say followed by this blogger’s reactions. [1]

Pompeo’s Lecture

“Our glorious history . . . should be revered.  And the truest expression of that reverence is to safeguard and live by the principles by which this country was founded, and those people who forged this unique place.”

“That . . . American tradition, begins with a set of unalienable rights.  Our nation’s founding created them.  They’re the beating heart of who we are as an American body today, and as Americans.  The Declaration of Independence laid it out pretty clearly. . . . It says:  ‘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,’ and, ‘That among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,’ and, ‘That to secure these rights, Governments [were] instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.’”

“In other words, these are rights that were endowed upon us by our creator.  They’re part of our nation . . . and they’re part of who we are as Americans, as human beings.  They are independent of anything our government does, and the purpose of government indeed is to protect those unalienable rights.  And I must say, as I travel the world, there can be no nobler cause.”

“Just as profoundly, that declaration says that all men – and it meant all human beings – are created equal.  These rights weren’t unique to us as Americans.  We were simply the first nation with the vision to organize around them, with a national mission that was to honor those very rights, these fundamental rights.”

“In 1858, George Washington Brown, an abolitionist newspaper editor from Lawrence [Kansas], said ‘…no party…of men can be guilty of greater inconsistency or absurdity than those who deny the axiomatic truths asserted in the equality and inalienable rights of all men.’”

“John Speer, a bit later, the abolitionist editor of the Kansas Pioneer, said that, ‘The American Government was originally based upon the principle of the universality of freedom, and the Declaration of Independence was an emphatic [and] succinct declaration that all men [are indeed] created equal, and entitled to certain unalienable rights,’ as a result of their human dignity.”

“And then in commenting on the Declaration’s affirmation of unalienable rights, [President Abraham] Lincoln said that the Founders, ‘meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all.’”

“Unalienable rights are at the core of who we are as Americans.  We abhor violations of these rights, whenever and wherever they are encountered.”

“American diplomats have always had this as one of their core causes. . . .  After World War II, the world looked to America to take the tradition of unalienable rights – which came to be called human rights – beyond our shores.”

“In 1948, thanks to our leadership, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a document inspired by our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.”

“And we need to remember this was the first time ever . . . that America led nations to set a standard for how governments should treat their people.  We even fought to protect unalienable rights of the people inhabiting nations we had just defeated.  We’ve done this repeatedly.  This wasn’t American imperialism, but rather it was American mercy and grace.  We knew it was right for them as well, and right for us.”

The State Department’s mission “is to promote and foster these unalienable rights so that they will abound, that they’ll be everywhere.  We have an entire bureau devoted to no task other than that one. . . . Every year, . . . [the Department’s diplomats] produce an exhaustive report of every human rights violation around the world.  It becomes the encyclopedia for all other governments to see, and you should know we spare no one.  We call them like we see them.  No other country does that.”

“We owe it to all Americans to uphold this noble tradition of American leadership to secure rights here at home and abroad.”

“We owe it to all Americans to uphold this noble tradition of American leadership to secure rights here at home and abroad.”

“Today, frankly, our children aren’t taught about the central role of unalienable rights in our schools in the way that they must be.”

“I’ve seen the media try and rewrite our history as an unrelenting tale of racism and misogyny, not as a bold but imperfect nation, an experiment in freedom.  We need to do that.”

“Our politicians too, from time to time, have framed pet causes as ‘rights’ to bypass the normal process by which political ends are achieved.  And we’ve blurred the distinction between and mere political preferences or priorities.” (Emphasis added.)

“International institutions have moved away from these core tenets as well. . . . One research group found that between the United Nations and the Council of Europe, there are a combined 64 human rights-related agreements and 1,377 provisions.” (Emphasis added.)

“And with respect to unalienable rights, we need to know that more, per se, is not always better.  We have to protect those things that are at the core, at the center, that are foundational.  Because when rights proliferate, we risk losing focus on those core unalienable rights, the ones that we would give everything for.” (Emphasis added.)

Now “there is far too little agreement anymore on what an unalienable right truly is.  Just because a treaty or a law or some writing says it’s a right, it doesn’t make it an unalienable right. Remember where these rights came from.” (Emphasis added.)

