Criticism of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights

On July 8, 2019, the U.S. State Department launched the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights.[1] This new Commission deserves both commendation and criticism. Its positive points were discussed in a prior post. Now we look at the many legitimate criticisms of this new institution.

Erroneous Premise

The basic premise for the Commission was stated by Secretary Pompeo In his remarks at its launching, when he alleged, without proof, that “international institutions designed and built to protect human rights have drifted from their original mission” and that they and nation-states “remain confused about their respective responsibilities concerning human rights.” Therefore, the Secretary asserted that “the time is right for an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy” and that the Commission was charged with straightening all of this out.

This premise, however, is erroneous. The body of human rights law today is very extensive as developed by U.S. and other national and international courts and institutions. For example, an edition of a major U.S. book on the subject, primarily for law students, has 1,259 well-documented pages plus a 737 page collection of selected human rights instruments and bibliography.[2] Like any large body of law developed by different courts and institutions over time, there will be an ongoing effort to eliminate or minimize inconsistencies. But an informed knowledge of this body of law and institutions would show that these international institutions have not “drifted from their original mission.” Nor are nation states confused about their responsibilities in this area.

Secretary Pompeo’s pious assertions of the need to ascertain what human rights mean were castigated by Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist. “There is no need to reinvent the wheel, Mr. Secretary. A lot of bipartisan and international consensus, consolidated over the postwar decades, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and other horrors, exists as to what human rights are and what America’s role in defending them should be.”[3]

Pompeo also has claimed that the continued violations of human rights shows that there is confusion about the law. That is also false. Yes, there continue to be violations, showing the inherent weaknesses of human beings and institutions, but not confusion about the law. If this were a valid argument, then would ridiculously claim that the laws against murder and other forms of homicide were confusing because such horrible acts still occur.

Erroneous Reference to Natural Law

The U.S. Declaration of Independence refers generally to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” and states that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is the purported basis for the Commission’s Charter saying it will provide the Secretary with “fresh thinking about human rights and . . . reforms of human rights discourse where it has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” (Para. 3) (emphasis added).

Secretary Pompeo made this same argument in his July 7 article in the Wall Street Journal, where he said, “When politicians and bureaucrats create new rights, they blur the distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights created by governments.”

Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, criticized this reference to the concept of natural law and natural rights, circa 1776, by reminding us that ”these ‘natural rights’ at the time, of course, included chattel slavery and the dehumanization of black people, as well as the disenfranchisement of women.” In short, “the ‘natural’ rights of 1776 are not the human rights the [U.S.] helped codify in 1948 [in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights].”

Moreover, Secretary Pompeo and others at the State Department apparently forgot to read the very next sentence of the U.S. Declaration: “That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, the U.S. government subsequently was established by the U.S. Constitution “to secure these rights [mentioned in the Declaration of Indepence]” and its later enactment of human rights statutes and regulations are based upon “the consent of the governed.” These are not “ad hoc” laws (a legal category not known to this attorney-blogger) as Secretary Pompeo dismissively calls them.

Similar language occurs in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “[H]uman rights should be protected by the rule of law” (Preamble); “Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” (Preamble).[4] In other words, there will need to be additional treaties and laws to protect and secure these rights. This point was emphasized by the Commission’s Chair, Mary Ann Glendon in her book about the Universal Declaration: “The Declaration’s principles, moreover, have inccreasingly acquired legal force, mainly through incorporation into national legal systems.”

Indeed, the New York Times contemporaneously reported with the adoption of the UDHR in December 1948, “The United Nations now will begin drafting a convention that will be a treaty embodying in specific detail and in legally binding form the principles proclaimed in the declaration.” One such treaty was the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which entered into force on March 23, 1976, which was “three months after the date of the deposit with the Secretary-General of the United Nations of the 35th instrument of ratification or instrument of accession.” (Art. 49(1)) The U.S., however, did not ratify this treaty until April 2, 1992, when the U.S. Senate granted its “advice and consent” to same with certain “understandings” and reservations, and this treaty did not enter into force for the U.S. until September 8, 1992.[5]

The U.N. system has created many other multilateral human rights treaties and other international institutions to interpret those rights, resolve conflicts among them and disputes about compliance with them.[6]

Possible Invalid Objectives

Actions and words of the current U.S. Administration have led some critics of this Commission to speculate that the Commission is a ruse to conceal the Administration’s true objectives: eliminate legal rights to abortions and other reproductive procedures and to LGBBTQI individuals. If that is the case, then the Commission is a fraud.

The Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (Dem., NY) says, “This commission risks undermining many international human-rights norms that the United States helped establish, including LGBTQI rights and other critical human-rights protections around the world. . . . [and now] the Secretary wants to make an end run around established structures, expertise, and the law to give preference to discriminatory ideologies that would narrow protections for women, including on reproductive rights; for members of the LGBTQI community; and for other minority groups.”

The American Jewish World Service through its Its director of government affairs, Rori Kramer, denounced the creation of the commission because of what it said was a religious bent to the panel. “As a Jewish organization, we are deeply skeptical of a government commission using a narrow view of religion as a means to undermine the ecumenical belief of respecting the dignity of every person, as well as the fundamental human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We fear this commission will use a very particular view of religion to further diminish U.S. leadership on human rights.”

As University of Chicago Law Professor Eric Posner observed, the Commission’s “plainly stated goal is not just to wipe away the baleful foreign influences of human rights ‘discourse’ but to revive [conservative] 18th century natural law . . . . [and] an indirect endorsement of contemporary [Roman] Catholic conservative intellectuals.”

Another professor, Clifford Rob of Duquesne University, believes the Commission is “ likely to champion the ‘natural family’ and ‘traditional values,’ to claim that individual self-defense is another natural and unalienable right and to express hostility to economic and cultural rights.

Rebecca Hamilton, an Assistant Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law and a former prosecutor for the International Criminal Court and a former employee of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia,warned that the “’natural law’ language was code for religiously-infused opposition to reproductive rights and to protections for members of the LGBTQ community.” She points out that the concept for this Commission was proposed by Professor Robert George, a “staunch opponent of same-sex marriage and co-founder of the anti-gay rights group, National Organization for Marriage.”[7]

Other Legitimate Sources of Human Rights Were Ignored

The Trump Administration’s statements about the Commission seem to be saying that only the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Independence are the only ones that count and that studying them will yield only one set of answers on the many issues of human rights. That is clearly erroneous, in this blogger’s opinion.

The Declaration of Independence, in addition to talking about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” says that they are “among” the category of “certain unalienable rights.” Thus, there are other rights in that category. In addition, there undoubtedly are times when there are conflicts among “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” and the other such rights that will need to be resolved.

Most importantly, the U.S. Declaration says “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, governments need to enact statutes and rules to protect and secure these rights, and the need for “consent of the governed” inevitably leads to arguments and disputes about the content of such statutes and rules and to the need, from time to time, to amend those statutes and rules and adopt new ones, as circumstances change as they certainly have in the 243 years since the adoption of the U.S. Declaration.

Indeed, the U.S. federal and state governments have enacted many statutes and rules to protect and secure human rights. And they should not be ignored or dismissed as “ad hoc” measures as Secretary Pompeo did in his article in the Wall Street Journal.

The Universal Declaration is subject to the same qualifications. It identifies more rights than the four specifically mentioned in the U.S. Declaration, but there undoubtedly will be conflicts among those rights that will need resolution.

Moreover, the Preamble of the Universal Declaration says that “human rights should be protected by the rule of law [outside that document itself]” and that “Member States have pledged to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” This U.N. document also proclaims “that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive . . . by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.” In other words, there will need to be additional treaties and laws to protect and secure these rights.

The Commission’s Membership May Not Comply with Federal Law

 Under the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972 (Pub. L. 92-463), “the function [of such] advisory committees [or commissions] shall be advisory only, and that all matters under their consideration should be determined in accordance with law, by the official, agency, or office involved.”[8]

Moreover, under this federal statute, the committee or commission members must be “drawn from nearly every occupational and industry group and geographical section of the United States and its territories”  and must be “fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented and the functions to be performed.” (Emphasis added.)

Although as noted in a prior post, the resumes of this Commission’s members are impressive, some critics have questioned the balance of their views on the central issues facing the Commission..

