Criticism of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights

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. Its positive points were discussed in a prior post. Now we look at the many legitimate criticisms of this new institution.

Erroneous Premise

The basic premise for the Commission was stated by Secretary Pompeo In his remarks at its launching, when he alleged, without proof, that “international institutions designed and built to protect human rights have drifted from their original mission” and that they and nation-states “remain confused about their respective responsibilities concerning human rights.” Therefore, the Secretary asserted that “the time is right for an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy” and that the Commission was charged with straightening all of this out.

This premise, however, is erroneous. The body of human rights law today is very extensive as developed by U.S. and other national and international courts and institutions. For example, an edition of a major U.S. book on the subject, primarily for law students, has 1,259 well-documented pages plus a 737 page collection of selected human rights instruments and bibliography.[2] Like any large body of law developed by different courts and institutions over time, there will be an ongoing effort to eliminate or minimize inconsistencies. But an informed knowledge of this body of law and institutions would show that these international institutions have not “drifted from their original mission.” Nor are nation states confused about their responsibilities in this area.

Secretary Pompeo’s pious assertions of the need to ascertain what human rights mean were castigated by Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist. “There is no need to reinvent the wheel, Mr. Secretary. A lot of bipartisan and international consensus, consolidated over the postwar decades, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and other horrors, exists as to what human rights are and what America’s role in defending them should be.”[3]

Pompeo also has claimed that the continued violations of human rights shows that there is confusion about the law. That is also false. Yes, there continue to be violations, showing the inherent weaknesses of human beings and institutions, but not confusion about the law. If this were a valid argument, then would ridiculously claim that the laws against murder and other forms of homicide were confusing because such horrible acts still occur.

Erroneous Reference to Natural Law

The U.S. Declaration of Independence refers generally to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” and states that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is the purported basis for the Commission’s Charter saying it will provide the Secretary with “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).

Secretary Pompeo made this same argument in his July 7 article in the Wall Street Journal, where he said, “When politicians and bureaucrats create new rights, they blur the distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights created by governments.”

Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, criticized this reference to the concept of natural law and natural rights, circa 1776, by reminding us that ”these ‘natural rights’ at the time, of course, included chattel slavery and the dehumanization of black people, as well as the disenfranchisement of women.” In short, “the ‘natural’ rights of 1776 are not the human rights the [U.S.] helped codify in 1948 [in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights].”

Moreover, Secretary Pompeo and others at the State Department apparently forgot to read the very next sentence of the U.S. Declaration: “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. government subsequently was established by the U.S. Constitution “to secure these rights [mentioned in the Declaration of Indepence]” and its later enactment of human rights statutes and regulations are based upon “the consent of the governed.” These are not “ad hoc” laws (a legal category not known to this attorney-blogger) as Secretary Pompeo dismissively calls them.

Similar language occurs in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “[H]uman rights should be protected by the rule of law” (Preamble); “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).[4] In other words, there will need to be additional treaties and laws to protect and secure these rights. This point was emphasized by the Commission’s Chair, Mary Ann Glendon in her book about the Universal Declaration: “The Declaration’s principles, moreover, have inccreasingly acquired legal force, mainly through incorporation into national legal systems.”

Indeed, the New York Times contemporaneously reported with the adoption of the UDHR in December 1948, “The United Nations now will begin drafting a convention that will be a treaty embodying in specific detail and in legally binding form the principles proclaimed in the declaration.” One such treaty was the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which entered into force on March 23, 1976, which was “three months after the date of the deposit with the Secretary-General of the United Nations of the 35th instrument of ratification or instrument of accession.” (Art. 49(1)) The U.S., however, did not ratify this treaty until April 2, 1992, when the U.S. Senate granted its “advice and consent” to same with certain “understandings” and reservations, and this treaty did not enter into force for the U.S. until September 8, 1992.[5]

The U.N. system has created many other multilateral human rights treaties and other international institutions to interpret those rights, resolve conflicts among them and disputes about compliance with them.[6]

Possible Invalid Objectives

Actions and words of the current U.S. Administration have led some critics of this Commission to speculate that the Commission is a ruse to conceal the Administration’s true objectives: eliminate legal rights to abortions and other reproductive procedures and to LGBBTQI individuals. If that is the case, then the Commission is a fraud.

The Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (Dem., NY) says, “This commission risks undermining many international human-rights norms that the United States helped establish, including LGBTQI rights and other critical human-rights protections around the world. . . . [and now] the Secretary wants to make an end run around established structures, expertise, and the law to give preference to discriminatory ideologies that would narrow protections for women, including on reproductive rights; for members of the LGBTQI community; and for other minority groups.”

The American Jewish World Service through its Its director of government affairs, Rori Kramer, denounced the creation of the commission because of what it said was a religious bent to the panel. “As a Jewish organization, we are deeply skeptical of a government commission using a narrow view of religion as a means to undermine the ecumenical belief of respecting the dignity of every person, as well as the fundamental human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We fear this commission will use a very particular view of religion to further diminish U.S. leadership on human rights.”