Last year “the UN Human Rights Council, at . . . [China’s] urging, adopted a resolution that called for nations ‘to work together to promote mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights.’ It emphasized ‘genuine dialogue and cooperation…based on…mutual respect.’ This was, sadly, coded language for repressive regimes to establish a code of silence about their massive human rights violations, those that rival the worst human rights violations from our past century.” Only one country on the Council—the U.S.–voted against this resolution.

“We must reclaim the tradition of unalienable rights from deliberate misunderstanding and, indeed, from cynical abuse. [That was why I created the Commission on Unalienable Rights.] We know that if we don’t get the understanding of rights, as our founders understood them, correct – these set of inviolable freedoms, rooted in our nature, given by God, for all people, at all times – we will wander away from them.  And American security, and America’s place in the world will be diminished. So the commission’s mission is to help uphold America’s noble tradition of unalienable rights in this world that often violates them.” (Emphasis added.)[2]

But this Commission is not “our nation’s authoritative voice on human rights. Remember, too, the [U.N.’s] Universal Declaration [of Human Rights] was spearheaded by an American woman, Eleanor Roosevelt.  She once said, “Where, after all, do…human rights begin?  They begin in small places, [places] close to home.”

After the speech, in response to a question from the audience, Pompeo said the Trump Administration believes “that every human being should be protected from conception through end of life, natural end of life. . . . We’ve done our level best to prevent . . .taxpayer dollars [are not going to organizations that were promoting abortion.] It’s called the Mexico City Policy. . . . [W]e still want to support women’s health issues all around the world. . . .But we’ve been diligent in trying to protect the unborn in every dimension of American foreign policy, and we’ll continue to be.”

Reactions

There was a lot to like in this speech. The U.S. Declaration of Independence of 1776 is indeed very important for U.S. and world history, as is its assertion that certain rights come from God.  Also positive was his emphasizing the importance of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

On the other hand, Pompeo made assertions that do not sit well with this blogger. He reiterated his argument that now there are too many “pet causes” and “mere political preferences or priorities” being disguised as “rights” and that instead we need to eliminate such notions (especially the right to abortion) and return to “fundamental, universal rights.” In so doing, he again failed to recognize that immediately after the Declaration of Independence’s recitation of certain “unalienable rights,” it states, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, this Declaration recognized that legislation would be necessary to secure or protect the unalienable rights and that in so doing the Declaration of 1776 could not anticipate everything that would happen in the future and prompt the people to ask their legislatures to  would provide additional rights.

=====================================

[1] State Dep’t, Pompeo Landon Lecture: In Defense of the American Rights Tradition (Sept. 6, 2019).

[2] This blog has published many posts about the Commission on Unalienable Rights.

 

U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Is Launched

On July 8, 2019, the U.S. State Department launched its Commission on Unalienable Rights.[1]

Secretary of State Pompeo’s Remarks

At the launch Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said “the Trump administration has embarked on a foreign policy that takes seriously the founders’ ideas of individual liberty and constitutional government. Those principles have long played a prominent role in our country’s foreign policy, and rightly so. But as that great admirer of the American experiment Alex de Tocqueville noted, democracies have a tendency to lose sight of the big picture in the hurly-burly of everyday affairs. 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, and that’s why I’m pleased to announce today the formation of a Commission on Unalienable Rights.”

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.” (Emphasis added.)

“With the indispensable support of President Ronald Reagan, a human rights revolution toppled the totalitarian regimes of the former Soviet Union. Today the language of human rights has become the common vernacular for discussions of human freedom and dignity all around the world, and these are truly great achievements.”

“But we should never lose sight of the warnings of Vaclav Havel, a hero of the late-20th-century human rights movement, that words like ‘rights’ can be used for good or evil; ‘they can be rays of light in a realm of darkness … [but] they can also be lethal arrows.’ And as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has observed, the evils of any time and place will be justified in whatever is the dominant discourse of that time and of that place. We must, therefore, be vigilant that human rights discourse not be corrupted or hijacked or used for dubious or malignant purposes.”

“It’s a sad commentary on our times that more than 70 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, gross violations continue throughout the world, sometimes even in the name of human rights. International institutions designed and built to protect human rights have drifted from their original mission. As human rights claims have proliferated, some claims have come into tension with one another, provoking questions and clashes about which rights are entitled to gain respect. Nation-states and international institutions remain confused about their respective responsibilities concerning human rights.” (Emphasis added.)