Another federal law that may have been violated in the establishment of this Commission is the failure to seek and obtain the counsel of the Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, which is charged with championing “American values, including the rule of law and individual rights, that promote strong, stable, prosperous, and sovereign states. We advance American security in the struggle against authoritarianism and terrorism when we stand for the freedoms of religion, speech, and the press, and the rights of people to assemble peaceably and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.”

Conclusion

Therefore, contemporary advocates of international human rights need vigilantly to observe the work of the Commission, applaud its work when appropriate and critique that work on other occasions.

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[1] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com, which contain citations to many of the references in this post: Is Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights? (June 16, 2019); Other Reactions to State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 17, 2019); More Thoughts on Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 18, 2019); U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Developments (July 4, 2019); U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Is Launched (July 8, 2019); More Comments on Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 9, 2019);; The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (July 11, 2019); Additional Discussion About the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 18, 2019); The U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Partial Commendation (July 19, 2019).

[2] See Weissbrodt, Ní Aoláin, Fitzpatrick & Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process (4th ed. 2009); Weissbrodt, Ní Aoláin, Rumsey, Hoffman & Fitzpatrick, Selected International Human Rights Instruments and Bibliography for Research on International Human Rights Law (4th ed. 2009). Professor Weissbrodt also has published an online “Supplementary Materials” for the casebook.

[3] Cohen, Trump’s Ominous Attempt to Redefine Human Rights, N.Y. Times (July 12, 2019).

[4] See The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (July 11, 2019).

[5] U.S. Ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 5, 2013).

[6] See the posts listed in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law (TREATIES), including those that identify the treaties ratified by the U.S.; those signed, but not so ratified; and those not signed and ratified by the U.S.

[7] Hamilton, EXCLUSIVE: Draft Charter of Pompeo’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights” Hides Anti-Human Rights Agenda, Just Security June 5, 2019). Just Security publishes “crisp explanatory and analytic pieces geared toward a broad policy, national/international security, and legal audience; and (2) deep dives that examine the nuances of a particular legal issue.”

[8] Federal Advisory Committee Act, secs. 2(b)(6), 5(b)(2);  Gen. Services Admin., The Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).

 

 

 

More Comments on Commission on Unalienable Rights

Yesterday’s post covered the formal launch of the Commission on Unalienable Rights. Here are additional reactions to the Commission. [1]

Negative Reactions

 Senator Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that Mr. Pompeo’s argument for a new human rights panel was “absurd” and that the Trump administration “has taken a wrecking ball to America’s global leadership on promoting fundamental rights across the world.” Instead, “we need this President and this Secretary to actually champion human rights by standing up for America’s values and by using the framework that is already in place and which has been championed by prior administrations for decades, regardless of party.”

Representative Eliot Engel (Dem., NY). the Chair of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, stated, “This commission risks undermining many international human-rights norms that the United States helped establish, including LGBTQI rights and other critical human-rights protections around the world. Decades ago, Congress created an entire bureau in the State Department dedicated to defending and reporting on human rights and advising the Secretary and senior diplomats on human rights and democratic development. Now the Secretary wants to make an end run around established structures, expertise, and the law to give preference to discriminatory ideologies that would narrow protections for women, including on reproductive rights; for members of the LGBTQI community; and for other minority groups.” Engel also noted that he had cosponsored a measure to prohibit funding for this new body that recently had been passed by the House.

The American Jewish World Service denounced the creation of the commission because of what it said was a religious bent to the panel. Its director of government affairs, Rori Kramer, said, “As a Jewish organization, we are deeply skeptical of a government commission using a narrow view of religion as a means to undermine the ecumenical belief of respecting the dignity of every person, as well as the fundamental human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We fear this commission will use a very particular view of religion to further diminish U.S. leadership on human rights.”

Rob Berschinski, the Senior Vice President for policy at Human Rights First and a former  deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor during the Obama administration, said well-established principles for advancing human rights already existed and did not need to be revamped. He added that most of the 10 people named to the new commission viewed human rights largely through the lens of religious freedom. “At first blush,” he said, “the commission certainly seems to reinforce the perception that the administration and State Department under Secretary Pompeo uniquely emphasize religious freedom amongst universal rights.”

