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.

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[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.)

 

Commission on Unalienable Rights Holds First Meeting

The Commission on Unalienable Rights held its first public meeting on October 23 at the State Department that was attended by “a few dozen U.S. officials and nongovernmental (NGO) representatives.” Its stated purpose was to discuss “topics related to human rights and the American founding.” [1]

 Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s Comments

The day before the meeting, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo tweeted, ““I’m confident the Commission will advance the Administration’s unmatched commitment to fundamental human rights and extend America’s legacy as a nation without peer in upholding freedom and human dignity.”

He amplified those remarks the same day in an interview by Tony Perkins, a Commission member and the Family Research Council President, on his “Washington Watch” program. Pompeo said, “This is a commission that has a set of commissioners from a broad political perspective, different faith traditions, all aimed at something that I think every American can agree to, which is our conception that our founders put in place of the protection of human life and dignity is central to America’s wellbeing and our exceptionalism as a nation, and indeed, are a beacon for the entire world.”

Pompeo also said,”The protection of human life and dignity is central to America’s well-being and our exceptionalism as a nation and indeed our beacon for the entire world. What we’re hoping to do is to take up this idea of rights, which sometimes becomes confusing–or turns into simply personal or political preferences–and reground it in the history and tradition of the United States so that we are moored to something more than someone’s fancy of the moment.” Pompeo continued, “We’re trying to cut back to the roots to make sure that everyone is grounded in this tradition. And I will tell you. Around the world, people are watching the work that our commission is undertaking. There is a thirst for this work.”

In the tony Perkins interview, Pompeo added, “What we’re hoping to do is to take this idea of rights, which sometimes becomes confusing or turns into simply personal or political preferences, and reground it — reground it in the history and tradition of the United States so that we are moored to something more than someone’s fancy of the moment and we come to understand that these incredible cherished, fundamental rights are at the very core of the American experience.”

At the meeting itself, Pompeo stated, “It’s in the best traditions of American democracy that this meeting is a public one. One thing that makes America special is that our civic deliberations take place openly. We are not governed by the private writ of kings. We always have the debate – think of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, President Wilson’s 14 Points, the civil rights movement, and many other issues.”

“It heartens me that you all are here to consider the ideas and arguments made before you. I pray they will improve our understanding and profit our nation.”

“This meeting of the Commission extends America’s unmatched national commitment to fundamental human rights. It began with the words of the Declaration of Independence, which made clear governments must honor “unalienable rights.” It continued when Abraham Lincoln – inspired by the words of the Declaration – signed the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1947, Eleanor Roosevelt led the creation of the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights – a document that substantially drew on our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. We upheld fundamental rights in the civil rights era, when the promise of liberty and equality was realized for Americans who had previously been treated as second-class citizens, or worse. And we upheld human rights internationally in the fight against apartheid, and communism.”

“But in the last few decades, we’ve become confused about “rights.” Claims of “rights” have shaped our political debates, but it isn’t always clear whether we’re talking about fundamental, universal rights; or debatable political priorities; or merely personal preferences.”

“Claims of ‘rights’ have exploded. One research group has found that between the United Nations and the Council of Europe, there are a combined 64 human rights-related agreements, encompassing 1,377 provisions.”

“International bodies designated to protect human rights have drifted from their missions, or have been outright corrupted. Authoritarian governments often misuse these bodies. Just last week, China and Russia, for instance, voted Venezuela onto the UN Human Rights Council.  What hypocrisy.”

“And our kids aren’t taught about the role of  ‘unalienable rights’ in the American Founding – if they learn about the Founding at all.”

“So it’s time to ask some key questions:” (1)  “What are our fundamental freedoms?” (2) “Why do we have them?” (3) “Who or what grants them?” (4) “How do we know if a claim of human rights is true?” (5) “What happens when rights conflict?” (6) “Should certain categories of rights be inextricably “linked” to other rights?” (7) “How should government be organized and limited to ensure the protection of rights?”

In addition, the Commission’s Chair, Mary Ann Glendon, made a statement at the meeting, but it has not been found.

