U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Responds to Criticisms

On September 15, 2019, Dr. Peter Berkowitz, the Executive Director of the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, published responses to criticisms that have been leveled against the Commission.[1] Here are those responses followed by this blogger’s reactions to same.                                    

Dr. Berkowtiz’s Responses to Criticisms

“The announcement of the . . . [Commission’s} existence and mandate immediately triggered a barrage of skepticism, indignation, and anger. The misunderstandings that the criticisms embody underscore the urgency of the commission’s work.”

Characterization of the Criticisms

“The very idea of human rights has come under fire from the left and the right for its supposedly sham universality. Hard-core progressives contend that human rights are nothing more than a vehicle for advancing Western imperialism and colonialism. Single-minded conservatives maintain that the essential function of human rights is to erode national sovereignty and promulgate progressive political goals around the world.”

“More measured and compelling objections focus on the excesses to which the human rights project has been exposed. The proliferation of rights claims has obscured the distinction between fundamental rights that are universally applicable and partisan preferences that are properly left to diplomacy and political give-and-take. International institutions charged with monitoring and safeguarding human rights sometimes include in their membership countries that flagrantly violate human rights and which wield international law as a weapon to undermine them. The growth of international institutions, courts, and NGOs dedicated to human rights has created a cadre of bureaucrats, judges, scholars, and activists. Many of these experts and advocates are dedicated to the cause of human rights and serve with distinction, but all face the temptation — typical of any professional community — of succumbing to special interests and self-serving agendas. And an overemphasis on universal rights can distract from other essentials of political life, including the discharge of responsibilities, the cultivation of virtues, and the caring for community.”

U.S. Role in Evaluating These Criticisms

“It’s especially important for the United States to respond thoughtfully to the confusion and controversy swirling around human rights because of our country’s founding convictions. The Declaration of Independence affirms “certain unalienable Rights” — these include “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” — that inhere in all human beings. The Constitution establishes the institutional framework that enables Americans to secure these fundamental rights through democratic self-government.” (Emphasis added.)

Moreover, as a driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1948 — the United States reaffirmed the nation’s founding conviction that all human beings deserve the rights and liberties secured by its Constitution. At the same time, the Constitution leaves to the American people and their elected representatives the discretion to determine the role in the country’s foreign policy played by the universal rights that Americans and non-Americans share.” (Emphasis added.)

Evaluation of Criticisms

Yet an array of scholars, pundits, former political officials, and organizations are up in arms about the commission. Their critiques are illuminating, though not entirely as they intended.”

First, critics charge that the Trump administration’s record advancing human rights renders it unfit to establish a commission to provide advice on human rights. Set aside that the administration has engaged Kim Jong-un in pursuit of peaceful dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program; imposed tough sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s belligerent Russia; supported a democratic transition in Venezuela; opposed Iran’s quest to impose a brutal hegemony throughout the Middle East; and convened in Bahrain an international forum attended by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among others, to discuss the economic reconstruction of the West Bank and Gaza and peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Isn’t the State Department’s determination to improve understanding of the connections between America’s founding principles and the administration’s foreign policy a sign of the enduring significance it attaches to human rights?”

Second, critics detect a sinister ambition in Secretary Pompeo’s “distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights granted by governments.” They worry that authoritarian countries around the world will conclude that the guiding purpose of the Commission on Unalienable Rights is to redefine human rights narrowly. But the American constitutional tradition turns on the difference between universal rights that are essential and unchanging and the contingent rights created by the consent of the governed that serve as a means to protecting citizens’ fundamental freedoms, and which are bound to vary from country to country.” (Emphasis added.)

Third, critics express dismay that the commission was charged with examining the reasoning by which claims about human rights are assessed, because they believe that the debate about the foundations and the meaning of human rights has all but ended. It has been asserted, for example, that codification of human rights by widely ratified international treaties (in many cases, though, not ratified by the United States) renders the commission’s work superfluous. This contention illustrates problems that gave rise to the panel. Contrary to the critics’ belief, a right does not become inalienable simply because an international treaty says so. And the refusal of the United States to ratify many such treaties demonstrates the persistence of questions about what counts as a human right and about the status of such rights in international law.” (Emphasis added.)