Another observer also voiced negative views of the Commission. “We don’t need this commission,” said Michael Posner, the State Department’s assistant secretary for DRL from 2009 to 2013. “What we need is for the U.S. government, the secretary of state and the president to abide by and uphold international human rights standards we already have adopted.”

Joanne Lin of Amnesty International said, “”If this administration truly wanted to support people’s rights, it would use the global framework that’s already in place. Instead, it wants to undermine rights for individuals, as well as the responsibilities of governments. This approach only encourages other countries to adopt a disregard for basic human rights standards and risks weakening international, as well as regional frameworks, placing the rights of millions of people around the world in jeopardy.”

Positive Reactions

Daniel Philpott, a University of Notre Dame professor who was initially mentioned as a potential commission member, said that natural law reflects a concern that human rights have gone off the rails, in part because of abortion and claims about marriage rights. “The idea is these claims of human rights are not based upon natural law or the truth of the human person. In a sense, these are false claims to human rights. It brings down the cause of human rights in general. Why should we pursue other human rights if human rights can be anything one faction or party advocates them to be?”

The Wall Street Journal notes that the Chair of the new Commission, Mary Ann Glendon, opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. And Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative Family Research Council, endorsed the Commission as an effort to “help further the protection of religious freedom, which is the foundation for all other human rights.”

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[1] Press Release: Menendez Questions Intent and Impact of Trump Admin’s New Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 8, 2019); Press Release, Engel Statement on State Department “Unalienable Rights” Commission (July 8, 2019); Wong & Sullivan, New Human Rights Panel Raises fears of a Narrowing U.S. Advocacy, N.Y. Times (July 8, 2019); Morello, State Department launches panel focused on human rights and natural law, Wash. Post (July 8, 2019); Visser, Mike Pompeo Unveils New Panel To Refocus U.S. Human Rights Priorities, Huffington Post (July 8, 2019); Oprysko, Mike Pompeo unveils panel to examine ‘unalienable rights,’ Politico (July 8, 2019); McBride, Pompeo Creates Commission on Human Rights, W.S.J. (July 8, 2019).

 

 

 

 

 

The U.S. Declaration of Independence’s Relationship to the U.S. Constitution and Statutes

The U.S. Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, obviously preceded and in many ways inspired the U.S. Constitution of September 17, 1787. But in my three years as a student at the University of Chicago Law School, 1963-1966, and my 35 years as a practicing litigator-attorney (including some constitutional cases), 1966-2001, I never encountered the question of whether and how the Declaration should and could affect the interpretation of the Constitution.

George Will

Now noted author and commentator George Will in the “Introduction” to his new book, The Conservative Sensibility, says “We [conservatives] seek to conserve the American Founding” with a “clear mission: It is to conserve, by articulating and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking.” Indeed, “Americans codified their Founding doctrines as a natural rights republic in an exceptional Constitution, one that does not say what government must do for them but what government may not do for them.”

Therefore, according to Mr. Will’s book, “The doctrine of natural rights is the most solid foundation—perhaps the only firm foundation—for the idea of the political equality of all self-directing individuals.”

One of Will’s recent columns extends these thoughts. He says, “the Declaration expressed, as Thomas Jefferson insisted, the broadly shared ‘common sense of the subject.’ Rather than belabor the Declaration’s (to them, unremarkable) assertions, the Constitution’s framers set about creating institutional architecture that would achieve their intention: to establish governance that accords with the common sense of their time, which was that government is properly instituted to “secure” the preexisting natural rights referenced in the Declaration.” Therefore, the “The Declaration’s role is the locus classicus [classical location] concerning the framers’ intention [and original meaning and continuing purpose], which is surely the master key to properly construing what they wrought.”[1]

Jeffrey Rosen

Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and a law professor at George Washington University, shares some of the ways that the Declaration has influenced the Constitution.[2]  As President Lincoln noted in 1861, “the expression of the principle [of Liberty for All] in our Declaration of Independence . . . was the word ‘fitly spoken’ which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it.” As Lincoln recognized, “the two documents are closely linked. From the Founding era until today, conservatives, liberals and everyone in between have agreed that the theoretical basis of the U.S. Constitution—and American political life in general—can be found in Thomas Jefferson’s” words in the Declaration, “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. —That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”

However, Rosen says, conservatives and liberals often disagree about what these words of the Declaration mean in terms of government policies and laws, as has been true throughout our history. This has been true in political debates in some Supreme Court cases. For example, in last week’s case about partisan gerrymandering, Justice Kagan in dissent cited the Declaration’s statement that governments derive “their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed” to justify her opinion that the courts need to intervene in gerrymandering cases. On the other hand, conservatives today cite the Declaration’s “all men are created equal” to support their assertion that there is a fundamental right to life that trumps a woman’s right to an abortion.