Other Speakers at the Meeting

The first speaker, “Michael McConnell, a constitutional scholar at Stanford Law School and a former judge on the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, 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.”

According to the Council for Global Equality, an organization of “international human rights activists, foreign policy experts, LGBT leaders, philanthropists and corporate officials [who] encourage a clearer and stronger American voice on human rights concerns impacting LGBT communities around the world,” https://globalequality.wordpress.com/about/ McConnell’s remarks  “must have been a blow to the Commissioners, since[ Secretary] Pompeo clearly wants them to propose a new hierarchy of unalienable rights — with religious freedom at the pinnacle and the rights of LGBTI and other individuals with specific ‘preferences’ in the alienable category.  Indeed, Pompeo constantly speaks of religious freedom as the ‘first right’ from which other rights flow, proclaiming, often in messianic terms, that human rights ‘came from our Lord, and when we get this right, we’ll have done something good, not just I think for the United States but for the world.’”

The Global Equality group added, “While U.S. moral leadership ebbs and flows, and our commitment to human rights institutions has been uneven over the years, 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. Those same oppressors also happen to be some of the leading persecutors of LGBTI individuals and other marginalized groups.”

The second presenter was Wilfred M. McClay, an American intellectual historian, a noted public intellectual, Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum, and the current occupant of the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. He urged the Commission to come up with “as short of a list [of unalienable rights] as possible” and to distinguish between “a small core of truly unalienable rights” and “putative rights.”

According to Alexandra Schmitt, a policy analyst for human rights, democracy and development at the Center for American Progress who attended the meeting, “McClay’s suggestions “would be a grave mistake. Human rights is not a zero-sum game whereby the protection of some rights means that others cannot be guaranteed. The commission members did not comment on his statement, but they also didn’t reject it outright—”a worrying signal for the future work of this group.” Ms. Schmitt also noted that “The only right that both presenters could agree was certainly unalienable was the right to freedom of conscience, which was understood to include freedom of religion and freedom of thought.”

Schmitt added, “It is clear that our worst fears have been confirmed and that yesterday’s meeting was the christening of Pompeo’s intensely academic attempt to justify his efforts to elevate religious freedom to a position of dominance in our country’s human rights diplomacy.  This policy shift was already foreshadowed by Pompeo’s announcement in June, marking the release of the State Department’s 2018 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, that he would strip the State Department’s office of religious freedom out of the Department’s human rights bureau, where it long has served to integrate religious liberty concerns with other human rights priorities, to a position of independence and priority in the Department’s organizational hierarchy.”

It also should be noted that several groups have announced their intent to ask the Commission to eliminate any right to an abortion. [2]

A subsequent post will discuss and analyze recent human rights comments by Chair Glendon and her recent interview as they relate to the Commission.

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[1]  Commission on Unalienable Rights; Notice of Open Meeting, Fed. Reg. (Oct. 2, 2019); Sec. of State Mike Pompeo Joins Tony Perkins on the Radio to Discuss the Commission on Unalienable Rights, yahoo finance.com (Oct. 23, 2019); State Dep’t, Pompeo Remarks, Commission on Unalienable Rights Public Meeting (Oct. 23, 2019); Lavers, State Department human rights advocacy commission holds first meeting, SFGN (Oct. 29, 2019); Pompeo’s Dangerously Misguided Human Rights Commission, Global Equality (Oct. 24, 2019); Schmitt, 5 questions About the Commission on Unalienable Rights, americanprogress.org (Oct. 31, 2019).This blog, prompted by worries that this Commission may seek to narrow U.S. commitments to human rights,  has many posts about the Commission.

[2] Pro-family groups have asked US ‘Commission on Unalienable Rights’ to fight for parental rights, LifeSite (Oct. 22, 2019); Ruth Institute, Ruth Institute President Welcomes First Public Meeting of State Dept. Commission on Unalienable Rights (Oct. 21, 2019) Concerned Women for America, Groups Unite to Support the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights (Aug. 6, 2019).