Evaluation of the Report of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights and Its Endorsement by Secretary Pompeo  

The Draft Report of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights and its immediate endorsement by Secretary Pompeo raise many issues.[1]

Here is an evaluation of three of those issues: (1)  property rights and religious freedom as the alleged paramount human rights; (2) the report’s skepticism of new and additional rights; and (3) Pompeo’s exceedingly hostile criticism of the New York Times’ “The 1619 Project.”

 Property Rights and Religious Freedom[2]

Looking at the Commission’s Report for the first time, I was shocked to read, “Foremost among the unalienable rights that government is established to secure, from the founders’ point of view, are property rights and religious liberty,” neither of which is specifically mentioned in the U.S. Declaration of Independence as an inalienable right. Moreover, the Report did not purport to document the bases for this conclusion other than inserting these unconvincing statements:

  • “For the founders, property refers not only to physical goods and the fruit of one’s labor but also encompasses life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They assumed, following philosopher John Locke, that the protection of property rights benefits all by increasing the incentive for producing goods and delivering services desired by others.”
  • “‘The benefits of property rights, though, are not only pecuniary. Protection of property rights is also central to the effective exercise of positive rights and to the pursuit of happiness in family, community, and worship. Without the ability to maintain control over one’s labor, goods, land, home, and other material possessions, one can neither enjoy individual rights nor can society build a common life. Moreover, the choices we make about what and how to produce, exchange, distribute, and consume can be tightly bound up with the kinds of human beings we wish to become. Not least, the right of private property sustains a sphere generally off limits to government, a sphere in which individuals, their families, and the communities they form can pursue happiness in peace and prosperity.”

The Report then immediately and properly admits the inconsistency between the purported status of property rights as a “foremost inalienable right” and the existence of slavery when the Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1776.  Here is that admission: “The importance that the founders attached to private property only compounds the affront to unalienable rights involved at America’s founding in treating fellow human beings as property.”

In addition, the concept of property rights is not mentioned in the Report’s earlier assertions about the origins of the American concept of unalienable rights from three traditions: “Protestant Christianity, widely practiced by the citizenry at the time, was infused with the beautiful Biblical teachings that every human being is imbued with dignity and bears responsibilities toward fellow human beings, because each is made in the image of God. The civic republican ideal, rooted in classical Rome, stressed that freedom and equality under law depend on an ethical citizenry that embraces the obligations of self-government. And classical liberalism put at the front and center of politics the moral premise that human beings are by nature free and equal, which strengthened the political conviction that legitimate government derives from the consent of the governed.”

The shock of this designation of alleged “foremost” human rights makes one wonder whether it was a last-minute insertion, perhaps by Secretary Pompeo himself, who said in his speech immediately after the presentation of the Commission Report, ““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.)

Many commentators have attacked the contention that property rights and religious freedom were the “foremost” rights.

Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, asserts that “there are obvious elements of liberty  . . that are disconnected from any conventional understanding of property rights concept. The First Amendment right to peaceably assemble, for example, seems like a core aspect of liberty and yet does not quite work as a property right per se.” In addition, when the Report refers to rights that are “fundamental” and “core concept” and “absolute or nearly so” rights, it refers to the right to vote, human dignity and the prohibition against genocide and makes no connection to property rights or religious rights.

Another critique came from Akila Radhakrishnan, the president of the Global Justice Center, an international human rights organization. He said, “You’re seeing the rise of autocrats across the world. You’re giving a gift to those people, and not only taking away U.S. leadership, but giving them and feeding them arguments they’ve long been making as well.”

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ), criticized Pompeo’s designation of property rights and religious liberty as “foremost” rights while other rights were less important. This argument, the Senator said, purports to justify “the  rollback of hard-won advances for the rights of women, girls, and LGBTQ persons” and “does not  call on the U.S. Government to champion greater protections for all human rights abroad, but may in fact narrow the scope of U.S. human rights obligations and further erode America’s moral and global leadership.”  This Report, therefore, “will undermine long-standing, internationally-recognized human rights principles and a human rights framework which prior U.S. presidents and administrations have championed for decades, regardless of party.”

The Report’s elevation of religious freedom presented problems to Rori Kramer, the director of U.S. advocacy for American Jewish World Service and a former deputy assistant secretary of state and a senior foreign policy adviser in the U.S. Senate.  This decision “purposefully [confuses] the individual freedom to worship with a state license to advance a particular religious agenda [and] is a gross misreading of the United States’ founding document.”

Kramer added, the Report and Pompeo do not reveal the promotion of Pompeo’s own religious agenda that  “downplays threats to the human rights of the world’s most vulnerable groups, such as women and LGBTQI+ people.” Indeed, Pompeo’s State Department already has removed “references to sexual and reproductive health from international resolutions and statements, as well as from the work of the department itself. And he has dramatically expanded the global gag rule, the draconian policy which prohibits foreign organizations receiving U.S. funding from providing any kind of information, referrals or services about abortion.”

Tarah Demant, director of the gender, sexuality and identity program at Amnesty International USA, said: “The US government cannot unilaterally redefine which human rights will be respected and which will be ignored. The U.S. State Department’s effort to cherry-pick rights in order to deny some their human rights is a dangerous political stunt that could spark a race to the bottom by human rights-abusing governments around the world.”

A more general critique of the idea of too many subgroups demanding rights came from Elisa Massimino, the 2019-2020 Robert F. Drinan, S.J., Chair in Human Rights at Georgetown University Law Center and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress., and  Alexandra Schmitt, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. They say the UDHR’s preamble expressly recognizes the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights” of all humans and makes clear that all of them are interrelated and must be treated as indivisible in order to fulfill the promise of human dignity. It is a simple and radical document — a Magna Carta for all humankind.”

Therefore, Massimino and Schmitt say, “What the global human rights movement needs right now is for the United States to fully embrace the universality and indivisibility of human rights as set out in the Universal Declaration, provide a full-throated defense of human rights abroad and engage in an honest effort to address deep and persistent rights violations at home. It’s clear that Pompeo has no intention of leading such an effort; to the contrary, he is actively undermining it. To the extent that he tries to leverage the commission’s report as cover for his campaign to “prioritize” freedom of religion over other universal rights, American officials — and Congress, in particular — must be prepared to push back.”

Skepticism of Additional Rights[3]

The Report and Pompeo are skeptical of claims for additional rights, both domestically in U.S. law and in international treaties.

The Report puts it in this manner: “The effort to shut down legitimate debate by recasting contestable policy preferences as fixed and unquestionable human rights imperatives promotes intolerance, impedes reconciliation, devalues core rights, and denies rights in the name of rights. In sum, the [U.S.] should be open to, but cautious in, endorsing new claims of human rights.”  Who could be against caution?

Pompeo also was indirect. He said, “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.” And “Americans have . . . 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.. That’s a lot of rights. And the proliferation of rights is part of the reason why this report is so important.”

In so doing, the Report and Pompeo forget or ignore the Declaration of Independence, which does not have the force of law and which  immediately after mentioning  “certain unalienable rights” (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) states, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, the U.S. Declaration expressly contemplates, if not requires, that the U.S. government under the subsequent U.S. Constitution, will enact statutes to secure these unalienable rights and thereby create additional rights.

The UDHR, which also does not have the force of law, has the same contemplation and requirement when in its Preamble, it states, “it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law” and in its Proclamation states, “every individual and every organ of society . . . shall strive . . . by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition  and observance.” In other words, the UDHR expressly contemplates, if not requires, that individual governments and international organizations will adopt subsequent statues and treaties to secure the rights  of the UDHR.