Reactions

The notion that the Declaration is relevant to interpreting the Constitution is superficially attractive. But most of the Declaration is a bill of particulars against “the present King of Great Britain” and his “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having, in direct object, the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States.” Those words do not appear to be helpful in interpreting the subsequent Constitution.

More importantly for Will and other like-minded individuals, the Declaration holds “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.” This apparently is the central assertions that should be used in interpreting the Constitution.

But immediately after these words, the Declaration states, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” For this blogger, those words strongly suggest, if do not require, an examination of the words adopted by the government in constitutions and statutes in order to construe those rights.

This blogger would appreciate intelligent reactions and comments on these issues as well as citations to any U.S. Supreme Court cases that use the Declaration to interpret the Constitution.

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[1] Will, To construe the Constitution, look to the Declaration, Wash. Post (July 3, 2019).

[2] Rosen, The Declaration of Independence Unites and Divides Us, W.S..J. (July 4, 2019),

U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Developments

On May 22, 2019, the U.S. State Department announced its formation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights with two stated purposes. First, to provide the Secretary of State with “informed advice and recommendations concerning international human rights matters . . . [and] fresh thinking about human rights and . . . reforms of human rights discourse where it has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” Second, to help “guide U.S. diplomatic and foreign policy decisions and actions with respect to human rights in international settings . . . [and] recover that which is enduring for the maintenance of free and open societies.” (Emphases added.)[1]

Although the Department has not yet provided many details about the Commission, there already has been positive and negative commentary about what this Commission might do.[2]

Now Politico reports that the Department is planning to launch the Commission next Monday, July 8, with the names of at least 10 of the body’s 15 members. Also it is being said that the Commission was developed “with almost no input from the . . . Department’s human rights bureau, .  . . [thereby] sidelining career government experts who have focused on human rights policy and history across numerous administrations.” There have been internal comments that the new body will at least consult one major international document—the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[3]

Senator Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ), the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a letter of concern to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that was joined by Senators Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT), Dick Durbin (Dem., IL), Jeanne Shaheen (Dem., NH) and Chris Coons (Dem., DE). They expressed “deep concern over the process and intent” of the new body.[4] Here are some of the key points of this letter:

  • “With deep reservations about the Commission, we request that you not take any further action regarding its membership or proposed operations without first consulting with congressional oversight and appropriations committees.” Of particular concern was the reference to ‘natural law’ and ‘natural rights,’ terms which are “sometimes used in association with discrimination against marginalized populations” without mentioning “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or any international human rights treaty the [U.S.] has signed or ratified.”
  • This letter also said that some of the rumored members of the Commission “are individuals known to support discriminatory policies toward LGBTQ people, hold views hostile to women’s rights, and/or to support positions at odds with U.S. treaty obligations.”

These are additional reasons for international human rights advocates to be concerned about this Commission and to be ready for its anticipated launching on July 8.

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[1] State Dep’t, Notice: Department of State Commission on Unalienable Rights, 84 Fed. Reg. 25109 (May 30, 2019); State Dep’t, Charter: Commission on Unalienable Rights (created: May 10, 2019); State Dep’t, Membership Balance Plan: Commission on Unalienable Rights (created: May 10, 2019).

[2] For more details, see these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Is Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights? (June 16, 2019); Other Reactions to State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 17, 2019); More Thoughts on Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 18, 2019).

[3] Toosi, Trump’s ‘natural law’ human rights panel readies for launch, Politico (July 3, 2019).

[4] Menendez Press Release, Menendez, Leahy, Durbin, Shaheen, Coons Raise Alarm over Trump Administration’s Plans to Redefine Human Rights through New Commission (June 12, 2019).

