Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a new Commission on Unalienable Rights Monday which will provide “advice on human rights grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” 

A senior administration official at the State Department told the Register that this commission is a “personal project” of Secretary Pompeo’s, as “issues of human rights and inalienable rights are things that he’s been thinking about since he’s been at West Point.”

“The mission was to ground our understanding of human rights in our founding principles,” the official explained. “I say ground because that explains something that’s there already, that’s foundational. The commission is not somehow going to discover new principles of human rights; it’s not the point. Now what do I mean by founding principles? I mean life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — ideas put forth in the Declaration. It could be the writings of the Founders. It could be Lincoln.”

In his remarks at the State Department, Pompeo called it a “sad commentary on our times” that “more than 70 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, gross violations continue throughout the world, sometimes even in the name of human rights.”

He argued that international institutions “designed and built to protect human rights have drifted from their original mission” and “as human rights claims have proliferated, some claims have come into tension with one another, provoking questions and clashes about which rights are entitled to gain respect. Nation-states and international institutions remain confused about their respective responsibilities concerning human rights.”

In order to address that confusion, Pompeo argued that it is time for “an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy.”

Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon, who was U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush, will head the new panel. It also includes Notre Dame Law professor Paolo Carozza; Katrina Lantos Swett, former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; and philosopher Christopher Tollefsen.

 

Understanding ‘Unalienable’ Rights

Shortly after the commission was announced, Amnesty International put out a statement arguing that “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.”

In response to that, the State Department official said that the group “doesn’t understand what an unalienable right is because an unalienable right is the ultimate individual right, it accrues to everyone.” The official argued that human rights groups like Amnesty often “conflate an unalienable right that’s given to an individual that everybody enjoys everywhere at all times with the other bucket of rights that are given after the fact often to groups.”

The official added that Secretary Pompeo “wants a serious genuine lively debate about human rights and that’s what we want and that’s why it’s public, that’s why it was filed that way. He could have made this a private effort within the State Department that wasn’t open to public comment. He decided not to do that.”

Dr. Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, commented to CNA that “it’s been a long time since anybody in any official capacity gave critical attention to what it means to claim that something is a human right.”

“Today, the dominant discourse is the human rights discourse,” George said. “There’s certainly been an inflation of rights claims, an inflation of rights language. Now anybody who advocates anything advocates it in the name of human rights. So how do we sort through those claims?”

Five Democratic senators wrote Pompeo last month with concerns over the use of the terms “natural law and natural rights” in the notice about the commission in the Federal Register. They argued that those terms are “sometimes used to justify policies that discriminate against marginalized populations.”

That notice said that the new commission “will provide fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.”

The State Department official told the Register that natural law is simply “a law of nature” and referenced a tradition of thought that “we enjoy rights not to be tortured or murdered because we simply cannot accept that as a civilization,” adding, “the senators show no understanding of that tradition of thinking.”

“We believe by our nature as human beings that we enjoy unalienable rights and our founders believed in God,” the official explained, saying the Founders “believed that God gave us these unalienable rights that could not be taken away by man, so in objecting to natural rights, they [these senators] essentially eschew the origins of our founding.”

The official added that you don’t have to believe in God to recognize these rights, saying, “you could be an unbeliever, a nonbeliever, and believe that human beings enjoy dignity by virtue of their humanity.”

 

Politically Neutral

Aaron Rhodes, president of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe, told the Register that the commission is “a response to the politicization of human rights by groups like Amnesty International, whose rhetoric is nothing if not political, resembling Occupy Wall Street-type slogans.”

“Human rights obviously have political impact — they liberate people from oppression,” he noted. “But human rights, properly understood, can't be partisan, can't be tied to a political agenda. True human rights are politically neutral; they protect political freedoms, freedoms that can be used to pursue specific partisan objectives. This is not easy for politically agitated people, and for authoritarian rulers, to understand.”

In a recent Wall Street Journal column, Rhodes praised the panel and said that international human rights institutions were infected with “toxic hypocrisy.”

He told the Register he was referring to institutions like the United Nations Human Rights Council, where “many member states have laws that, for example, impose the death penalty for changing one's religion, and which is in fact dominated by authoritarian states that do not believe in universal, individual rights.”

“The European Court of Human Rights, which is supposed to defend individual freedom, upholds ‘hate speech’ convictions for citing facts about Islam, and upholds bans in wearing Islamic clothing, bans that European countries are embracing,” he pointed out. “Unalienable rights means rights that cannot be taken away by law, but today human rights are more and more restricted by laws, and international human rights law, which is very weak anyway, is going in the wrong direction. The United States should firmly challenge these tendencies, making sure its own legislation does not make similar mistakes.” 

As for the backlash over the State Department’s use of the terms “natural law and natural rights,” Rhodes explained the way the Founders likely saw the term.

“Our Founders saw liberty as an innate right based on their rational understanding of broad tendencies in nature, that is, on laws of nature that apply to humans, laws that govern our common human nature,” he said. “They observed that human beings flourish in freedom and that despotism corrupts the human spirit.” 

He argued that “the idea that there is such a thing as ‘human nature,’ however, has become deeply controversial, under the influence of Marxism, Progressivism, Fascism, Postmodernism, and other political ideologies that assert the primacy of social class, or nationality, or other sources of identity, and that can't deal with the fact of individual moral agency and responsibility.” 

“American citizens are steeped in these degrading ideologies, but thanks to the failure of civic education, they have only a thin, or perhaps no, understanding of ideas like natural rights, which is the idea that gave birth to our nation and made it a free society,” he concluded. “It is sad, and depressing, that the mere invocation of these ideas sets off paranoid and ill-informed reactions by media figures, social activists and ideological intellectuals, but such reactions do not necessarily reflect the society as a whole.”