The Report nevertheless favorably and correctly refers to the many “positive rights,” which “are created by, and can only exist in, civil society. Positive rights owe their existence to custom, tradition, and to positive law, which is the law created by human beings” and which “may evolve over centuries, may be legislated at a distinct moment, and may be revised or repealed.”

The Report emphasized this fact by quoting James Madison’s June 1789 speech to Congress in favor of a Bill of Rights [which was adopted in 1791). He stressed that despite different origins , “freedom is a function of positive rights elaborated in various legal codes as well as rights that belong to all human beings.” The Report also mentions that “American legislatures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries . . . began to enact protections for workers that were framed in the language of rights . . . . that entail difficult judgments about the allocation of material resources . . .[and that primarily are the tasks for legislatures.]”

Time has not stood still since 1776 when the U.S. Declaration was adopted or 1789 when the U.S. Constitution was ratified and the U.S. Government was established. The same is true with respect to the international organizations and treaties established after the adoption of the UDHR in 1948. Therefore, it is not surprising to have additional rights created over time in statutes and treaties.

Fourth, numerous commentators have criticized the Report and Pompeo on this issue.

As Molly Bangs in Truthout notes, the Report does not endorse protections against discrimination on the basis of gender, race or sexual orientation and instead asserts that “abortion, affirmative action, and same-sex marriage [are] divisive social and political controversies in the [U.S.]” This is “a signal of how the Commission and Pompeo intend to weaponize religious freedom at the expense of other human rights.”

A similar criticism came from Amnesty International, saying, the U.S. “has disgracefully sought to abandon its obligations to uphold the human rights to health and freedom from discrimination, among others. The US government is not legally allowed to unilaterally redefine its obligations under international human rights treaties, which almost all countries in the world have agreed to uphold.” According to Amnesty, the U.S. “now is seeking to deny reproductive rights, LGBTI rights and socio-economic rights, among others – which it frames as ‘divisive social and political controversies’ – by unilaterally redefining what ‘human rights’ mean.”

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Senior Fellow on Global Governance, Stewart M. Patrick, said Pompeo’s ideas, “if successful, would undermine the cause of freedom, equality and justice, both at home and abroad.” Indeed, the Report “reflects a conservative desire to roll back recent progressive advances” and it alleges, without any evidence, that “the prodigious expansion of human rights has weakened rather than strengthened the claims of human rights and left the most disadvantaged more vulnerable.” Stewart also points out the Report’s “utter disconnect from the Trump administration’s hypocritical human rights policy,” including  “the president’s curious affinity for illiberal leaders ranging from Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonar.”

Human Rights Watch had similar thoughts. While the Report expresses “concern” about a “proliferation” of human rights claims, it should have focused more on “the growing number of autocratic, authoritarian governments that brazenly cast them aside.” Therefore, this organization has submitted a formal comment to the Commission before it revises, if at all, the draft Report.

The most strident critique of the Report comes from Robert Blitt, a professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law, who says it “will only strengthen the Kremlin’s longstanding effort to undercut the international human rights system.” While the U.S.recently resigned from the U.N. Human Rights Council, Russia is campaigning for a seat on that body by promising to prevent the use of human rights issues as pretexts for interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states.

Criticism of the 1619 Project[4]

In his speech commending the Commission Report, Pompeo said, “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.”[5]

Yes, the 1619 Project sets forth important and troubling facts about the introduction of slavery into the American colonies in 1619 that are not well known or taught, that should be known by all Americans and that should not be met with Pompeo’s unjustified ad homonyms of “Marxist ideology” and “a slander on our great people.”

The Times’ introduction of this project stated its goal was “to reframe American history by considering . . .  1619 as our nation’s birth year . . . when a ship arrived  . . . in the British colony of Virginia , bearing a cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans [and inaugurating] a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years. . . . Out of slavery—and the anti-black racism it required –grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the example it sets for the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day.”

More details of this early history were provided in The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a MacArthur “Genius” fellow and a Times staff writer, who authored “The Idea of America.” Here are a few of those details:

  • “Before the abolishment of the international slave trade, 400,000 enslaved Africans would be sold into America.”
  • “Chattel slavery . . . was heritable and permanent, . . ., meaning generations of black people were born into it and passed their enslaved status onto their children. Enslaved people were not recognized as human beings but as property that could be mortgaged, traded, bought, sold, used as collateral, given as a gift and disposed of violently.”
  • “Enslaved people could not legally marry. They were barred from learning to read and restricted from meeting privately in groups. They had no claim to their own children, who could be bought, sold and traded away from them on auction blocks. Enslavers and the courts did not honor kinship ties to mothers, siblings, cousins.”
  • “In most courts, they had no legal standing.”
  • “One of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”
  • Although the Declaration of Independence, did not apply to them, “black Americans believed fervently in the American creed” and “through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country to live up to its founding ideals.”
  • Six of the U.S. Constitution’s 84 clauses deal directly with the enslaved and their enslavement and another five clauses have implications for slavery.
  • Through their labor, they helped build “vast fortunes for white people North and South.”

Although the Commission Report does not mention these facts about 1619 and slavery, it does confess the evils of slavery in America:

  • “Respect for unalienable rights requires forthright acknowledgement of not only where the United States has fallen short of its principles but also special recognition of the sin of slavery — an institution as old as human civilization and our nation’s deepest violation of unalienable rights. The legally protected and institutionally entrenched slavery that disfigured the United States at its birth reduced fellow human beings to property to be bought, sold, and used as a means for their owners’ benefit. Many slave-owning founders, not least Thomas Jefferson, recognized that in the light of unalienable rights, slavery could only be seen as a cruel and indefensible institution. In contemplating slavery in his Notes on the State of Virginia, he wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Nevertheless, it would take a grievous civil war, costing more American lives by far than any other conflict in the nation’s history, to enable the federal government to declare slavery unlawful. It would take another century of struggle to incorporate into the laws of the land protections to guarantee African Americans their civil and political rights. Our nation still works to secure, in its laws and culture, the respect for all persons our founding convictions require.” (Emphasis added.)

Even today, the Report admits, “the nation must be humble in light of the work that remains to be done.”  The Report also confesses, “the brutal killing of an African-American man [George Floyd] in the late spring of 2020 and the subsequent civic unrest that swept the country underscore that much still must be accomplished.”

But the Report does not trace the history of slavery in America back to its founding in 1619 or admit that for the first 157 years of that history African-American slaves had no legal basis to challenge their being held in slavery. The Report only indirectly alleges that after 1776 the slaves had an inchoate right to argue that the unalienable rights mentioned in the U.S. Declaration of Independence were contrary to slavery, but admits that it was only after the bloody Civil War and the 1865 adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment that slavery was legally abolished. The Report also admits that even that was not enough to abolish the discrimination against African-Americans with the subsequent Jim Crow laws, lynching and other discriminations.

The Times’ initial publication of the 1619 Project in August 2019 has many articles and has prompted publication of many other articles on this subject. Perhaps there are errors of fact or interpretation in these many articles, but the appropriate way to counter such errors is by dispassionate fact-based scholarly articles and books, not by wild-eyed accusations of Marxism and slander. Take note, Secretary Pompeo.

In direct response to Pompeo’s criticism of the 1619 Project, Eileen Murphy of the Times said, ““The 1619 Project, based on decades of recent historical scholarship that has deepened our understanding of the country’s founding, is one of the most impactful works of journalism published last year. We’re proud that it continues to spark a dialogue that allows us to re-examine our assumptions about the past.”

Pompeo’s Political Motives for the Report[6]

Pompeo, a former Kansas GOP congressman, is known to be eyeing a potential future presidential run, and his critics immediately pointed out that the speech endorsing the Commission report had plenty of fodder for the electoral base of the Republican Party, including the media-bashing.