Fourth, critics have warned that the commission intends to strip members of various groups and communities of their rights. In fact, the commission proceeds from the premise that all persons — regardless of faith, nationality, race, class, and gender — share essential rights grounded in our common humanity.” (Emphasis added.)

Fifth, critics accuse the commission of lacking intellectual and political diversity. In fact, the political diversity and variety of intellectual perspectives represented compares quite favorably with the uniform political and intellectual outlook that informs so many of those who have condemned the commission.

“In one respect, the quick-out-of-the-gate criticisms of the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights have been highly constructive. By throwing into sharp relief the passion and perplexity that surround the discussion of human rights, the critics themselves unwittingly make the case for sober and deliberate reflection about the roots of human rights in the American constitutional tradition, and their reach in the conduct of America’s foreign affairs. That is precisely the task that Secretary Pompeo has directed the Commission on Unalienable Right to undertake, and which its members have proudly embraced.” (Emphasis added.)

This Blogger’s Reactions

Some of the highlighted portions of Berkowitz’s comments correctly observe that some of the criticisms expressed concern that the Commission was designed to reduce the scope of international human rights in accord with the political views of the Trump Administration, but Berkowitz fails to acknowledge statements by Secretary Pompeo that prompted these criticisms.

Berkowitz also acknowledges, as he should, that the U.S. “Constitution establishes the institutional framework that enables Americans to secure these fundamental rights through democratic self-government.” But he fails to note that the U.S. Declaration of Independence itself states, ““to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” immediately following its proclamation, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Emphasis added.)

In other words, the U.S. Declaration itself implicitly recognizes that it does not secure the rights it proclaims because it does not create binding legal obligations. Instead the Declaration contemplates that the not yet established U.S. government subsequently will enact statutes that protect the unalienable rights, only three of which are specifically mentioned in the Declaration while alluding to a larger category of unalienable rights. These subsequent statutes are not “ad hoc” and lesser rights as Secretary Pompeo likes to say. [2]

Similarly the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) from 1948, which the Commission, in other contexts, properly mentions in the same breath as the U.S. Declaration of Independence, does not create any binding legal obligations. Instead, the UDHR says, “every individual and every organ of society , keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive . . . by progressive measures, national and international, to secure [these rights and freedoms] universal and effective recognition and observance.” In other words, the UDHR itself contemplated that there should be additional measures, including national legislation and international treaties, to secure the rights and freedoms articulated in the UDHR. Again, these are not “ad hoc” and lesser rights.(Emphasis added.)

In addition, the Commission’s Chair Mary Ann Glendon, the author of a leading book about the creation of the UDHR, has said that one of the principles of the UDHR’s framers was “flexible universalism.” The UDHR framers “understood that there would always be different ways of applying human rights to different social and political contexts, and that each country’s circumstances would affect how it would fulfill its requirements.” For example, . . . [UDHR’s] Article 22 provides: ‘Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international cooperation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.’ (Emphasis added.) Another example is Article 14, which states, ‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution,’ but is silent on how that right should be protected. [3]

“Flexible universalism” also exists in human rights treaties that allow for their ratification by nation states with reservations for at least some of the treaty’s provisions. And, of course, a state may chose not to ratify a treaty and thereby not be bound by any of its provisions. Moreover, there are mechanisms for other states and international agencies to address these reservations and non-ratifications. For example, in the U.H. Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process, the Council and other states may, and do, make recommendations for states to withdraw reservations or ratify certain treaties. But these are only recommendations.[4]

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[1] Berkowitz, Criticisms Illustrate Need for State Dept. Human Rights Panel (Sept. 15, 2019). Dr. Berkowitz also serves this year on the Department’s Policy Planning Staff while on leave as Ted and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author of books and articles about constitutional government, conservatism, liberalism and progressivism, liberal education and Israel and the Middle East. He holds degrees from Swarthmore College (B.A.), Hebrew University of Jerusalem (M.A.), and Yale University (PhD and JD). (Com’n Unalienable Rights, Member Bios.) 

[2] E.g., Another Speech About Unalienable Rights by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, dwkcommentareies.com (Sept. 7, 2019); Criticism of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (July 20, 2019).

[3] Human Rights Commentaries by Mary Ann Glendon, Chair of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 2, 2019). 

