U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Issues Final Report 

As previously noted, on July 6, the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights issued its Draft Report.[1] The Final Report was issued 51 days later on August 26 as “a consensus document that was signed and approved unanimously by all 11 commissioners.”[2]

The latter was after the Commission had solicited and obtained a large number of comments, mainly negative, about the Draft Report.[3] But presumably after reviewing those comments, the Final Report was issued with “only [unidentified] small changes.”  The only public explanation of this decision was the following: “For the most part, the recent round of public comment restated perspectives and points shared before, during, and after the Commission’s five public meetings . . . and so already had been taken into account by the Commission.”

The most important criticisms of the Draft Report, which this blog shared, were its statement, “Foremost among the unalienable rights that government is established to secure, from the founders’ point of view, are property rights and religious liberty.” Also criticized were the draft Report’s downgrading of “positive rights,” i.e., rights that “owe their existence to custom, tradition, and to positive law, which is the law created by human beings,” and Secretary Pompeo’s objections to women’s reproductive rights (especially abortion) and to LGBTQ rights.

 Criticism of Draft Report

Here is a summary of some of the criticisms of the Draft Report from some of the respected international human rights non-profit organizations.

The Human Rights Watch submission stated, “With other organizations, we also remain concerned that the commission itself was not representative of the human rights community, did not take testimony from the full scope of the human rights community, and did not consider in its scope the range of issues the human rights framework aims to address. Freedom House pointed out that there already are mechanisms for interpreting human rights obligations of states at international and regional levels. The supposed gap the commission was created to fill is one that does not exist; therefore, the premise [for the Commission] is dubious and its work duplicative. . . . we continue to question its value and have increasing concerns about the repercussions that its work may have on the universality and efficacy of human rights protections and on the institutions designed to oversee compliance and implementation.” That submission also stated the following:

  • “The world has no shortage of actors who aim to weaken existing protections or call internationally recognized rights into question. Too often, that has included the United States. In recent years, the United States has moved sharply away from its longstanding if inconsistent role of seeking to advance human rights worldwide. Its decisions to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council, stonewall UN human rights experts, make an extraordinary threat of vetoing a UN Security Council resolution on women, peace, and security because it mentioned survivors’ sexual and reproductive health and rights, and terminate funding for multilateral bodies like the United Nations Population Fund, UNESCO, and the World Health Organization that help advance rights to education and health worldwide have removed the United States as a key player on global human rights issues. The United States State Department’s creation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights purports to scrutinize well-grounded rights and obligations and reinterpret them in a way that deprivileges certain human rights but poses a risk to all rights. The United States should prioritize fulfilling its commitments, not redefining them to fulfill the wishes of a few.”
  • The Report “sets dangerous precedent that countries should decide which internationally recognized rights are or are not valid. . . . appeals to history and tradition are frequently abused by governments to justify their rejection of internationally recognized human rights norms. . . . Such an approach is likely to fragment and weaken the international human rights system, not strengthen or revitalize it. “
  • The Declaration of Independence and UDHR “are statements of principle, not obligation. Using these documents without also considering relevant human rights treaties and other sources of international law to guide human rights policy leads to a distorted understanding of the United States’ binding international obligations and commitments.”
  • The Report “spends little time on the adoption of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Reconstruction Amendments, the enfranchisement of women, the strengthening of due process under the Warren Court, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Fair Housing Act, and Americans With Disabilities Act, and jurisprudence recognizing the right to reproductive autonomy and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Similarly, it does little to acknowledge increased recognition over the years of economic and social rights as central to human rights discourse.”
  • U.S. “obligations under core human rights treaties coexist with other commitments the United States has made to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights, which are largely absent from the commission’s report.”
  • “The human rights project is facing challenges, but they are “not a matter of too many people seeking or claiming their rights. Instead, they are challenges that arise from autocratic or authoritarian governments that have denied fundamental rights, silenced vulnerable populations, and diminished the institutions and civil society groups that protect human rights from erosion.”
  • “The [draft] report erroneously suggests “that human rights that are inconsistent with domestic traditions are less meaningful or real than those the United States deems to favor.. . . [and] does not sufficiently acknowledge the maintenance, scrutiny, and accountability that upholding human rights requires.”
  • “Efforts to secure access to abortion are . . . about rights to life, to health, and to bodily autonomy. Similarly, efforts to secure the freedom to marry are . . . about the right to form a family and equal access to existing rights and protections without discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Two other such organizations offered similar comments. Freedom House: Trump Administration ignored or excused violations by Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, N. Korea and rebuffed pressure for racial justice in U.S. The draft report also rejects LGBT+ people, women and minorities. In addition, Freedom House rejects prioritization of rights and failure to recognize change views of rights over time (Pp 21-22). Human Rights First said proliferation of rights claims has not undermined legitimacy and credibility of human rights framework; treaties have not created uncertainties; rights hierarchies are wrong; abortion, affirmative action & same-sex marriage are valid rights; effort to preclude extension of new rights is wrong. It is retreat from human rights. (Pp 80-94).

