Commission on Unalienable Rights Holds First Meeting

The Commission on Unalienable Rights held its first public meeting on October 23 at the State Department that was attended by “a few dozen U.S. officials and nongovernmental (NGO) representatives.” Its stated purpose was to discuss “topics related to human rights and the American founding.” [1]

 Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s Comments

The day before the meeting, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo tweeted, ““I’m confident the Commission will advance the Administration’s unmatched commitment to fundamental human rights and extend America’s legacy as a nation without peer in upholding freedom and human dignity.”

He amplified those remarks the same day in an interview by Tony Perkins, a Commission member and the Family Research Council President, on his “Washington Watch” program. Pompeo said, “This is a commission that has a set of commissioners from a broad political perspective, different faith traditions, all aimed at something that I think every American can agree to, which is our conception that our founders put in place of the protection of human life and dignity is central to America’s wellbeing and our exceptionalism as a nation, and indeed, are a beacon for the entire world.”

Pompeo also said,”The protection of human life and dignity is central to America’s well-being and our exceptionalism as a nation and indeed our beacon for the entire world. What we’re hoping to do is to take up this idea of rights, which sometimes becomes confusing–or turns into simply personal or political preferences–and reground it in the history and tradition of the United States so that we are moored to something more than someone’s fancy of the moment.” Pompeo continued, “We’re trying to cut back to the roots to make sure that everyone is grounded in this tradition. And I will tell you. Around the world, people are watching the work that our commission is undertaking. There is a thirst for this work.”

In the tony Perkins interview, Pompeo added, “What we’re hoping to do is to take this idea of rights, which sometimes becomes confusing or turns into simply personal or political preferences, and reground it — reground it in the history and tradition of the United States so that we are moored to something more than someone’s fancy of the moment and we come to understand that these incredible cherished, fundamental rights are at the very core of the American experience.”

At the meeting itself, Pompeo stated, “It’s in the best traditions of American democracy that this meeting is a public one. One thing that makes America special is that our civic deliberations take place openly. We are not governed by the private writ of kings. We always have the debate – think of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, President Wilson’s 14 Points, the civil rights movement, and many other issues.”

“It heartens me that you all are here to consider the ideas and arguments made before you. I pray they will improve our understanding and profit our nation.”

“This meeting of the Commission extends America’s unmatched national commitment to fundamental human rights. It began with the words of the Declaration of Independence, which made clear governments must honor “unalienable rights.” It continued when Abraham Lincoln – inspired by the words of the Declaration – signed the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1947, Eleanor Roosevelt led the creation of the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights – a document that substantially drew on our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. We upheld fundamental rights in the civil rights era, when the promise of liberty and equality was realized for Americans who had previously been treated as second-class citizens, or worse. And we upheld human rights internationally in the fight against apartheid, and communism.”

“But in the last few decades, we’ve become confused about “rights.” Claims of “rights” have shaped our political debates, but it isn’t always clear whether we’re talking about fundamental, universal rights; or debatable political priorities; or merely personal preferences.”

“Claims of ‘rights’ have exploded. One research group has found that between the United Nations and the Council of Europe, there are a combined 64 human rights-related agreements, encompassing 1,377 provisions.”

“International bodies designated to protect human rights have drifted from their missions, or have been outright corrupted. Authoritarian governments often misuse these bodies. Just last week, China and Russia, for instance, voted Venezuela onto the UN Human Rights Council.  What hypocrisy.”

“And our kids aren’t taught about the role of  ‘unalienable rights’ in the American Founding – if they learn about the Founding at all.”

“So it’s time to ask some key questions:” (1)  “What are our fundamental freedoms?” (2) “Why do we have them?” (3) “Who or what grants them?” (4) “How do we know if a claim of human rights is true?” (5) “What happens when rights conflict?” (6) “Should certain categories of rights be inextricably “linked” to other rights?” (7) “How should government be organized and limited to ensure the protection of rights?”

In addition, the Commission’s Chair, Mary Ann Glendon, made a statement at the meeting, but it has not been found.

Other Speakers at the Meeting

The first speaker, “Michael McConnell, a constitutional scholar at Stanford Law School and a former judge on the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, warned that the term ‘unalienable rights,’ which comes to us from our country’s protestant reform traditions, has never had a common or precise definition. The phrase identifies a philosophical concept, rather than a concrete set of rights.  And while the concept often prioritizes freedom of religion, McConnell cautioned that our founders were ultimately more concerned with freedom of conscience, which includes but is not limited to a narrow understanding of religious freedom.”