 

 

Is Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights?

Since the end of World War II, treaties and international institutions have defined and developed international human rights and institutions, as discussed in previous posts. [1]

Commission on Unalienable Rights [2]

Now with little fanfare the U.S. State Department recently announced the establishment of  the Commission on Unalienable Rights. Here are the key provisions of its Charter:

  • The Commission will provide the Secretary of State with “informed advice and recommendations concerning international human rights matters . . . [and] fresh thinking about human rights and . . . reforms of human rights discourse where it has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” (Para. 3) (emphasis added).
  • The Commission’s advice and recommendations will help “guide U.S. diplomatic and foreign policy decisions and actions with respect to human rights in international settings . . . [and] recover that which is enduring for the maintenance of free and open societies.” (Para. 4) (emphasis added).

The Commission will be composed of “no more than fifteen members who have distinguished backgrounds in international law, human rights, and religious liberties.” Its membership “will be a bipartisan, diverse group of men and women.”

The phrase “unalienable rights,” of course, comes from the second paragraph of the U.S. Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Emphasis added.)

At first glance this may sound like an unobjectionable reference to an important document and concept of U.S. history. But it may be much more than that. It may be an attempt by the Trump Administration to redefine international human rights, as suggested by Eric Posner, Professor at the University of Chicago Law School.

Reactions of Professor Eric Posner [3]

Posner so far has been the only one to have noticed this Commission. He says “the significance of . . . [this Commission] should not be overlooked. It puts the government’s imprimatur on an assault upon one of the cornerstones of modern liberalism: international human rights.”

This conclusion, Posner argues, follows from the Commission’s name, implicitly emphasizing that these rights are endowed ‘by their Creator” and come from “natural law” and “natural rights.” This interpretation, he claims, also is suggested by the Charter’s reference to “discourse,” implying that contemporary human rights is merely talk, not law. In short, this Charter is conservatives’ “declaration of intent. Its plainly stated goal is not just to wipe away the baleful foreign influence of human rights ‘discourse’ but to revive [conservative] 18th-century natural law.”

In Posner’s opinion, the reference to natural law is an indirect endorsement of contemporary Roman “Catholic conservative intellectuals, who kept alive the academic tradition of natural law long after mainstream secular intellectuals forgot what it was —[and, therefore,] . . .  goodbye to reproductive rights and protections for sexual minorities.” Posner also claims that Robert George, a prominent Catholic intellectual, natural-law theorist, and opponent of abortion rights and same-sex marriage, played a role in the creation of the Commission. In other words, this new commission will provide “the ideological justification for the anti-abortion foreign policy that the Trump administration has undertaken”

Natural law, says Posner, can also be used by conservatives to argue for “expanded religious freedoms that override statutes with secular goals, and to push back against progressive government programs like universal health care. The ‘right to health,’ a centerpiece of ‘human rights law,’ is firmly rejected by natural-law theorists like George.

“But the mission of the commission may be even bolder,” in Posner’s opinion. ”If we take the idea of natural law seriously, it not only overrides statutes in foreign countries that protect abortion rights and respect same-sex marriage. It also overrides American laws that protect abortion rights and respect same-sex marriage. One can imagine a day when a Supreme Court justice, taking a page from [former Supreme Court Justice Anthony] Kennedy, invokes natural law — supposedly endorsed by the founders, after all, and embodied in the sacred Declaration — to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade and to prepare the path for an even holier grail, the abolition of state laws that grant abortion rights.”

“Liberals hoped that human rights, sanctified by the sacrifices of the victims of totalitarianism, would provide common ground in a world of competing ideologies. But what human rights actually helped produce was a liberal international order that has offended a great many people who do not share liberal values. The backlash began years ago in authoritarian countries, in developing countries that saw human rights as an affront to their traditions and as a mask for imperialist goals, and in highly religious countries. These countries advanced interpretations of human rights law that conform with their values or interests but made little headway against dominant elite opinion. What is new is that the government of the world’s most powerful nation [the U.S.], long acknowledged (if grudgingly) as the leader of the international human rights regime, has officially signed on to that backlash.”