 With that as background and with all of this in mind, the time is right for an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy.” (Emphasis added,)

The Secretary hopes that the Commission “will revisit the most basic of questions: What does it mean to say or claim that something is, in fact, a human right? How do we know or how do we determine whether that claim that this or that is a human right, is it true, and therefore, ought it to be honored? How can there be human rights, rights we possess not as privileges we are granted or even earn, but simply by virtue of our humanity belong to us? Is it, in fact, true, as our Declaration of Independence asserts, that as human beings, we – all of us, every member of our human family – are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights? (Emphasis added.)

To put it another way, “the commission’s charge is to point the way toward that more perfect fidelity to our nation’s founding principles. . . .” (Emphasis added.)

Secretary Pompeo’s Prior Wall Street Journal Article[2]

The day before the Department’s launching of the Commission. Secretary Pompeo published an article about the Commission in the Wall Street Journal, in which he made the following comments beyond what he said at the official launch.

“America’s Founders defined unalienable rights as including ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ They designed the Constitution to protect individual dignity and freedom. A moral foreign policy should be grounded in this conception of human rights.”

“Yet after the Cold War ended, many human-rights advocates turned their energy to new categories of rights. These rights often sound noble and just. But when politicians and bureaucrats create new rights, they blur the distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights granted by governments. Unalienable rights are by nature universal. Not everything good, or everything granted by a government, can be a universal right. Loose talk of ‘rights’ unmoors us from the principles of liberal democracy.” (Emphasis added.)

He hopes “that its work will generate a serious debate about human rights that extends across party lines and national borders.” It “will address basic questions: What are our fundamental freedoms? Why do we have them? Who or what grants these rights? How do we know if a claim of human rights is true? What happens when rights conflict? Should certain categories of rights be inextricably ‘linked’ to other rights?”

“The human-rights cause once united people from disparate nations and cultures in the effort to secure fundamental freedoms and fight evils like Nazism, communism and apartheid. We have lost that focus today. Rights claims are often aimed more at rewarding interest groups and dividing humanity into subgroups.” (Emphasis added.)

Oppressive regimes like Iran and Cuba have taken advantage of this cacophonous call for ‘rights,’ even pretending to be avatars of freedom. No one believed the Soviet call for collective economic and civil rights was really about freedom. But after the Cold War ended, many human-rights advocates adopted the same approach, appealing to contrived rights for political advantage.” (Emphases added.)

“The commission’s work could also help reorient international institutions specifically tasked to protect human rights, like the United Nations, back to their original missions. Many have embraced and even accelerated the proliferation of rights claims—and all but abandoned serious efforts to protect fundamental freedoms.” (Emphasis added.)

Human-rights advocacy has lost its bearings and become more of an industry than a moral compass. And ‘rights talk’ has become a constant element of our domestic political discourse, without any serious effort to distinguish what rights mean and where they come from.” (Emphasis added.)

Announcement of Commission’s Chair

On July 8, the Secretary announced that the Chair of the Commission will be Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, an expert on human rights, comparative law and political theory and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, among many honors.

Professor Glendon acknowledged this appointment with the following remarks:

 

  • “Secretary, I am deeply grateful for the honor of chairing this new commission, and I wanted to thank you especially for giving a priority to human rights at this moment when basic human rights are being misunderstood by many, manipulated by many, and ignored by the world’s worst human rights violators. At the same time, I understand that the mission that you have set us is a challenging one. You’ve asked us to work at the level of principle, not policy, and you’ve asked us to take our bearings from the distinctive rights tradition of the United States of America, a tradition that is grounded in the institutions without which rights would not be possible: constitutional government and the rule of law. I want to assure you, Mr. Secretary, that we will do our very best to carry out your marching orders and to do so in a way that will assist you in your difficult task of transmuting principle into policy.”

Announcement of Nine Other Commission Members

The Secretary also announced the appointment of the following nine additional members of the Commission. (The Commission’s Charter calls for 15 members so there may be an additional five members to be named later.)[3]

Russell Berman. He is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and co-chair of its Working Group on Islamism and the International Order. Recently he has written about the reemergence of anti-Semitism and China’s “programmatic efforts to suppress the ethnic identity of the Uighur people” of Islamic faith.

Peter Berkowitz.  He is the Ted and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of its Military History/Contemporary Conflict Working Group and a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. He “studies and writes about, among other things, constitutional government, conservatism and progressivism in the United States, liberal education, national security and law, and Middle East politics.”