“McConnell also recognized the implicit failures of this philosophical approach.  While the term ‘unalienable rights’ makes for inspirational prose, the philosophical concept behind it embraced our country’s original sin of slavery and denied women full standing in society. Concepts of equal protection could not, and did not, exist at this time, under this philosophical tradition.”

According to the Council for Global Equality, an organization of “international human rights activists, foreign policy experts, LGBT leaders, philanthropists and corporate officials [who] encourage a clearer and stronger American voice on human rights concerns impacting LGBT communities around the world,” https://globalequality.wordpress.com/about/ McConnell’s remarks  “must have been a blow to the Commissioners, since[ Secretary] Pompeo clearly wants them to propose a new hierarchy of unalienable rights — with religious freedom at the pinnacle and the rights of LGBTI and other individuals with specific ‘preferences’ in the alienable category.  Indeed, Pompeo constantly speaks of religious freedom as the ‘first right’ from which other rights flow, proclaiming, often in messianic terms, that human rights ‘came from our Lord, and when we get this right, we’ll have done something good, not just I think for the United States but for the world.’”

The Global Equality group added, “While U.S. moral leadership ebbs and flows, and our commitment to human rights institutions has been uneven over the years, it is simply wrong-headed and ultimately self-defeating to create an artificial human rights hierarchy — one that strips away the universality of human rights and puts a limited number of political and religious rights above all others.  Indeed, this enterprise stands to harm religious freedom itself, as it gives philosophical justification to theocratic governments and religious majority populations who are, by far, the leading persecutors of religious minorities around the world. Those same oppressors also happen to be some of the leading persecutors of LGBTI individuals and other marginalized groups.”

The second presenter was Wilfred M. McClay, an American intellectual historian, a noted public intellectual, Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum, and the current occupant of the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. He urged the Commission to come up with “as short of a list [of unalienable rights] as possible” and to distinguish between “a small core of truly unalienable rights” and “putative rights.”

According to Alexandra Schmitt, a policy analyst for human rights, democracy and development at the Center for American Progress who attended the meeting, “McClay’s suggestions “would be a grave mistake. Human rights is not a zero-sum game whereby the protection of some rights means that others cannot be guaranteed. The commission members did not comment on his statement, but they also didn’t reject it outright—”a worrying signal for the future work of this group.” Ms. Schmitt also noted that “The only right that both presenters could agree was certainly unalienable was the right to freedom of conscience, which was understood to include freedom of religion and freedom of thought.”

Schmitt added, “It is clear that our worst fears have been confirmed and that yesterday’s meeting was the christening of Pompeo’s intensely academic attempt to justify his efforts to elevate religious freedom to a position of dominance in our country’s human rights diplomacy.  This policy shift was already foreshadowed by Pompeo’s announcement in June, marking the release of the State Department’s 2018 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, that he would strip the State Department’s office of religious freedom out of the Department’s human rights bureau, where it long has served to integrate religious liberty concerns with other human rights priorities, to a position of independence and priority in the Department’s organizational hierarchy.”

It also should be noted that several groups have announced their intent to ask the Commission to eliminate any right to an abortion. [2]

A subsequent post will discuss and analyze recent human rights comments by Chair Glendon and her recent interview as they relate to the Commission.

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[1]  Commission on Unalienable Rights; Notice of Open Meeting, Fed. Reg. (Oct. 2, 2019); Sec. of State Mike Pompeo Joins Tony Perkins on the Radio to Discuss the Commission on Unalienable Rights, yahoo finance.com (Oct. 23, 2019); State Dep’t, Pompeo Remarks, Commission on Unalienable Rights Public Meeting (Oct. 23, 2019); Lavers, State Department human rights advocacy commission holds first meeting, SFGN (Oct. 29, 2019); Pompeo’s Dangerously Misguided Human Rights Commission, Global Equality (Oct. 24, 2019); Schmitt, 5 questions About the Commission on Unalienable Rights, americanprogress.org (Oct. 31, 2019).This blog, prompted by worries that this Commission may seek to narrow U.S. commitments to human rights,  has many posts about the Commission.

[2] Pro-family groups have asked US ‘Commission on Unalienable Rights’ to fight for parental rights, LifeSite (Oct. 22, 2019); Ruth Institute, Ruth Institute President Welcomes First Public Meeting of State Dept. Commission on Unalienable Rights (Oct. 21, 2019) Concerned Women for America, Groups Unite to Support the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights (Aug. 6, 2019).