There was additional fodder for that possible presidential run the very next day when Pompeo and his wife went to Iowa (an important presidential nominating state) for a speech (reprinted on the State Department website) before a gathering of a conservative Christian group opposed to divorce, abortion and other sexual orientations. There Pompeo bragged that under his leadership the State Department has a “pro-religious freedom foreign policy . . . . [and] a 100 percent pro-life foreign policy. Our administration has defended the rights of unborn like no other administration in history. Abortion quite simply isn’t a human right. . . . 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. . . we mobilized 20 countries to deliver a joint statement at the UN criticizing pro-abortion language in UN documents.”[7]

Conclusion

The Commission invited comments through July 30/31 on their draft report, and its website has so far posted 133 pages of such comments, which will be discussed in a future post. Thus, we and others need to wait to see if any of these comments prompt changes to the report.[8]

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[1] See U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Report, dwkcommentaries.com (July 27, 2020); Secretary Pompeo’s Reactions to U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights’ Report, dwkcommentaries.com (July 29, 2020).

[2] Verma, Pompeo Says Human Rights Policy Must Prioritize Property Rights and Religion, N.Y. Times (July 16, 2020); Toosi, Pompeo rolls out a selective vision of human rights, Politico.com (July 16, 2020); Borger, Pompeo claims private property and religious freedom are ‘foremost’ human rights, Guardian (July 16, 2020); Massimino & Schmitt, Pompeo’s new commission undermines universal human rights—just as planned, Wash, Post (July 17, 2020); Drezner, Let’s grade the Commission on Unalienable Rights!, Wash. Post (July 20, 2020); Senator Menendez, Menendez on Trump Administration’s Launch of Controversial Commission on Unalienable Rights’ Report (July 16, 2020).

[3] Bangs, Pompeo’s Commission on “Unalienable Rights” Prioritizes Property Over People, truthout.org (July 28, 2020); Amnesty Int’l, USA: State Department’s flawed ‘unalienable rights’ report undermines international law, amnesty.org (July 16, 2020); Rubin, The Trump administration rejects human rights principles at home and aboard, Philadelphia Inquirer (July 21, 2020); Patrick, U.S. Effort to ‘Nationalize’ Human rights Undermines Them at Home and Aboard, World Policy Review (July 27, 2020); Thoreson, US Should Focus on Rights for All, Not Rights for Some, Human Rights Watch (July 30, 2020); Human Rights Watch, Comment [on Draft Report] to Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 2020); Blitt, To Russia, With Love, Jurist (July 30, 2020).

[4] Silverstein, Introduction to 1619 Project, N.Y. Times Magazine (pp. 4-5)  (Aug. 18, 2019); “The 1619 Project” Commemorates the Arrival of Slavery in the U.S., dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 20, 2019); Hannah-Jones, The Idea of America, N.Y. Times Magazine (pp. 14-26) (Aug. 18, 2019); We Respond to the Historians Who Critiqued The 1619 Project, N.Y. Times (Dec. 20, 2020); List of Times’ references to “1619 Project” , N.Y. Times (as of 8/2/20).

[5] Pompeo’s attack on The 1619 Project may have been precipitated or suggested by U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (Rep., AR), who has been engaged in a feud with the New York Times over its controversial publishing of his op-ed  about the use of U.S. military troops in cases of insurrection or obstruction of the laws in U.S. cities. (Tom Cotton: Send in the Troops, N.Y. Times (June 3, 2020).) One week after publication of the Commission Report, a Cotton press release said, “The . . . 1619 Project is a racially divisive, revisionist account of history that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which the nation was founded” as the purported justification for his introducing the Saving American History Act of 2020 to prohibit the use of federal funds to teach the 1619 Project by K-12 schools. (Cotton, Press Release: Cotton Bill to Defund 1619 Curriculum (July 23, 2020).) Soon thereafter Cotton in an interview by an Arkansas newspaper said, “As the Founding Fathers said, [slavery] was the necessary evil upon which the union was built.” (Reuters, Republican Senator Cotton Criticized for “Necessary Evil” Slavery Comment, N.Y. Times (July 27, 2020).)

[6] State Dep’t, Pompeo Speech: My Faith, My Work, My Country (July 17, 2020); Secretary Pompeo’s Reactions to the Commission on Unalienable Rights’ Report, dwkcommentaries.com (July 29, 2020).

[7] See U.S. at U.N. Global Call To Protect Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 24, 2019); U.S. Opposition to “Abortion” and “Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights” at U.N. High-Level Meeting, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 25, 2019).

[8] State Dep’t, Draft Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights: Public Comments.

 

U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights’ Report

On July 7, 2019, the U.S. State Department launched its Commission on Unalienable Rights to conduct ”an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy.” This study was to focus on “human rights grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the principles of the 1948 [United Nations] Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The next day Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced that the group’s chair would 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, who would be aided by nine other eminent members.[1]

Over the next year the Commission held six public meetings with these ten distinguished speakers: (1) Michael W. McConnell, a Stanford University law professor and former federal appellate judge;  (2)  Wilfred M. McClay, a humanities professor at the University of Tennessee; (3) Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School; (4) Orlando Patterson, a Professor of Sociology at Harvard University;  (5) Michael Abramowitz, the director of the Committee on Conscience at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; (6) Miles Yu, a Chinese-American and principal China policy and planning advisor to Secretary Pompeo; (7) Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch; (8) Diane Orentlicher, Professor of International Law at American University; (9) Martha Minow,  Harvard Law School professor and expert in human rights and advocacy for members of racial and religious minorities and for women, children, and persons with disabilities; and (10) Thor Halverssen, a Venezuelan-Norwegian businessman and human rights activist.[2]

On July 16, 2020, the Commission issued its 60-page report, which is subject to public comment through July 30 and which will be reviewed in this post. [3] Subsequent posts will examine Secretary Pompeo’s personal endorsement of that report and his conversation about the report with Chair Glendon as well as reactions from others outside the Commission.

The Report: Unalienable and Positive Rights

“The 17th century British subjects who settled, and built thriving communities along, the eastern seaboard of what they regarded as a new world brought with them a variety of traditions. . . . Among the traditions that formed the American spirit, three stand out. Protestant Christianity, widely practiced by the citizenry at the time, was infused with the beautiful Biblical teachings that every human being is imbued with dignity and bears responsibilities toward fellow human beings, because each is made in the image of God. The civic republican ideal, rooted in classical Rome, stressed that freedom and equality under law depend on an ethical citizenry that embraces the obligations of self-government. And classical liberalism put at the front and center of politics the moral premise that human beings are by nature free and equal, which strengthened the political conviction that legitimate government derives from the consent of the governed.”

Each of these “distinctive traditions that nourished the American spirit contributed to the core conviction that government’s primary responsibility was to secure unalienable rights — that is, rights inherent in all persons. The Declaration of Independence proclaims this core conviction:” ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights, that among there are Life, :liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“To say that a right, as the founders understood it, is unalienable is to signify that it is inseparable from our humanity, and thereby to distinguish it from other sorts of rights. The most fundamental distinction is between unalienable rights — sometimes referred to as natural rights in the founding era and today commonly called human rights — and positive rights. Unalienable rights are universal and nontransferable. They are pre-political in the sense that they are not created by persons or society but rather set standards for politics. They owe their existence not to the determinations of authorities or to the practices of different traditions but to the fundamental features of our humanity. . . . {S]uch rights are essential to the dignity and capacity for freedom that are woven into human nature.”

“In contrast, positive rights are created by, and can only exist in, civil society. Positive rights owe their existence to custom, tradition, and to positive law, which is the law created by human beings. Because custom, tradition, and positive law vary from country to country, so too do positive rights. In the same country, positive rights may evolve over centuries, may be legislated at a distinct moment, and may be revised or repealed.”

