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.

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[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).