[4] E.g., U.N.’s Human Rights Council’s Final Consideration of Cameroon’s Universal Periodic Review, dwkcommentaries/com (Sept. 20, 2018); U.S. Ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, dwkcommentareis.com. (Feb. 5, 2013) (U.S. ratification had five reservations, understandings, four declarations and a proviso).

Senators Express Deep Concern Over Commission on Unalienable Rights

On July 23, 2019, a group of 22 Senators told Secretary of State Pompeo of their “deep concern” over the new U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights. [1]

The Senators said they “vehemently disagree” with the Secretary’s assertion that there was “confusion” over what human rights are. “The 1948 UN declaration of Human Rights begins by declaring that the recognition of the equal and inalienable rights ‘of all members of the human family is the foundation of the freedom, justice and peace.’ Moreover, widely ratified international treaties codify ‘inalienable’ rights.”

The letter continued, “it seems the administration is reluctant—or even hostile—to protected established internationally recognized definitions of human rights, particularly those requiring it to uphold protections for reproductive rights and the rights of marginalized communities, including LGBT persons. The [Secretary’s] assertion that decades of well-defined agreement on human rights has sown confusion over what rights are is simply an Orwellian twist to defend the indefensible.” In short, the Commission is “absurd, particularly from an administration that has taken a wrecking ball to America’s global leadership on protecting human rights across the world” by supporting “despotic governments abroad,” by “ignoring the devastating abuses and rights of children and families on our border” and by President Trump’s fawning “ over current abusers of human rights such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The senators also were concerned that the Commission’s membership was not fairly balanced, in accordance with federal law (41 C.F.R. Section 102-3.30). “The Commission’s chair and members are overwhelmingly clergy or scholars known to support discriminatory policies toward LGBT persons, hold views hostile to women’s rights and reproductive freedom, and/or support positions at odds with U.S. treaty obligations.”

Finally the letter protested the Secretary’s failure to consult or obtain input from the Department’s career human rights experts.

This letter to Pompeo was organized by Senator Bob Menendez (NJ), the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The letter was signed by the following Democratic presidential candidates: Kamala Harris (CA), Michael Bennet (CO), Elizabeth Warren (MA), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Cory Booker (NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) and Bernie Sanders (IN, VT). Other Democratic Senator signatories were Tammy Baldwin (WI), Richard Blumenthal (CT), Benjamin L. Cardin (MD), Christopher Coons (DE), Tammy Duckworth (IL), Patrick Leahy (VT), Edward J. Markey (MA), Jeffrey A. Merkley (OR), Patty Murray (WA ), Jack Reed (RI), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Tina Smith (MN), Chris Van Hollen (MD), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) and Ben Wyden (OR).

Conclusion

This blog, which is sceptical about the true purpose of this Commission, has published many posts about this Commission.

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[1] Letter, U.S. Senators to Secretary Pompeo (July 23, 2019); Lederman & Lee, human rights groups lead chorus of alarm over new Trump administration commission, NBC News (July 23, 2019); Budryk, Democrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new ‘unalienable rights’ commission, The Hill (July 24, 2019).

Is Cuba-North Korea Cooperation Good or Bad for U.S.? 

On November 22-24 North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho was in Havana to meet with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and President Raúl Castro. Was this a positive or negative development for  the U.S., which has simultaneous strained relationships with both countries?[1]

Background

Since 1960, soon after the Cuban Revolution assumed control of the island’s government, Cuba and North Korea have had close diplomatic relations. It started with a 1960 visit to North Korea by Che Guevara, who praised the North Korean regime as a model for Cuba to follow.

In 1986 Fidel Castro visited North Korea and met with the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, and his son and successor, Kim Jong-il (the grandfather and father, respectively, of the current North Korean leader).

In July 2013, a North Korea-flagged vessel was seized by Panamanian authorities carrying suspected missile-system components hidden under 10,000 tons of sugar bags upon its return from Cuba. Cuba claimed the weapons were going to North Korea for repairs and were to be sent back. However, the next year a United Nations panel of experts concluded that the shipment had violated sanctions placed on North Korea, although Cuban entities were not sanctioned in the aftermath despite protests from the U.S.