“To say that positive rights are not universal, however, is not to deny their importance, and to say that they are distinct from unalienable rights is not to deny that the two can be closely connected in political affairs. Unalienable rights provide a standard by which positive rights and positive law can be judged, while positive rights and positive law make the promise of unalienable rights concrete by giving expression to and instantiating unalienable rights.”

All of the above, in this blogger’s judgment, is eminently reasonable.

The Report: The Foremost Unalienable Rights

The Report, however, in this blogger’s opinion, is on shakier ground when it goes on to say, “Foremost among the unalienable rights that government is established to secure, from the founders’ point of view, are property rights and religious liberty. A political society that destroys the possibility of either loses its legitimacy.”

“For the founders,” the Report goes on to say, “property refers not only to physical goods and the fruit of one’s labor but also encompasses life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They assumed, following philosopher John Locke, that the protection of property rights benefits all by increasing the incentive for producing goods and delivering services desired by others.’

‘The benefits of property rights, though, are not only pecuniary. Protection of property rights is also central to the effective exercise of positive rights and to the pursuit of happiness in family, community, and worship. Without the ability to maintain control over one’s labor, goods, land, home, and other material possessions, one can neither enjoy individual rights nor can society build a common life. Moreover, the choices we make about what and how to produce, exchange, distribute, and consume can be tightly bound up with the kinds of human beings we wish to become. Not least, the right of private property sustains a sphere generally off limits to government, a sphere in which individuals, their families, and the communities they form can pursue happiness in peace and prosperity.”

“The importance that the founders attached to private property only compounds the affront to unalienable rights involved at America’s founding in treating fellow human beings as property. It also explains why many abolitionists thought that owning property was a necessary element of emancipation: only by becoming property-owning citizens could former slaves exercise economic independence and so fully enjoy their unalienable rights.”

“Religious liberty enjoys similar primacy in the American political tradition — as an unalienable right, an enduring limit on state power, and a protector of seedbeds of civic virtues. In 1785, James Madison gave classic expression to its centrality in founding-era thinking in his ‘Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.’ Quoting the Virginia Declaration of Rights’ definition of religion, Madison wrote, ‘we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, ‘that Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.’ Freedom of conscience in matters of religion is unalienable “because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men.’”

The Report: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)[4]

The report endorsed the statement of Eleanor Roosevelt, a U.S. citizen and Chair of the commission that drafted the UDHR, when the U.N. General Assembly in 1948 was considering the adoption of this instrument: “[I]t is of primary importance, that we keep clearly in mind the basic character of the document. It is not a treaty; it is not an international agreement. It is not and does not purport to be a statement of law or of legal obligation. It is a Declaration of basic principles of human rights and freedoms, to serve as a common standard of achievement for all peoples of all nations” (emphasis added).

Moreover, the UDHR has ”overarching principles and structural dimensions” connected to the U.S. founding and foreign policy.

First, the UDHR “gave voice to the conscience of global humanity for the first time in history.”

Second, the UDHR “includes only those [rights] that were capable of attaining a near-universal consensus among the diverse nations represented at the UN . . . [and] were expressed in open-ended terms in order to achieve consensus and garner widespread support.”

Third, the UDHR “was written and understood as an integrated set of interlocking principles.”

Fourth, the UDHR “affirms that human dignity, freedom, equality, and community are indissolubly linked.” It makes “clear that human dignity is inherent: it pertains to human beings solely because they are human beings . . . and provides a moral standards for evaluating positive law.” Thus, “the idea of human dignity at the heart of the [UDHR}converges with the idea of ‘unalienable rights’ in the American political tradition.”

Fifth, the UDHR has the “capacity to accommodate a broadly diverse set of political, economic, cultural, religious, and legal traditions” and “can be concretely realized in different political systems . . . [allowing] significant latitude in their interpretation and application.”

The Report: Future U.S. Foreign Policy and Human Rights

  1. “U.S. Needs To Vigorously Champion Human Rights in Foreign Policy

The U.S., “ by virtue of the principles deeply inscribed in its constitutional system and its international commitments, must champion vigorously the vision that it and nearly every other nation pledged to support when they approved the[UDHR].. It is by fidelity to what is best in the nation that the United States can respond most effectively to the manifold demands of the moment. Each of the major traditions that merged in America’s founding — Biblical faith, civic republicanism, and the modern tradition of freedom — nourished the nation’s core convictions that government is properly rooted in the consent of the governed and that its first purpose is to secure the rights that all human beings share. These core convictions, and the traditions that nourish them, are a source of inspiration and strength. It is no exaggeration to say that, with people around the world counting on America to champion fundamental rights, this country’s energetic dedication to that task will have no small influence on the future of freedom.”

  1. “The Power of Example Is Enormous”

The U.S. should serve “as an example of a rights-respecting society where citizens live together under law amid the nation’s great religious, ethnic, and cultural heterogeneity.” The U.S. also needs “to recognize the gap between our principles and the imperfections of our politics and can demonstrate, as we ask of others, tangible efforts at improvements.” 

  1. “Human Rights Are Universal and Indivisible

The U.S. needs to criticize when rights in UDHR “are radically subordinated in the name of development or other social and economic objectives.”

  1. “Universality and Indivisibility of Human Rights Does Not Mean Uniformity in Bringing Them to Life”

The UDHR contemplates “some variation in emphasis, interpretation, and mode of implementation.”

  1. A Degree of Pluralism in Respecting Human Rights Does Not Imply Cultural Relativism

“The scope for diversity in bringing human rights to life is circumscribed by the duty to ‘promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms,’ and by the . . . [requirement] that all rights must be exercised with due respect for the rights of others and that its rights may be subject to “such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.”

  1. Nation-States Have Some Leeway To Base Their Human Rights Policy on Their Own Distinctive National Traditions

Yet such policies must be “consistent with the overarching conviction affirmed in Article I of the UDHR that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’”

  1. Certain Distinctions Among [Human Rights] Are Inherent in the [UDHR] . . .,as Well as in the Positive Law of Human Rights

“U.S. foreign policy can and should consider which rights most accord with national principles and interests at any given time. Such judgments must take into consideration both the distinctive American contributions to the human rights project and also prudential judgments about current conditions, threats, and opportunities.”

However, “some international norms, like the prohibition on genocide, are so universal that they are recognized as norms of jus cogens — that is, principles of international law that no state can legitimately set aside. The application of certain human rights demands a high degree of uniformity of practice among nations, as in the prohibition of torture, while others allow for considerable variation in emphases.”

  1. Freedom, Democracy, and Human Rights Are Indissolubly Linked

This “invites a [U.S.] commitment to the promotion of individual freedom and democratic processes and institutions as central to the U.S. human rights agenda. By the same token, it counsels considerable deference to the decisions of democratic majorities in other countries, recognizing that self-governance may lead them to set their own distinctive priorities. The U.S. promotion of fundamental rights should always be sensitive to the outcomes of ordinary democratic politics and the legitimate exercise of national sovereignty, and wary of rights claims that seek to bypass democratic institutions and processes.”

  1. Social and Economic Rights Are Essential to a Comprehensive [U.S.] Foreign Policy

The U.S. was a major supporter of the indivisibility principle as well as the aspiration for “better standards of life in larger freedom” . . . in the UN Charter and the [UDHR] Preamble.” For the U.S.,  implementation of these rights were “left up to each nation.” A “minimum standard of living is essential to the effective exercise of civil and political rights.”