Paolo Carozza. He is Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Notre Dame and Director of its Kellogg Institute for International Studies an interdisciplinary, university-wide body “focusing on the themes of democracy and human development.”  His expertise is in the areas of comparative constitutional law, human rights, law and development and international law. From 2006 through 2010 he was a member of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the principle international body for protecting human rights in the Western Hemisphere, and he also has served the Holy See in various capacities.

Hamza Yusuf Hanson. He is an American Islamic scholar, proponent of classical Islamic sciences and founder of Zaytuna College, a Muslim liberal arts college in Berkeley, California. According to The New Yorker Magazine, he is  “perhaps the most influential Islamic scholar in the Western world.” He was born in the U.S. as Mark Hanson and grew up a practicing Greek Orthodox Christian, but at age 19 he read the Qur-an and converted to Islam.

Jacqueline C.  Rivers. She is Lecturer on Sociology at Harvard University. She holds B.A. and Ph. D degrees with honors from Radcliffe College and Harvard and has served as Doctoral Fellow in the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy of the Harvard’s J. F. Kennedy School of Government and a Graduate Research Fellow of the National Science Foundation. Rivers, an African-American, also is the Executive Director of the Seymour Institute on Black Church and Policy Studies, which seeks to create and promote a philosophical, political and theological framework for a pro-poor, pro-life, pro-family movement within the ecumenical Black Church both domestically and internationally.

Meir Soloveichik. He is an American Orthodox rabbi with a Ph.D. degree in religion from Princeton University. He has written extensively about Jewish thought and life, the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and the limits of interfaith dialogue. In 2012 he gave the opening invocation at the Republican National Convention.

Katrina Lantos Swett. She is the former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and now the President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights, which is named in honor of her father, a Holocaust survivor and former Democratic Congressman. She is married to Richard Swett, former Ambassador to Denmark and former Congressman, and she converted to his faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She has been an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.

Christopher Tollefsen. He is the University of South Carolina’s College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Philosophy Professor with specialization in moral philosophy, natural law ethics, practical ethics and bioethics. He has written many articles for “Public Discourse,” the journal of the Witherspoon Institute, which seeks to promote public understanding of the moral foundations of free societies.  He also is a co-author of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life and the editor of John Paul II’s Contribution to Catholic Bioethics.

David Tse-Chien Pan. He is Professor of German at University of California, Irvine. His research has focused on the problem of aesthetic experience as a mediator of human history in order to understand how history develops through a process of recollection and interpretation that depends on judgment and takes the reception of works of art as its model.

Reactions

Secretary Pompeo’s Wall Street Journal article for the first time really sets forth what has been speculated as the Commission’s true mission: redefinition and narrowing of international human rights.

A senior State Department official, in a report by CBS News, made the same point, perhaps more diplomatically, when he said the Commission 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. . . . Unalienable rights are granted to everyone, everywhere, at all times. It doesn’t matter if you’re straight or gay, or a man or a woman, or black, white, brown or purple.’”

However, this 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.’ 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 importance of this Commission from the Trump Administration’s standpoint is underscored by the impressive resumes of its Chairperson and its initial other members. Therefore, advocates for the existing body of international human rights law need to prepare to combat this onslaught.

Amnesty International USA immediately said there was no reason for such a review given the decades-old protections in place and that the use of the word “unalienable” might be a code word to narrow human rights to the Founders’ notions of the late 18th century. Similar thoughts were expressed by the American Civil Liberties Union: “taxpayer resources would be better spent assessing the administration’s failure to meet basic human rights obligations, rather than redefining those rights.”

=======================================

[1] State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo Remarks to the Press (July 8, 2019); Sullivan & Wong, State Department Creates Advisory Panel on Human Rights, N.Y. Times (July 8, 2019); Reuters, Pompeo Launches Panel to Review Human Rights in U.S. Foreign Policy, N.Y. Times (July 8, 2019)(notes Trump Administration’s U.N. actions against sexual and reproductive health measures); Assoc. Press, Trump Administration Reviews Human Rights’ Role in US Policy, N.Y. Times (July 8, 2019). Previous posts to this blog have discussed this Commission: 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).

[2] Pompeo, Unalienable Human Rights and U.S. foreign Policy, W.S.J. (July 7, 2019).