Human Rights First’s Criticism of Final Report[4]

According to Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights First, Secretary Pompeo “has imposed his personal preferences [in the Final Report]while relying on arguments that pose a profound threat to all human rights as well.”

The Final Report “is a frontal assault on international human rights law. The report treats the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR], adopted in 1948 and drafted with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt, as the heyday of the human rights movement.” But this important document “is a non-binding political declaration. It has been followed over the years by a series of legally binding treaties, each with an independent expert committee elected by treaty members to interpret its language and monitor compliance. The commission disparages this legal elucidation as a ‘proliferation’ of rights, suggesting that there are now too many rights.”

Initially, the UDHR was codified in two legally binding covenants. One, on civil and political rights, contains provisions similar to the US Constitution, and the US government has ratified it. Another, on economic, social, and cultural rights, finds parallels in US law but not the US Constitution. The US government signed but never ratified it or fully embraced its rights.”

“After these foundational covenants, a handful of other treaties were adopted, spelling out, for instance, the meaning of the prohibition of torture or ways to protect womenracial minoritieschildren, and people with disabilities from discrimination. What Pompeo’s commission disparages as “proliferation” is in fact a process to ensure respect for the rights of people who traditionally have been marginalized or neglected.”

The Commission seemed most concerned with “interpretations of human rights law to protect reproductive freedom and the rights of LGBT people. In the case of LGBT rights, for example, the Human Rights Committee—the official body for interpreting the civil and political rights covenant—has found that the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex includes discrimination based on sexual orientation, just as the US Supreme Court recently found that sex discrimination includes discrimination against LGBT people.”

“The Pompeo commission’s discomfort with the Human Rights Committee is why it lionizes the non-binding [UDHR]. The declaration, as a statement of principles, has no accompanying interpretive body of law. That allows the US government to interpret its broad principles on its own, as if the covenants had never been adopted as its legally binding version.”

The Commission “seems to favor an a la carte approach to rights: The US government will pick the rights that it wants to observe, and others can do the same. That approach would be music to the ears of the world’s autocrats, and many will happily take the opportunity to trample on certain basic rights that Pompeo himself has rightly defended in places like Hong Kong.”

“To effectively abandon binding treaties for the Pompeo commission’s a la carte approach is to relegate human rights to the vagaries of government preferences. That’s not a system of human rights. It’s an excuse for repression, discrimination, and abuse.”

Conclusion

The Final Report also completely ignores the language of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. After reciting “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as among “certain unalienable rights” that “ are endowed by their Creator,” the Declaration next states, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, governments will need to enact various kinds of statutes and other rules “to secure . . .life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

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

[1[ See U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights’ Report, dwkcommentaries.com (July 27, 2020). Here are links to other posts on this blog about this Commission.

[2] State Dep’t, [Final] Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights (Aug. 26, 2020).

[3] The Commission’s website has a page for Public Submissions to the Commission, but they are limited to submissions before the issuance of the Draft Report in light of this statement, “At each of its public meetings, the Commission solicited input from the general public on relevant topics regarding human rights. Sometimes comments came from audience members who attended the meetings in person and who generously offered their thoughts and posed questions to commissioners at the microphone. Other times, outside individuals and groups opted to send more detailed written commentary to the Commission.”

[4] Roth, Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights Will Endanger Everyone’s Human Rights, hrw.org (Oct. 27, 2020).