As University of Chicago Law Professor Eric Posner observed, the Commission’s “plainly stated goal is not just to wipe away the baleful foreign influences of human rights ‘discourse’ but to revive [conservative] 18th century natural law . . . . [and] an indirect endorsement of contemporary [Roman] Catholic conservative intellectuals.”

Another professor, Clifford Rob of Duquesne University, believes the Commission is “ likely to champion the ‘natural family’ and ‘traditional values,’ to claim that individual self-defense is another natural and unalienable right and to express hostility to economic and cultural rights.

Rebecca Hamilton, an Assistant Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law and a former prosecutor for the International Criminal Court and a former employee of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia,warned that the “’natural law’ language was code for religiously-infused opposition to reproductive rights and to protections for members of the LGBTQ community.” She points out that the concept for this Commission was proposed by Professor Robert George, a “staunch opponent of same-sex marriage and co-founder of the anti-gay rights group, National Organization for Marriage.”[7]

Other Legitimate Sources of Human Rights Were Ignored

The Trump Administration’s statements about the Commission seem to be saying that only the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Independence are the only ones that count and that studying them will yield only one set of answers on the many issues of human rights. That is clearly erroneous, in this blogger’s opinion.

The Declaration of Independence, in addition to talking about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” says that they are “among” the category of “certain unalienable rights.” Thus, there are other rights in that category. In addition, there undoubtedly are times when there are conflicts among “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” and the other such rights that will need to be resolved.

Most importantly, the U.S. Declaration says “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, governments need to enact statutes and rules to protect and secure these rights, and the need for “consent of the governed” inevitably leads to arguments and disputes about the content of such statutes and rules and to the need, from time to time, to amend those statutes and rules and adopt new ones, as circumstances change as they certainly have in the 243 years since the adoption of the U.S. Declaration.

Indeed, the U.S. federal and state governments have enacted many statutes and rules to protect and secure human rights. And they should not be ignored or dismissed as “ad hoc” measures as Secretary Pompeo did in his article in the Wall Street Journal.

The Universal Declaration is subject to the same qualifications. It identifies more rights than the four specifically mentioned in the U.S. Declaration, but there undoubtedly will be conflicts among those rights that will need resolution.

Moreover, the Preamble of the Universal Declaration says that “human rights should be protected by the rule of law [outside that document itself]” and that “Member States have pledged to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” This U.N. document also proclaims “that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive . . . by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.” In other words, there will need to be additional treaties and laws to protect and secure these rights.

The Commission’s Membership May Not Comply with Federal Law

 Under the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972 (Pub. L. 92-463), “the function [of such] advisory committees [or commissions] shall be advisory only, and that all matters under their consideration should be determined in accordance with law, by the official, agency, or office involved.”[8]

Moreover, under this federal statute, the committee or commission members must be “drawn from nearly every occupational and industry group and geographical section of the United States and its territories”  and must be “fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented and the functions to be performed.” (Emphasis added.)

Although as noted in a prior post, the resumes of this Commission’s members are impressive, some critics have questioned the balance of their views on the central issues facing the Commission..

Another federal law that may have been violated in the establishment of this Commission is the failure to seek and obtain the counsel of the Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, which is charged with championing “American values, including the rule of law and individual rights, that promote strong, stable, prosperous, and sovereign states. We advance American security in the struggle against authoritarianism and terrorism when we stand for the freedoms of religion, speech, and the press, and the rights of people to assemble peaceably and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.”

Conclusion

Therefore, contemporary advocates of international human rights need vigilantly to observe the work of the Commission, applaud its work when appropriate and critique that work on other occasions.

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[1] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com, which contain citations to many of the references in this post: Is Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights? (June 16, 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);; The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (July 11, 2019); Additional Discussion About the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 18, 2019); The U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Partial Commendation (July 19, 2019).

[2] See Weissbrodt, Ní Aoláin, Fitzpatrick & Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process (4th ed. 2009); Weissbrodt, Ní Aoláin, Rumsey, Hoffman & Fitzpatrick, Selected International Human Rights Instruments and Bibliography for Research on International Human Rights Law (4th ed. 2009). Professor Weissbrodt also has published an online “Supplementary Materials” for the casebook.

[3] Cohen, Trump’s Ominous Attempt to Redefine Human Rights, N.Y. Times (July 12, 2019).

[4] See The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (July 11, 2019).

[5] U.S. Ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 5, 2013).

[6] See the posts listed in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law (TREATIES), including those that identify the treaties ratified by the U.S.; those signed, but not so ratified; and those not signed and ratified by the U.S.

[7] Hamilton, EXCLUSIVE: Draft Charter of Pompeo’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights” Hides Anti-Human Rights Agenda, Just Security June 5, 2019). Just Security publishes “crisp explanatory and analytic pieces geared toward a broad policy, national/international security, and legal audience; and (2) deep dives that examine the nuances of a particular legal issue.”

[8] Federal Advisory Committee Act, secs. 2(b)(6), 5(b)(2);  Gen. Services Admin., The Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).