  1. New Claims of Rights Must Be Carefully Considered”

“The effort to shut down legitimate debate by recasting contestable policy preferences as fixed and unquestionable human rights imperatives promotes intolerance, impedes reconciliation, devalues core rights, and denies rights in the name of rights. In sum, the [U.S.] should be open to, but cautious in, endorsing new claims of human rights.”

  1. National Sovereignty Is Vital to Securing Human Rights”

The U.S. “should resist attempts at creating new rights through means that bypass democratic institutions and procedures, or that are inconsistent with the understandings on the basis of which the [U.S.] entered into international agreements. {The U.S. also] should respect the independence and sovereignty of nation-states to make their own moral and political decisions that affirm universal human rights within the limits set forth in the UDHR.”

  1. The Seedbeds of Human Rights Must Be Cultivated

“Respect for human rights must be cultivated, and the promotion of basic rights is only one element in building the kind of societies that promote human flourishing in all its dimensions. . . . The collective effort since 1948 to translate the UDHR’s broad principles of human rights into binding legal commitments through a network of treaties has achieved laudable results.”

As Eleanor Roosevelt said on the tenth anniversary of the UDHR, “Protection of human rights is a never-ending struggle, one that involves a nation’s sense of its own principles and purpose. . . . The surest protection of human freedom and dignity comes from the constitutions of free and democratic states undergirded by a tolerant, rights-respecting culture. As in the case of the United States’ distinctive rights tradition, the maintenance of the international human rights project will require attention to the ‘small places’ where the spirit of liberty is rooted, nurtured, and cultivated.”

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

[1] See U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Is Launched, dwkcommentaries.com (July 8, 2019); State Dep’t, Charter for the Commission on Unalienable Rights; State Dep’t, Commission on Unalienable Rights, Member BiosSee also List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—-Topical: U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights.

[2]  State Dep’t, Policy Planning Staff, Commission on Unalienable Rights; State Dep’t, Public Submissions to the Commission [on Unalienable Rights].

[3] State Dep’t, Draft Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 16, 2020).

[4] The Commission Chair, Mary Ann Glendon, is a noted authority on the UDHR. See Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Random House 2001). See also Human Rights Commentaries by Mary Ann Glendon, Chair of  Commission on Unalienable Rights, dwkcommentaries.com  (Nov. 2, 2019).

 

 

 

U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights’ Meeting, November 1, 2019

Here is a summary of the November 1, 2019, meeting of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights featuring  presentations by Cass Sunstein, the Robert Walmaly University Professor at Harvard Law School, and Orlando Paterson, the John Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard University.  [1]

Chair May Ann Glendon’s Introduction

Chair Glendon “explained that the Commission is still in the very beginning stages of its task, which is to advise the Secretary of State on the role human rights play in foreign policy, with that advice grounded in America’s founding principles, as well as the international commitments the United States made after World War II. Glendon emphasized the Commission’s independence: Commissioners are obliged to give the Secretary their best advice, to be non-partisan, and to consult broadly with experts from Department of State (for example, in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL)), but also with outside activists and academic specialists. Glendon praised the speakers who participated in the Commission’s previous meeting in October.”

Commissioner’s Comments

“Each commissioner explained his/her professional background and reflected on the speakers from the last session.” Of particular note is the following comments by Commissioner  Dr. Jacqueline Rivers, who “voiced a sentiment, shared by others, that bridged the different topics and time periods the Commission will consider in its work. For Rivers, one crucial question is how to avoid repeating a ‘major failing’ at the time of the Founding, when there was a great articulation of rights (for example, in the Declaration of Independence) but also, because of the prevalence of chattel slavery and the political subordination of large segments of society, a graphic failure to live up to those principles. As she contemplates how the United States can prevent that same failure from re-occurring internationally, one focus for Rivers will be on achieving consistency in forcefully stating, and then implementing protections for, human rights.”

Professor Cass Sunstein’s Presentation

Sunstein opened by saying he would make two major points:

  • First, . . .the U.S. conception of rights [in 1776] was a historical outgrowth of a sustained attack on monarchical legacy and the notion that some people rank above others by birth. Rights, [ however,] reflected a belief in human  dignity and citizenship.
  • Second, ”’freedom from desperate conditionshad widespread support at the Founding. Although it was not constitutionalized in any sense, . . . the articulation of, and public support for, this freedom later culminated in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights. Thus, . . . there is a degree of continuity between newer, twentieth century conceptions of rights and freedoms and those from the founding era.” (Emphases added.)

Rights and citizenship: the “American Revolution is often considered to be ‘conservative,’ relatively speaking – or at least cautious and milder than the French and Russian revolutions. But, . . . that characterization is misleading, given the major break with British legacy that occurred in the American colonies in the decades leading up to the revolution. During that time period, cultural notions of republicanism were popular, which led to fresh thinking about what governments ‘do’ and the purposes for which they exist. In America, ‘radical’ republicanism entailed self-government and eliminated social class-based hierarchies of various kinds. [The] so-called ‘down look’ of the poor – a sign they ‘knew their place’ and had resigned themselves to their lowliness. This down look changed as the explosive new ideas of liberty and equality took hold on society. John Adams wrote with amazement that ‘Idolatry to Monarchs, and servility to Aristocratical Pride, was never so totally eradicated from so many Minds in so short a time.’ . . . [This] quote is significant because Adams’s surprise is palpable – he did not express such obvious ‘shock’ in any of his other writings. The transformation upon which Adams was remarking involved people who once regarded themselves as subjects coming to regard themselves instead as citizens, who possess sovereignty. This is a major development, . . . and to lament on what the revolution did not accomplish is to miss the remarkable social and political restructuring that it set into motion.”

Citizenship as unifying theme in Bill of Rights. Shifting to the U.S. Bill of Rights, . . . the American Founders sought, above all, to guarantee the preconditions of effective self-government. (. . .We fail to understand the Bill of Rights if we see it as based solely on opposition to government, or on a kind of laissez-faire individualism.) “

“[Among the writings [of the Founders] is a convergence of several intellectual traditions, both theological and otherwise.”

“Turning to individual provisions of the Bill of Rights, . . . the jury trial protected by the Sixth and Seventh Amendments . . .  should be thought of not only in terms of the individual legal right created. The jury trial also allows for the participation of citizens – ones, who, prior to the Revolution, may have borne the ‘down look’ – in American civil and criminal justice systems. In deciding individual cases, jurors can modify the harsh edges of law by finding defendants innocent in close cases. And in carrying out these [duties?]. jurors also receive an education in the law itself.”

“In the same regard, . . . the right to private property, which creates a [sense?] of individual control (by protecting people’s holdings against government taking without compensation) but is also necessary for the status of citizenship. Since private property provides a means for people to live and support themselves, citizens possessing it are not solely dependent on the good will of government.”

“As for the Second Amendment, . . .  it is controversial in modern times. . . .[It] is a political right, which, at a minimum, prevents the federal government from outlawing state militias. These militias perform important democratic functions – by providing a training ground for the cultivation of virtue, and a constraint on potentially tyrannical government.”

The “Bill of Rights is not only about creating a sphere of individual liberty, free of government control, but also about creating conditions that would allow for the robust practice of citizenship.”