Washington Post Criticizes Commission on Unalienable Rights

An August 23, editorial in the Washington Post criticized the recently established U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights.[1] It thereby joins this blog and many other voices in finding this Commission unnecessary and misguided.

According to the Post, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has lamented so called “ad hoc rights” and “the proliferation of rights claims” and called for a return to fundamentals or “unalienable rights.” Yet to date the Secretary has not “spelled out what he means” or offered “a single concrete example of what rights he wants to curtail.” This has prompted many human rights advocates to complain that the true purpose of the Commission is to exclude women’s reproductive rights or LGBT rights.

President Trump, however, “does not adhere to principle on human rights.” Instead, these two leaders “have singled out abuses when it suits their purpose” while turning “a blind eye toward the unsavory activities of regimes they favor.”

Therefore, “rather than. . . [tweaking] definitions [of human rights], Mr. Pompeo should start honestly speaking the truth about the world’s most frequent and serious rights violators.” [2]

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

[1]  Editorial, Why redefine U.S. policy on human rights?, Wash. Post (Aug. 23, 2019).

[2] A recent article about  Pompeo reports that as an unsuccessful Kansas businessman he had the financial backing of the Koch brothers; that this Koch support continued while Pompeo was a Congressman and fierce critic of President Obama’s foreign policy; that Pompeo in 2016 was determined to stop Trump from getting the GOP’s presidential nomination, but at the party’s National Convention that year had switched to supporting Trump; that Trump’s November 16, 2016, interview of Pompeo was the first time they had met; that Pompeo as director of the CIA held daily briefings with Trump and waged what a former White House official described as a “concerted campaign” to replace Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State; that the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, banning the gay-pride flag at U.S. diplomatic posts and scepticism about climate change are parts of “Pompeo’s own ideological agenda;” and that Pompeo is approaching the Secretary’s job “like a future Presidential candidate.” (Glasser, The Secretary of Trump, The New Yorker (Aug. 26, 2019).)

 

What is Westminster’s Way of Faith?

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

June 12 was Heritage Sunday at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church when we celebrated the history of our church and honored those who have been members for 50 years or more. The sermon–“What is Westminster’s Way of Faith?”–was based upon Psalm 145 and Hebrews 12: 1-3.[1]

Readings from Holy Scripture

Psalm 145 states as follows (NRSV):

“I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you,
and praise your name forever and ever.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
his greatness is unsearchable.”

“One generation shall laud your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed,
and I will declare your greatness.
They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness,
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.”

“The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made.”

“All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,
and all your faithful shall bless you.
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom,
and tell of your power,
to make known to all people your mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and your dominion endures throughout all generations.”

“The Lord is faithful in all his words,
and gracious in all his deeds.
The Lord upholds all who are falling,
and raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand,
satisfying the desire of every living thing.
The Lord is just in all his ways,
and kind in all his doings.
The Lord is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desire of all who fear him;
he also hears their cry, and saves them.
The Lord watches over all who love him,
but all the wicked he will destroy.”

“My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord,
and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.”

The New Testament Scripture (Hebrews 12:1-3 (NRSV)) reads as follows:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

“Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”

The Sermon

Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen used his recent interviews of finalists for appointment as the church’s next Director of Choral Ministries as the entrée to his sermon because they all wanted to know “’Who is Westminster?’ They wondered about how we express our faith, how we worship, how we reach out to the community, how we make a difference in the city. They wanted to hear Westminster stories, those experiences and encounters with the Holy and the mundane that happen here, and have for many years, that make us who we are.”

In answering this question, Hart-Andersen realized that “the continuing life of a congregation depends upon telling and re-telling its narrative.”

“In their stories people find meaning that forms them. Their narratives – and I use the word in the plural because there never is simply one story – their narratives give them identity. Christian faith lives beyond any particular time in a congregation’s history and is passed along in the telling. Memories are formed and those memories impart meaning from one era to the next.”

“Westminster has nearly 160 years of stories. Some of us know some of them; no one knows them all. And yet, known and unknown, the stories continue to shape us as a people. We’re not always conscious of that dimension of worship and education, of mission and hospitality – how we pass on the faith we have received and in which we stand and by which we are saved. We’re not always cognizant of the movement of the people of God through time, not always aware how our faith is shared by those before us and with those who follow.”