Presumably this Posner argument is expanded in his recent book, The Twilight of Human Rights Law.[4]

Conclusion

Although noted author and commentator George Will is not a fan of President Trump, he probably is sympathetic to the recent trumpeting of “ unalienable rights” and “natural law” and “natural rights.” In the “Introduction” to his new book, The Conservative Sensibility, Will says “We [conservatives] seek to conserve the American Founding” with a “clear mission: It is to conserve, by articulating and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking.” Indeed, “Americans codified their Founding doctrines as a natural rights republic in an exceptional Constitution, one that does not say what government must do for them but what government may not do for them.”

Therefore, according to Mr.Will, “The doctrine of natural rights is the most solid foundation—perhaps the only firm foundation—for the idea of the political equality of all self-directing individuals..”

In retrospect, perhaps the Trump Administration has been dropping hints that something like the Commission might be coming by the State Department’s using the phrase “unalienable rights” in various statements and documents.[5]

Although this blogger has no objection to contemporary references to the language of our Declaration of Independence, he does object to the notion that this new Commission is an underhanded way to implement current political preferences of this Administration. Moreover, this blogger suggests that it is too simplistic to use notions of natural law to preempt the decisions on the previously mentioned contemporary issues.

After all, natural rights and human rights treaties can be seen as compatible allies, just as English and American common law are compatible with their respective statutes. Such multilateral treaties with provisions for implementation and amendment are drafted by committees and individual nation states are not bound by the treaties unless and until they ratify the treaties. Similarly domestic statues in the U.S. and U.K. are prepared and adopted by legislatures, often as a result of common law developments, and always are subject to subsequent amendment.

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[1]  See posts listed in the following: List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law (INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT); List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law (REFUGEE & ASYLUM)List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law (TREATIES); List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law: U.S. (ALIEN TORT STATUTE); List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law U.S. (TORTURE VICTIMS  PROTECTION ACT).

[2] State Dep’t, Notice: Department of State Commission on Unalienable Rights, 84 Fed. Reg. 25109 (May 30, 2019); State Dep’t, Charter: Commission on Unalienable Rights (created: May 10, 2019); State Dep’t, Membership Balance Plan: Commission on Unalienable Rights (created: May 10, 2019).

[3] Posner, The administration’s plan to redefine ‘human rights’ along conservative lines, Wash. Post (June 14, 2019).

[4] Posner, The Twilight of Human Rights Law (Oxford Univ. Press, 2014-).

[5]  State Dep’t, Secretary Tillerson’s Testimony before Senate Appropriations Committee (June  13, 2017) (“Our mission is at all times guided by our longstanding values of freedom, democracy, individual liberty, and human dignity. The conviction of our country’s founders is enduring: that all men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” (Emphasis added); State Dep’t, [Secretary Tillerson’s] Remarks With Secretary General of the Community of Democracies Thomas Garrett (Sept. 17, 2017) (“In our Declaration of Independence, our founders boldly stated that all are endowed by their creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Emphasis added); State Dep’t, [Secretary Tillerson’s] Remarks at the “Conversation on the Value of Respect” Event (Jan. 12, 2018) (“It was the Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson who wrote that we are all endowed with certain unalienable rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”); State Dep’t, Remarks on the Release of the 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (April 20, 2018) (these annual reports “are a natural outgrowth of our values as Americans. The founding documents of our country speak to unalienable rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law – revolutionary concepts at the time of our founding that are now woven into the fabric of America and its interests both at home and abroad”); State Dep’t, The State Department Role in Countering Violent Extremism (May 30, 2018) (“America is committed to individual rights, and we recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. We are all, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”); State Dep’t, 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (Mar. 13, 2019) ((Secretary Pompeo’s Preface :”The United States was founded on the premise that all persons “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Our Constitution secures these unalienable rights . . . in the First [and Fifth] amendments.” ((emphasis added); State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo At the Celebration of Israel’s 71st Independence Day (May 22, 2019) (both the Israel Declaration of Independence of 1948 and the U.S. Declaration of Independence of 1776 “speak of central ideas that are ‘self-evident’ – In the American case, it’s the truth that men are created equal and have rights that are unalienable”) (Emphasis added).