Social and economic rights: . . . [The] Founders gave no serious thought to including social and economic guarantees in the Bill of Rights. But . . . some of the founders’ writing, while not at the constitutional level, shows a surprisingly strong commitment to such guarantees. James Madison, for example, wrote of ‘withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially unmerited, accumulation of riches.’ Madison also appeared in favor of ‘rais[ing] extreme indigence toward a state of comfort.’ Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson, while not a framer of the Constitution, exerted a strong influence during the founding period and wrote of ‘lessening the inequality of property’ by ‘exempt[ing] all from taxation below a certain point, and . . . tax[ing] the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise.’ . . . [S]ocial theorists Montesquieu, John Locke, and Thomas Paine, all of whom were read by the American founders,. . . [in their writings] similarly suggest a commitment to social and economic rights. [D]uring the constitutional framing period, there was widespread support in America for legislation that would provide poor people with the basic necessities of life and that, unlike in England, where so-called ‘outdoor relief’ to able-bodied poor people was restricted, nearly all U.S. states allowed that form of assistance.“

“FDR and the Second Bill of Rights: . . . In 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) delivered a State of the Union address to Congress, which connected the war against tyranny with the Great Depression and the subsequent effort to combat economic distress domestically. The speech characterized ‘the one supreme objective for the future’ as ‘security,’ a term with multiple meanings. For FDR, security entailed not only ‘freedom from fear’ but also ‘freedom from want.’ . . . FDR explicitly used the, threat from Germany and Japan as an occasion for a renewed emphasis on providing protection against the most serious forms of human vulnerability at home.”

“In his speech, FDR looked back to the framing of the Constitution and argued that the unalienable rights at the Founding had proved inadequate, since it had become obvious that ‘true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.’ That provided the justification for FDR laying out his ‘Second Bill of Rights,’ which included the right to employment, to a dwelling place, to medical care, and to a good education, among other rights. . . . Roosevelt did not mean for these rights to be judicially enforceable, and indeed . . . FDR would have ‘deplored’ this idea. In his speech, however, FDR did call on Congress to ‘explore the means for implementing the economic bill of rights-for it is definitely the responsibility of Congress to do so.’”

“FDR’s speech is significant for marking the collapse of the idea, prominent in the period before the New Deal, that freedom comes from an absence of government. It was also important because the Second Bill of Rights went on to influence the content of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and dozens of foreign constitutions.”

Sunstein’s Responses to Commissioners’ Questions

The Commission’s Executive Director, Peter Berkowitz: Heagreed that the jury trial right is essential to citizenship in a liberal democracy, . . . [but] that few would contend the jury right to be appropriately labeled as a ‘human’ and/or ‘unalienable’ right. Is a jury trial, Berkowitz wondered, essential to human flourishing in non-democratic regimes?“

  • Sunstein responded: “[C]ertain protections in the [original] Bill of Rights are properly characterized as unalienable; off the top of his head, he . . . [said] that free speech and property rights, for example, qualify. . . . [He] was ‘hoping and gambling that many cultures have a ‘Locke-type’ figure that provides the philosophical founding for these rights in non-Anglo American traditions. When it comes to social and economic rights, Sunstein said the situation is somewhat different. Were those rights to qualify as unalienable, what is necessary would be ‘a theory about how, if people are living in desperate conditions, a universal right is being violated.’ He said that, in some sense, the destitute living on the street without food or shelter suffer from their humanity being ‘annihilated,’ but also said he was ‘groping for right verbal formulation’ to express this notion in terms of rights.“

Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, the Director of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, said that “the founders often stressed that certain rights are pre-political – like the free exercise of religion. He asked . . . if some of the other rights contained inside the Bill of Rights are also pre-political. . . . Soloveichik also asked whether the promotion of social and economic rights at the hands of government, . . .will inevitably clash with individual liberty. (By way of example, Soloveichik noted that expanding health care coverage at times has been in tension with individual religious liberty claims.)”

  • Sunstein said the following: “[T]ension between different rights is inevitable, regardless of whether social and economic rights (rather than other kinds) are involved. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision Wisconsin v. Yoder, Sunstein said that it is clear that certain kinds of rights—for example. the right to religious free exercise – prevail over others in legal disputes, and that, in order to decide, courts sometimes will look at the severity with which a right is being infringed, a question over which reasonable people may disagree. He said that clashes are an occasional but not devastating consequence of a regime recognizing multiple rights. . . . Sunstein [also] said that the majority of the rights contained in the Bill of Rights are pre-political, but that that is not at odds with acknowledging the Bill of Rights as being fundamentally ‘about’ citizenship.”

Professor Paolo Carozza, Professor of Law and Concurrent Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, where he also directs the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, asked Sunstein to elaborate on the nature of social and economic rights, and his rationale for saying that they are judicially unenforceable. . . .”

  • Sunstein “said that he had a ‘mundane’ account of why they are not judicially enforceable, and that is because allocative decisions are not well suited, institutionally, for judicial oversight. He cited the example of judges in South Africa facing severe challenges when attempting to enforce social and economic rights in that country.”

Dr. Christopher Tollefsen, Distinguished Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina,“brought up the right to a jury trial, saying that he would have thought that the notion underlying it is not citizenship, . . ., but rather fairness. Tollefsen asked if there was a more pluralistic set of directions that the notion of dignity ‘can go in’ that does not need to get ‘filtered through’ citizenship.

  • Sunstein “agreed that the jury right is most fundamentally about fairness, but he pushed back against Tollefsen’s labeling citizenship as just a ‘bonus’ in the Bill of Rights. Sunstein said that it was more like a by-product of notions central to our constitutional system. Sunstein further explained that it is hard to understand the Bill of Rights outside the context of a revolution recently fought for republican self-government. In his view, modern observers tend to read it in a way that is de-historicized.”

Dr. David Tse-Chien Pan, Professor of German at the University of California, Irvine, “wondered if, in U.S. foreign policy, any defense of human rights necessarily entailed creating republican self-government everywhere. He asked Sunstein if, in his view, there could be a . . . [more] modest role for human rights that does not necessitate regime change.”

  • Sunstein “answered that yes, the U.S. can hold republican self-government up as ideal while still working with other types of regimes. In Sunstein’s view, the writings of the American founders speak deeply to nations and peoples that are ambivalent about republican self-government, and part of the reason may be the writings’ emphasis, though never quite expressed in these terms, on human dignity.”

Dr. Russell A Berman, the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and current Senior Advisor in Policy Planning at the Department of State, “asked why FDR would have, in Sunstein’s words, ‘deplored’ the judicial enforcement of social and economic rights.”

  • Sunstein “said that FDR was not a fan of judicial ‘aggressiveness’ generally and would have been attuned to tradeoffs and difficulties inherent in economic allocation. That FDR nonetheless was insistent that social and economic guarantees be labeled as ‘rights,’ in Sunstein’s view, speaks to the president’s view that they have some sort of moral foundation. Furthermore, that FDR was willing to embrace the rights in a presidential speech, but would probably not have elected for [them to] be extensions to the Bill of Rights, may have had something to with his belief – shared by James Madison in his own day – in ‘infusing the culture’ with ideas that eventually become part of the national fabric. Sunstein pointed out that the right to education, and bans on monopolistic corporations, still widely embraced in the 21st century, show that Roosevelt really did play an enduring role in shaping our national consciousness.”

Professor Hamza Yusuf Hanson, the President of Zaytuna College, the first accredited Muslim liberal arts college in the United States, and Dr. Jacqueline Rivers, Lecturer in Sociology at Harvard University, exchanged ideas regarding private property. Hanson said that scholar Richard Weaver once described it as the ‘last metaphysical right’ that people agree upon, but that, in the 20th and 21st centuries, it has not received as much attention as it did in the time of Locke and the American revolutionaries.”

  • Sunstein “said that, in Western countries, the perceived need to fight for property rights is not acutely felt, because property is relatively secure in these places. But in other countries where those rights are most needed, the idea of private property is under attack.

Rivers “segued into consideration of other types of property. She noted that the American welfare system is still weaker than in some other Western countries. Could that be, she wondered, because America has become overcommitted to protecting private property?”

