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.

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[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.