“Not always, but today we are.”

“On Heritage Sunday we recognize the long-time members of Westminster. Two hundred twenty-two of you have been a part of this particular community of faith for at least fifty years. Two and a half generations ago you embraced the story of Westminster; over the years you have now become its story.”

“One generation shall laud your works to another,” says the Hebrew poet to Almighty God. And through the psalm we hear over and over that the people continue to pass on and sing of the stories of God’s deeds and works among them to the generations to come. The faithful people of one age pass their faith on to those of the age to follow. (Ps. 145:3)”

“You heritage members of this church have lauded the works of God from one generation to another. For half a century and more you have told the story and lived the story of our faith in ways that compel and transform. For five-plus decades you have worshipped and taught and sung and showed who we are as a people of faith, and we are grateful. We have heard you, and seen you, and followed you.”

“At the heart of Judaism lies the commitment to entrust the narrative of the people of God to the next generation. The formative history in that tradition is never forgotten. At a Bar-Mitzvah or Bat-Mitzvah, the coming-of-age ritual for young people, the story of the Jews is re-told. The heirs of the tradition then take it up and make it their own.”

“One generation lauds the work of God to another.”

“Baptism and confirmation serve the same purpose for us in the Christian community. At the font and in the teaching we tell the story of Jesus and watch as that story moves from one generation to the next. ‘For I handed on to you,’ the Apostle Paul says, ‘What I in turn had received.’ (I Corinthians 15:3)”

“Over the years the details of the faith story of this particular people called Westminster have changed. In the early days there were the pioneers from Wales and Scotland, eight of them who set up shop in the muddy little village on the Mississippi. They started this congregation and from the beginning they were aware of their role in helping build the city.”

“Years later, when immigrants from Europe began showing up looking for work and hoping for a better life for their children, Westminster responded. We fanned out into poor immigrant communities down on the flats along the river on Sunday afternoons and started mission schools for the children. “

“And God was in that work.”

“When we heard from fellow Presbyterians on the west coast that Chinese immigrants were being persecuted we invited them to come to Minnesota. The first Chinese to arrive in this town in the 1880s were welcomed and supported by Westminster. Our work increased after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. For the next 80 years we maintained a Chinese ministry; some of you remember it.”

“And God was in that work.”

“When Abbott Hospital was given to the church in the last will and testament of William Dunwoody, we learned how to run it, and did so, for the next half-century. Some of you were born in Abbott when it was owned by Westminster, before the church spun it off 50 years ago. We helped train doctors and nurses. We served the medical needs of the residents of the city, especially women and children.”

“And God was in that work.”

“When Hmong families began coming to this city 100 years after the Chinese, in the 1980s, Westminster responded again. The Hmong were seeking refuge and a new life after war in Southeast Asia. We already had one Boy Scout troop at Westminster back then, Troop 33 led by Scoutmaster Dave Moore since 1965, but we went ahead and chartered another, the first Hmong Boy Scout Troop in the country. Thirty-five years later Dave – who joined Westminster in 1948 – is still leading it.”

“And God is in that work.”

“If the question is, ‘What is Westminster’s way of faith?’ the response may be found in our stories. There’s a pattern in how God’s work has been made manifest among us, when we take a look back. How have we pursued and lived and embodied the gospel of Jesus Christ in the life of this congregation and in this city over the years? Simply put, we have not closed ourselves off from the world around us. On the contrary, we have understood our faith to be a living faith and we have followed the gospel right into that world and worked with others to change it.”

“A telling presence in the city.”

“Whatever questions of justice are on the hearts of the people of this city and nation and world, especially the most vulnerable, they have set the direction for Westminster’s mission from the start.”

“In worship last week we announced the distribution of signs of support for our Muslim neighbors by wishing them a Blessed Ramadan. The question of how we will learn to live with people of other faiths is critical not only in this city, of course, but in the nation as a whole. It is on our congregation’s agenda.” [2]

“Our God is an incarnational God, not an abstract, detached, distant deity. Jesus comes to bring the divine into the world, to draw the universal into the particular, to step right into the real stuff of human life, the injustice and poverty, the exclusion and hopelessness which hold sway over much of the earth. The incarnation inserts Jesus into human history – real human history. His story of redemption and forgiveness and unconditional love is the one passed down through the ages, the one we have heard in our time, the narrative that forms us as a people.”