  • Sunstein “described himself as a proponent of private property and saw no conflict between endorsing private property rights alongside social welfare benefits. Sunstein brought up President Ronald Reagan, for whom he once worked, saying that Reagan was on record for endorsing a right to education and other rights conventionally associated with more socially progressive advocates.” 

Chair Mary Ann Glendon thanked Sunstein for being helpful in achieving one of the most challenging parts of the Commission’s overarching task – showing a degree of continuity between the Founding and the New Deal, and from New Deal to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). She asked if the Bill of Rights leaving out social and economic guarantees could be thought of as an instance in which the founders took for granted the local associations and arrangements that would care for indigent persons.

  • Sunstein “answered affirmatively, saying that the Constitution contemplated institutional pluralism. He noted that, in the early years of the republic, the national government had a limited role and the Bill of Rights did not apply to states.”

Professor Orlando Patterson’s Presentation

“Patterson’s first main point was that the idea of rights and the idea of freedom overlap but are not interchangeable.”

“The United States has long seen itself as the ‘Land of the Free,’ and, as the global leader of the free world, its “mission” has been to ensure freedom of its citizens to a degree not enjoyed in many other countries. But Patterson said that another concept has come to compete with this notion. Especially since World War II, U.S. has come to embrace individual rights in fits and starts.”

“Patterson expanded on the distinction (freedom vs. rights) by clarifying what, in his mind, ‘freedom’’means. He referred to it as a tripartite idea.”

  • First, human persons are free, at least to the degree they are not under power of others, to make choices, to do what they want, and to achieve the desires they set for themselves.”
  • Second, they are free to exercise power to influence the world. (Patterson called this “empowerment” and cited Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen.) For long periods of human history, Patterson argued, this type of freedom was associated with power over other people. This is important to recognize because, for him, freedom is not the opposite of power, even though it is commonly held to be.”
    • “To support his argument.Patterson mentioned “the Southern slaveholding conception of freedom” in the United States, which entailed the freedom of wealthy landowners to control the bodies and labor of African-Americans and was famously discussed by Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in their debates.”
    • “Even though slavery has been abolished in America for many years, Patterson said that freedom as ‘power over others’ continues in the 21st century – in the form of some people controlling large amounts of property.”
  • Third, people are free, according to Patterson, to share in the collective power of groups. He referred to this as civic freedom, and as best realized through democracy.”

“Patterson called tripartite freedom quintessentially Western in origin, rather than universal. He explained that, although English philosopher John Locke held freedom to be ‘written on the heart of man’ (Patterson’s words), freedom actually involves an ancient, culturally specific, way of looking at the world. What is uniquely Western is not only the tripartite nature of freedom, but also its relative status – in other words, that freedom is valorized as one of the pinnacle values of civilization. Contributing to this prioritization, . . [was].the religion that fashioned the West, Christianity (which emphasizes redemption, sacrifice as the way to free one’s self from spiritual slavery), as well as earlier, Roman notions of liberty. Patterson compared the spread of freedom across the world to Christian missionary work, arguing that freedom became more universal over time. This, in his view, has not always been without negative consequences. Military interventions in Iraq have shown that assuming all people (and especially non-Westerners) to desire freedom can be wrong and even dangerous.”

“‘Rights’ are distinguishable from freedom. For Patterson, they represent a set of claims concerning our condition as human beings. The claims are moral in nature, and their protection is necessary to preserve our most fundamental sense of what it means to be human. Rights are inherently egalitarian, whereas with ‘freedom,’ Patterson argued, there is no such assumption of equality.”

“Patterson then commented on America’s complex relationship between rights and freedom, stressing that the American tradition differs from the European one. In Britain, Patterson said, there frequently has been skepticism about rights. The English jurist and social reformer Jeremy Bentham, for example, called natural rights “nonsense upon stilts.” In the United States, there has been a stronger embrace of rights, but also a lingering uneasiness about them, according to Patterson. He mentioned that the Bill of Rights was a compromise measure that, at its adoption, few if any thought was perfect. Patterson noted that, throughout American history, there has been elite opposition to rights held by ‘the masses.’ He also mentioned the passage of the 14th Amendment and the Slaughterhouse cases as important rights milestones.”

“Patterson quoted an intellectual descendant of Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre, who once described rights as a ‘fiction,’ writing that ‘belief in them is one with belief in witches and unicorns.’”

“Then Patterson shifted gears to discuss the U.S. ‘Rights Revolution,’ which he believes stands in stark contrast with the history preceding it. His view is that it is anachronistic to posit that rights are the most critical element of America’s founding documents. That is because, in Patterson’s view, rights did not gain currency until much later – specifically, when the horrors of Nazism during World War II shocked the world’s conscience, triggering people’s shared moral instincts that there must be some baseline that all people are owed, inhering their basic humanity. The war’s atrocities combined with anti-imperial movements across the world and other developments: Black Americans fighting for freedom and returning home, wondering what their status would be in American politics, and what they held in common with others fighting for freedom; a shift in decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court; and the social movements waged by women and other groups. These trend lines converged and culminated in the 1970s, a decade which Patterson called quite extraordinary, even though, in his view, America in many respects is still (in the year 2019) in the midst of the lingering rights revolution.”

“Patterson held that the next phase of the rights revolution, almost as important as War II in terms of focusing attention on the deprivation of human rights, began to occur in the 1980s, with the emergence of the fight against modern slavery and human trafficking. Patterson emphasized that trafficking is normally spoken about as a violation of rights, more than it is a violation of freedom. He mentioned sex trafficking, the widespread condemnation of which has led to an alliance of strange bedfellows – the evangelical right and feminist left. He also mentioned labor trafficking, and employers being unable to say ‘stay out of our business’ as various forms of on-the-job inequity are now challenged and subject to outside scrutiny.”

“Patterson gave a tip of the hat to the U.S. Department of State for publishing its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, and said that, when it comes to condemning trafficking, the Department is better off using the language of rights than it is using the language of freedom. Each year, more and more people are able to make rights claims – for example, women in forced marriages, who have been newly defined as ‘slaves.’ Patterson described the language of rights as infinitely expandable to accommodate new kinds of claims. He saw this largely as a good thing: America is leading by example, expanding rights for an ever increasing number of people. As intimated at other points during his remarks, Patterson said that although he retains great love and respect for the concept of freedom, he thinks it is a mistake for the West to proclaim it to the world and try to convert others into showing similar reverence. Rhetorically speaking, rights are more effective tools to achieve similar ends.”

Patterson’s Responses to Questions

Executive Director Berkowitz “thanked Patterson for his thoughtful talk and then explained that the Commission has heard some criticisms of rights that are very similar to ones Patterson made about ‘freedom’ – that rights are exclusively Western, for example. Berkowitz said he welcomed Patterson’s thoughts on whether criticisms are equally applicable to both concepts.”

  • Patterson “said that, in his view, the [assertion that] rights are Western’ claims are shallower than those waged against freedom. Rights have origins that go at least as far back as the Middle Ages and Reformation. Admitting that there is a complicated story of how the concept of rights evolved and influenced public discourse, Patterson said that ‘rights talk’ – while Western in origin – was, from very beginning, seen as applying to all human beings, unlike freedom. Fundamental rights, thus, were extra-territorial and extra-political.”

Tollefsen “expressed some sympathy for the distinction Patterson drew between freedom and rights. Nothing that there are articulations of freedom that can come into tension with rights, Tollefsen cited the ‘freedom to consume,’ which, when enjoyed, can sometimes mean disregarding the rights of those whose exploited labor produced goods consumers enjoy. But Tollefsen also worried that any moral concern over modern-day slavery must involve an appeal to some notion of freedom.”