In 2015, Cuba’s First Vice President and foreseeable successor to Raúl Castro, Miguel Díaz-Canel , was received by Kim Jong-un in the North Korean capital.

In December 2016, a North Korean delegation to the funeral of Cuban leader Fidel Castro emphasized that the two nations should develop their relations “in all spheres” — a comment that was echoed by Raúl Castro, according to state media reports at the time.

This year the Kim regime has been strengthening its ties with Cuba with a view to breaking its diplomatic isolation, before the tightening of sanctions imposed by the international community. In January, Cuban Vice President  Salvador Valdés Mesa  received the number three of the North Korean regime, Choe Ryong-hae. In May the North Korean trade union leader Ju Yong-gil visited  Havana as part of a meeting of the World Federation of Trade Unions and reportedly returned with a message of solidarity from President Raúl Castro.

The Ho-Rodriguez Meeting

Ho’s first meeting in Cuba was with Foreign Minister Rodriguez and below is a photograph of the two men at that meeting. 

Afterwards Cuba’s Foreign Ministry stated that the two officials  had “reviewed the satisfactory status and positive evolution of bilateral relations, which [are] based on the traditional bonds of friendship established by the historical leaders Fidel Castro Ruz and Kim Il Sung and the links that exist between both peoples, parties and governments.” They also asserted their “respect for peoples’ sovereignty, independence and free determination, territorial integrity, the abstention or threat of the use of force, the peaceful settlement of disputes and non-interference in the internal affairs of States.”

They then “strongly rejected the unilateral and arbitrary lists and designations established by the US government which serve as a basis for the implementation of coercive measures which are contrary to international law.” In addition, they “expressed their concern over the escalation of tensions and the increased military activity in the [Korean Peninsula].”

The Ho-Castro Meeting

After the two officials’ meeting, the official note of the meeting released on Cuban official television stated, “In the fraternal meeting both parties noted the historic bonds of friendship that exist between the two nations and discussed international issues of common interest.”

Implications for the U.S.

On November 23 Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised the possibility that the North Korea-Cuba relationship was a positive development for the U.S. and the world. He said that last year he had discussed with Castro the possibility of working together to defuse global tensions with North Korea. “Can we pass along messages through surprising conduits?” Implicitly answering “yes” to his rhetorical question, Trudeau said. “These are the kinds of things where Canada can, I think, play a role that the United States has chosen not to play, this past year.”

Canada had an interest in seeking such solutions, not just because of regional security but also because the flight path of possible North Korean missiles would pass over its territory, Trudeau said.

An unnamed Asian diplomat had a similar thought: “We often ask the Cubans if they can talk to [the U.S. about North Korea].”

A more negative assessment was offered by an anonymous U.S. State Department official who said that the U.S. had made clear it wanted a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue, but North Korea’s “belligerent and provocative behavior demonstrates it has no interest in working toward a peaceful solution.” Also skeptical was Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former U.S. Treasury Department official, who said,  “A key element of the Trump administration’s sanctions effort is isolating North Korea. The U.S. should warn Cuba about the dangers of a relationship with North Korea.”

Conclusion

Although this blog desperately hopes for a de-escalation of tensions between the U.S. and North Korea and the avoidance of a nuclear war, I doubt that Cuba or Canada via Cuba can make a significant contribution to that objective.

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[1] Reuters, Castro Meets North Korean Minister Amid Hope Cuba Can Defuse Tensions, N.Y. Times (Nov. 24, 2017); The North Korean chancellor brings to Raúl Castro a ‘verbal message’ from Kim Jong-un, Diario de Cuba (Nov. 24, 2017); MacDonald, North Korea relations could be cooled using Cuba, Trudeau says, Global News (Nov. 23, 2017); Reuters, Cuba, North Korea Reject ‘Unilateral and Arbitrary U.S. Demands, N.Y. Times (Nov. 23, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, The Cuban Foreign Minister met with his counterpart from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (Nov. 22, 2017); Gomez, Bruno Rodriguez receives Foreign Minister of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Granma (Nov. 22, 2017); Reuters, North Korean Foreign Minister Heads to Cuba, N.Y. Times (Nov. 20, 2017); Taylor, Amid growing isolation, North Korea falls back on close ties with Cuba, Wash. Post (Nov. 17, 2017).