[3] Another source listed two possible additional members of the Commission: Kiron Skinner and F. Cartwright Weiland. Skinner is the Director of Policy Planning at the State Department and a former Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Weiland is a current or former chief speechwriter for Senator John Cornyn and Republican Whip (Rep., TX) and/or Policy Analyst at Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute. (Ruffini, Mike Pompeo unveils new “Unalienable Rights” commission amid concerns over progressive rollbacks, CBS News (July 8, 2019).)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights?

Since the end of World War II, treaties and international institutions have defined and developed international human rights and institutions, as discussed in previous posts. [1]

Commission on Unalienable Rights [2]

Now with little fanfare the U.S. State Department recently announced the establishment of  the Commission on Unalienable Rights. Here are the key provisions of its Charter:

  • The Commission will provide the Secretary of State with “informed advice and recommendations concerning international human rights matters . . . [and] fresh thinking about human rights and . . . reforms of human rights discourse where it has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” (Para. 3) (emphasis added).
  • The Commission’s advice and recommendations will help “guide U.S. diplomatic and foreign policy decisions and actions with respect to human rights in international settings . . . [and] recover that which is enduring for the maintenance of free and open societies.” (Para. 4) (emphasis added).

The Commission will be composed of “no more than fifteen members who have distinguished backgrounds in international law, human rights, and religious liberties.” Its membership “will be a bipartisan, diverse group of men and women.”

The phrase “unalienable rights,” of course, comes from the second paragraph of 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.” (Emphasis added.)

At first glance this may sound like an unobjectionable reference to an important document and concept of U.S. history. But it may be much more than that. It may be an attempt by the Trump Administration to redefine international human rights, as suggested by Eric Posner, Professor at the University of Chicago Law School.

Reactions of Professor Eric Posner [3]

Posner so far has been the only one to have noticed this Commission. He says “the significance of . . . [this Commission] should not be overlooked. It puts the government’s imprimatur on an assault upon one of the cornerstones of modern liberalism: international human rights.”

This conclusion, Posner argues, follows from the Commission’s name, implicitly emphasizing that these rights are endowed ‘by their Creator” and come from “natural law” and “natural rights.” This interpretation, he claims, also is suggested by the Charter’s reference to “discourse,” implying that contemporary human rights is merely talk, not law. In short, this Charter is conservatives’ “declaration of intent. Its plainly stated goal is not just to wipe away the baleful foreign influence of human rights ‘discourse’ but to revive [conservative] 18th-century natural law.”

In Posner’s opinion, the reference to natural law is an indirect endorsement of contemporary Roman “Catholic conservative intellectuals, who kept alive the academic tradition of natural law long after mainstream secular intellectuals forgot what it was —[and, therefore,] . . .  goodbye to reproductive rights and protections for sexual minorities.” Posner also claims that Robert George, a prominent Catholic intellectual, natural-law theorist, and opponent of abortion rights and same-sex marriage, played a role in the creation of the Commission. In other words, this new commission will provide “the ideological justification for the anti-abortion foreign policy that the Trump administration has undertaken”

Natural law, says Posner, can also be used by conservatives to argue for “expanded religious freedoms that override statutes with secular goals, and to push back against progressive government programs like universal health care. The ‘right to health,’ a centerpiece of ‘human rights law,’ is firmly rejected by natural-law theorists like George.

“But the mission of the commission may be even bolder,” in Posner’s opinion. ”If we take the idea of natural law seriously, it not only overrides statutes in foreign countries that protect abortion rights and respect same-sex marriage. It also overrides American laws that protect abortion rights and respect same-sex marriage. One can imagine a day when a Supreme Court justice, taking a page from [former Supreme Court Justice Anthony] Kennedy, invokes natural law — supposedly endorsed by the founders, after all, and embodied in the sacred Declaration — to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade and to prepare the path for an even holier grail, the abolition of state laws that grant abortion rights.”

“Liberals hoped that human rights, sanctified by the sacrifices of the victims of totalitarianism, would provide common ground in a world of competing ideologies. But what human rights actually helped produce was a liberal international order that has offended a great many people who do not share liberal values. The backlash began years ago in authoritarian countries, in developing countries that saw human rights as an affront to their traditions and as a mask for imperialist goals, and in highly religious countries. These countries advanced interpretations of human rights law that conform with their values or interests but made little headway against dominant elite opinion. What is new is that the government of the world’s most powerful nation [the U.S.], long acknowledged (if grudgingly) as the leader of the international human rights regime, has officially signed on to that backlash.”