“Last Sunday I noticed [a young man] taking photos of the Blessed Ramadan signs [at our church]. He told me he was a Muslim, and was surprised to see the signs. ‘They give me hope,’ he said.”

“Not everyone was so pleased. Some of you may have heard that Westminster was in the news last week and we began to hear responses from some in the community who did not agree with our participation with the Minnesota Council of Churches effort to show respect to our Muslim neighbors. We received unkind phone calls and emails from a few, but we also heard that the signs were beacons of light in a world struggling in the shadows of religious misunderstanding, struggling to figure out how to live with religious diversity.”

“The memorial service honoring Muhammed Ali this week – which he planned himself – offered the same message: we can learn to live in peace with one another, in spite of differences in our religious traditions. We need not fear one another. We need not feel threatened by one another. We need not feel the desire to exclude one another.”

“This message is more important than ever this morning, [with the news] that the mass shooting at a gay bar earlier today in Orlando may have been linked to extreme Islamist ideology. I hope not, but if it is, we will need to strengthen our witness in supporting the Muslim community, being more present with the message of respect for our Muslims neighbors, the vast majority of whom reject violence. They will likely be on the receiving end of a backlash.”

“The tragedy in Orlando brings up the question of the full equality and acceptance of gay people in this country, something we have stood for and worked for at Westminster. We may need to step up and strengthen our witness in support of the gay community in light of this latest attack.”

“The tragedy also brings up the challenge of the easy availability of guns and weapons in America, another issue where this church has taken a stand. In the aftermath of this latest mass shooting we may need to strengthen our witness in support of efforts to end gun violence.”

“Today we are pursuing Westminster’s way of faith. We are creating the stories in our time that in another fifty years will be remembered by those who follow us. In some ways they’re not that different from the narrative of this church since the beginning. This is the race we are running, Hebrews tells us, with Jesus as ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.’ It is a race for justice and peace in our time.”

“We are not alone in that race, Hebrews tells us. There is a ‘great cloud of witnesses’ surrounding us. Some of their names appear in the bulletin this morning. Some are seated among us wearing yellow carnations. Others have been here for many years but not yet fifty; and some in that great cloud are just getting started at Westminster.”

“I heard about one of them this past week. She was baptized here and is now six years old and has been attending this church and our church school all her life. Out in the city this week this Westminster first grader saw a Muslim woman in a burqa. Having been at church last Sunday, she turned to her mother and said, “Is she a blessed Ramadan? Can we say it to her?”

“One generation shall laud your works to another. You long-timers have done well in carrying forward the heart of who God has called our church to be and to do in this city. You have conveyed the hope of the gospel to those who came after you. We have received it and, together with you, we will pass it on. The future is full of promise.”

“Thanks be to God.”

Conclusion

This sermon tied directly to the one the prior Sunday for recent high school, college and graduate school graduates that was the subject of a prior post. Both sermons emphasized the interconnectedness of the generations of the faithful. Indeed, churches and other houses of worship are perhaps the only institutions where there are intergenerational groups of people learning and being together.

This was most evident in the June 12th sermon’s reference to the six-year old girl’s asking her mother if she should say “blessed Ramadan” to a woman in a burqa. It also was present in that day’s “A Time for Children,” when Associate Pastor Sarah Brouwer had the children face the congregation as we all sang together, “Jesus Loves Me.” I pray that the children were impressed that this favorite hymn is not just for children and that their parents and other adults are enriched by their religious faith.

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

[1] The bulletin for the service and the text of the sermon are available online.

[2] As mentioned in a prior post about Westminster’s June 5th service, the church is participating in a project of the Minnesota Council of Churches to post signs at churches and homes announcing “To Our Muslim Neighbors: Blessed Ramadan.” These signs, said Rev. Peg Chemberlin, the Council’s executive director, are reminders that “Minnesota is respectful of religious differences.” Asad Zaman, executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, said, “If I see a sign, it tells me that the person believes this country belongs to everyone, that no one should be excluded. There is a vast reservoir of good will among people. The Blessed Ramadan signs allow that to be expressed.”