  • Patterson “responded that the concepts in question (rights, freedom) definitely overlap. But he said that, when it comes to international advocacy, work on behalf of freedom does not always have the same force or effect that rights-based advocacy does. Patterson mentioned Freedom House, which honors  countries on their honoring of civil and political rights, and contrasted its work with Department’s TIP report. Patterson discussed the TIP report’s 3-tier methodology, a provided the example of Japan, where there was great consternation when the U.S. did it in its TIP report. In response to the demotion, Japan made important reforms. Patterson’s basic point was that the United States can promote liberal democracy (and thus-freedom) abroad but must remember that democracy requires preconditions in order to function successfully. He argued that, when it comes to making rights claims, those preconditions are not as necessary because people have rights regardless of what political system is in place.”

Soloveichik “acknowledged that the concept of freedom has been misused and perverted at times throughout America’s history. But then he cited the abolitionist movement, during which the concepts of freedom and rights appeared to go hand in hand. Soloveichik also mentioned Martin Luther King, Jr., one of whose most famous lines is “let freedom ring.” Soloveichik’s question was whether freedom and rights enhance one another.”

  • Patterson “responded that, yes, at America’s best moments – in some of President Abraham Lincoln’s writings, for example, during the struggle for women’s suffrage and equality, etc. – rights and freedom complement each other ‘sublimely.’ But during our country’s worst moments, the two concepts are twinned in perverted ways – for example, during the Confederacy, when southern liberty was held up as an ideal while African American slaves’ rights were openly and appallingly violated.“

Katrina Swett, the President of the Tom Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice,  said “that she had always thought of freedom and human rights as inextricably connected, but that Patterson’s writings and lecture were very challenging to her past understandings. She wondered as a practical matter if free and democratic societies do the best job of protecting rights.”

  • Patterson “said that, absolutely, they do. But then he mentioned that somewhere on the order of 70% of the world’s chocolate is (or previously was) produced by child labor. In recent years, thousands of NGOs have pressured chocolate manufacturers, farmers, and governments to change this situation. Patterson’s point was that, when it comes to protecting human rights, advocates can achieve progress even in non-democracies. (Democracies are ideal, but they are not the only regimes where rights can be protected.) In another example, he said that China has cut poverty in half. People are no longer starving – because China, though far from a democracy, in certain respects has honored the ‘right to food’ and the ‘right to life.’”

Chair Glendon concluded by thanking Patterson for helping the Commission with a problem it will have to confront – the difficulties and confusion inherent in using terms and concepts to which different groups impute various meanings and connotations.”

Public Comments

Several members of the public made comments. Here is a summary of the more substantive ones.

“A representative from the Center for Family and Human Rights spoke of the unintended consequences of rights expansion: Sometimes people have to give up certain rights in order to accommodate new definitions of rights – thus promoting a ‘competition of rights’ [and?] growing skepticism regarding the United Nations (UN) approach to protecting human [rights. The representative stressed that now is a prime opportunity for basic issues to be [reframed?]”

“Fr. Mark Hodges, an Orthodox priest. spoke about the Christian conception of rights, framework which involves concepts like universal dignity and free will. He urged the Commission to prioritize religious freedom and the right to life.”

“A representative from the Heritage Foundation said that when international bodies like the UN consider all rights on equal footing, it is worth asking whether they are confusing certain ‘desirable ends’ with human rights. He asked how long internal conflicts can persist within the global human rights movement before we reach a point of human rights paralysis, and he wondered whether the proliferation of rights does violence to the notion of unalienable rights. Commissioner Paola Carozza responded that, in international human rights law, there actually is a hierarchy of rights – some are non-derogable, and some achieve status of jus cogens, while others do not.”

“A law professor from the University of Oklahoma then asked whether the comments submitted to the Commission by various civil society groups will be made public, and suggested the Commission publish specific questions, and set specific deadlines, so that outside groups can contribute more efficiently.”

“Representatives from Human Rights Watch urged the Commission to invite ‘grassroots’ human rights defenders to come testify, saying their work is crucial but does not enter into ‘esoteric academic debates.’”

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[1] Update on U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 19, 2020).   

[2] Comm’n Unalienable Rts, Agenda (Nov. 1, 2019); Comm’n Unalienable Rts., Minutes (Nov. 1, 2019).

 

U.S. First Congress: Debates Slavery, 1790

Anyone who has studied any American history knows that slavery existed at the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 and that the Constitution’s original Article I, Section 2 apportioned representatives in the House of Representatives “according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians no taxed, three fifths of all other Persons [i.e., slaves].” (Emphasis added.)[1]

In addition, the First Congress in 1789 implicitly recognizing slavery when it enacted statues for an U.S. census and U.S. naturalization citizenship requirements. [2]

As the First Congress prepared to commence operations, emancipation advocates were seeking regulation of the slave trade or abolition of slavery while defenders of the “peculiar institution” contemplated secession if that happened. The latter’s House representation, of course, was bolstered by having their population increased by 60% (3/5th) of the number of their slaves.[3]

The emancipation advocates were led by Quakers who starting in early February 1790 “way-laid” and “assailed” Senators and Congressmen with pamphlets and diagrams of overcrowded slaves ships while urging support of anti-slavery petitions. One such petition asked Congress “with a sense of religious duty” to end “the gross national iniquity of trafficking in the persons of fellow men” and “the inhuman tyranny and blood guiltiness inseparable from it.” Another petition that was signed by Benjamin Franklin called for use of “all justifiable measures to loosen the bonds of Slavery & promote a general enjoyment of the blessings of Freedom.”

Southern reaction to these petitions was “explosive.” They accused the Quakers of “intemperate and unwarrantable meddling,” of “an intolerant spirit of persecution” against the slave states, of disloyalty and cowardice during the Revolutionary War (because on religious principles they did not bear arms) and the promotion of “Insurrections & bloodshed & persecution.” A Georgia Congressman said religion “from Genesis to Revelations” had approved of slavery.

The three petitions were referred to a House select committee, which later reported that Congress had no power to emancipate slaves or interfere with the slave trade before 1808. On the other hand, the committee said, Congress had the power to put a tax on imported slaves and thereby motivate slave-owners and slave states to improve their treatment of slaves.

Thereafter the pro-slavery forces went on the attack. Their leader quoted Scripture, suggested that nothing could be done about it, that the new country needed exports to Africa and that slaves were incapable of mastering freedom. Some of the nation’s leaders personally opposed slavery—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison-even though they were slave owners, but remained quiet in Congress because they feared loss of Southern support for other measures or a breakup of the new country.

The result? The House concluded that all power to end slavery and tax imported slaves rested with the states. In short, it was an endorsement of the status quo and the protection of slavery.

Fergus Bordewich, the author of a leading book on the First Congress, concludes that the “most consequential failure of the First Congress was its evasion of the corrosive problem of slavery. . . . Even members who loathed slavery feared that the new government could not risk an open debate on the subject without splintering . . . . [Thus,] for the next seven decades this evasion encouraged southerners to bully any northern politicians who challenged slavery by threatening secession and war, as the number of enslaved Americans swelled from 323,000 in 1790 to almost 4 million in 1861, and the moral problem of slavery became ever more deeply enmeshed with the politics of states’ rights.”[4]

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[1] The above provision of the original Constitution was deleted by Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment thereto, which was adopted after the Civil War in 1868 and which states: “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.”

[2] U.S. First Congress: Establishment of Racial Categories for the U.S. Census and U.S. Citizenship Naturalization, 1790, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 20, 2017).

[3] Bordewich, the First Congress at 3,6, 75-77, 104, 112, 124-25, 149, 151-52, 172, 178, 183, 195-96, 198-220, 223-24, 230, 244-45, 249, 276, 279-80 (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016). http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-First-Congress/Fergus-M-Bordewich/9781451691931

[4] Id. at 304.