Presumably this Posner argument is expanded in his recent book, The Twilight of Human Rights Law.[4]

Conclusion

Although noted author and commentator George Will is not a fan of President Trump, he probably is sympathetic to the recent trumpeting of “ unalienable rights” and “natural law” and “natural rights.” In the “Introduction” to his new book, The Conservative Sensibility, Will says “We [conservatives] seek to conserve the American Founding” with a “clear mission: It is to conserve, by articulating and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking.” Indeed, “Americans codified their Founding doctrines as a natural rights republic in an exceptional Constitution, one that does not say what government must do for them but what government may not do for them.”

Therefore, according to Mr.Will, “The doctrine of natural rights is the most solid foundation—perhaps the only firm foundation—for the idea of the political equality of all self-directing individuals..”

In retrospect, perhaps the Trump Administration has been dropping hints that something like the Commission might be coming by the State Department’s using the phrase “unalienable rights” in various statements and documents.[5]

Although this blogger has no objection to contemporary references to the language of our Declaration of Independence, he does object to the notion that this new Commission is an underhanded way to implement current political preferences of this Administration. Moreover, this blogger suggests that it is too simplistic to use notions of natural law to preempt the decisions on the previously mentioned contemporary issues.

After all, natural rights and human rights treaties can be seen as compatible allies, just as English and American common law are compatible with their respective statutes. Such multilateral treaties with provisions for implementation and amendment are drafted by committees and individual nation states are not bound by the treaties unless and until they ratify the treaties. Similarly domestic statues in the U.S. and U.K. are prepared and adopted by legislatures, often as a result of common law developments, and always are subject to subsequent amendment.

===========================================

[1]  See posts listed in the following: List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law (INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT); List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law (REFUGEE & ASYLUM)List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law (TREATIES); List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law: U.S. (ALIEN TORT STATUTE); List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law U.S. (TORTURE VICTIMS  PROTECTION ACT).

[2] State Dep’t, Notice: Department of State Commission on Unalienable Rights, 84 Fed. Reg. 25109 (May 30, 2019); State Dep’t, Charter: Commission on Unalienable Rights (created: May 10, 2019); State Dep’t, Membership Balance Plan: Commission on Unalienable Rights (created: May 10, 2019).

[3] Posner, The administration’s plan to redefine ‘human rights’ along conservative lines, Wash. Post (June 14, 2019).

[4] Posner, The Twilight of Human Rights Law (Oxford Univ. Press, 2014-).

[5]  State Dep’t, Secretary Tillerson’s Testimony before Senate Appropriations Committee (June  13, 2017) (“Our mission is at all times guided by our longstanding values of freedom, democracy, individual liberty, and human dignity. The conviction of our country’s founders is enduring: that all men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” (Emphasis added); State Dep’t, [Secretary Tillerson’s] Remarks With Secretary General of the Community of Democracies Thomas Garrett (Sept. 17, 2017) (“In our Declaration of Independence, our founders boldly stated that all are endowed by their creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Emphasis added); State Dep’t, [Secretary Tillerson’s] Remarks at the “Conversation on the Value of Respect” Event (Jan. 12, 2018) (“It was the Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson who wrote that we are all endowed with certain unalienable rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”); State Dep’t, Remarks on the Release of the 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (April 20, 2018) (these annual reports “are a natural outgrowth of our values as Americans. The founding documents of our country speak to unalienable rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law – revolutionary concepts at the time of our founding that are now woven into the fabric of America and its interests both at home and abroad”); State Dep’t, The State Department Role in Countering Violent Extremism (May 30, 2018) (“America is committed to individual rights, and we recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. We are all, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”); State Dep’t, 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (Mar. 13, 2019) ((Secretary Pompeo’s Preface :”The United States was founded on the premise that all persons “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. Our Constitution secures these unalienable rights . . . in the First [and Fifth] amendments.” ((emphasis added); State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo At the Celebration of Israel’s 71st Independence Day (May 22, 2019) (both the Israel Declaration of Independence of 1948 and the U.S. Declaration of Independence of 1776 “speak of central ideas that are ‘self-evident’ – In the American case, it’s the truth that men are created equal and have rights that are unalienable”) (Emphasis added).