Mary Ann Glendon is a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, from 2008 to 2009, and a Harvard Law professor with an extensive background in international human rights.

Following her recent appointment as the chairwoman of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s new Commission on Unalienable Rights, Glendon spoke with the Register about her commitment to the cause of human rights, the mandate of this commission, and how Catholic teaching has inspired her in her human-rights work.

 

What initial work can this commission dive right into, in terms of defining and defending unalienable rights?

The commission has not yet had its first meeting — and I have to say at the beginning of the interview, of course, that I do not speak for the State Department and I don’t speak for the commission that hasn’t met yet.

I’m certainly glad to speculate about how we might begin, and, indeed, I’m thinking about the first meeting, which will be held in September. I think as an initial matter, since we are a study commission, I expect we’ll begin as Secretary Pompeo instructed us: by going back to basics; that is, by following his request that we first refresh our understanding of the principles that are embodied in the distinctive rights tradition that we have here in the United States. Then, that we refresh our understanding of the principles that are embodied in the commitments the United States has made internationally, especially in the Universal Declaration [on Human Rights] after World War II. [The declaration was issued in 1948 by the United Nations Human Rights Commission chaired by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.]

With respect to this declaration, I did a rather detailed study of its history, and I can say that, after 70 years, very few people understand that that document had a structure and that parts of that document are related to each other in specific ways. The declaration is not just a list, like most bills of rights; it actually has some interpretive instructions.

There are all kinds of things that we can do just to make sure that you know we do what professors do. As Socrates said, the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms, and then you go on to try to clarify concepts so that we all know really what we’re talking about when we engage these discussions. That’s why [Father Richard] Neuhaus said at one point, “It’s really something to achieve disagreement,” because most disagreement is just people talking past each other.

 

What is your response to critics like Amnesty International, who claim that the administration is “politicizing” human rights and should use the global framework already in place?

Last year, the secretary-general of Amnesty International [Sahil Shetty] himself acknowledged that the international human-rights system is in deadlock; and he said, I’m quoting him here, “Respect for established norms is ebbing away,” and “it is a good moment for us to take stock and ask the fundamental question: ‘Why do we need human rights, and what are they really for?’” — which is exactly, almost in the same words, what Secretary Pompeo has charged the new commission to do.

I read that [Amnesty statement] and I think, “Well, gee, friends of human rights ought to be glad that the U.S. State Department is taking steps to address these problems, rather than rushing to judgment about what we’re going to do when we haven’t even met yet.”

 

Could you discuss how the founding principles of the U.S. are grounded in “natural rights and natural law,” as the State Department stated in its notice about the commission? What is meant by natural law here, and why do you think these terms caused backlash and are not widely understood?

That reaction shows how much confusion there is about the terms that are used in human-rights discourse, and I think there’s especially quite a bit of confusion about terms like “natural right” and “natural law.” There is considerable disagreement about what those terms mean, even among those who ascribe to them. And to many people, especially outside the West, they are completely unfamiliar. That is why, when dealing with foreign policy, I find it more useful to speak of rights that are deeply grounded in the world’s major philosophical and religious traditions.

That’s the way Mrs. Roosevelt’s commission tended to speak about it, and that is what I find useful as a comparative-law person in speaking about human rights to people who are from cultures and traditions very different from our own.  

 

Responding to Secretary Pompeo’s announcement of the new commission, you said the commission’s work comes at a time when some basic human rights are “being misunderstood by many, manipulated by many, and ignored by the world’s worst human-rights violators.” What are some examples of these violations?

I don’t think anybody in the human-rights world would honestly deny that the world is full of confusion about human rights. But what is more troubling to me is documented in Human Rights Watch’s 2019 report. The theme of that report is how many authoritarian regimes are not only ignoring the basic freedoms that we take for granted in liberal democracies, but many of them — and I’m thinking particularly of China here — are making deliberate efforts to undermine the fragile consensus that we were just talking about, the common ground that supported the principles of the Universal Declaration.

How is China doing that? It has a kind of two-pronged strategy. It is making determined efforts to place supporters of its views in the human-rights system. So it’s kind of the usual thing of trying to take over the agencies or get the dominant voice in agencies. Then, in the second prong, the Chinese government is promoting an alternative human-rights model in which they say that national priorities should prevail over the rights to speech, assembly and participation in government — rights that are specifically in the Universal Declaration. That’s what I meant when I was speaking about manipulation.

 

Could you discuss further what it means to work at the level of principle and not policy? What about contested principles such as the human right to life from the moment of conception conflicting with the opinion that there is a human right to abortion?

Let’s start with the fact that the commission has a mandate and it has a charter. But, while we have full leeway to be an independent commission, we are not authorized to frame foreign policy for the United States. What we are supposed to do is provide those who do frame foreign policy with materials that will be useful to them — and since we’ve been asked to ground what we’re doing in some rather abstract principles, it’s really not going to be our job to translate those principles into policy.

Regarding contested principles, a commission like ours is never going to resolve those debated issues that preoccupy our culture wars. Those debates are going to continue in legislatures and courts and in the public at large, and many of those debates that are framed in terms of rights are really about different groups of the population that have competing claims. The only appropriate way in a democracy to decide those disputes is through ordinary political processes. So what can the commission do where foreign policy is concerned? Clarify the areas of disagreement in a way that is useful.

 

Since Secretary Pompeo was your research assistant at Harvard, could you discuss your past work with him?

He likes to tell people that I only paid him $7.50 an hour — but that was the going rate back then! He was my research assistant when I was working on a book called A Nation Under Lawyers, which is a book that analyzed changes in the legal profession, practitioners, the judiciary and the academy. In the book, I also speculate about the implications of those changes for our Democratic experiment, which is so heavily reliant on the rule of law. He was a great research assistant, and now I’m working for him for nothing.

 

How has your Catholic faith informed your work on human rights? What about your work with the Vatican?

Well, I belong to a generation for which Vatican II and the call to the laity to be active in the secular sphere was just a galvanizing event. We kind of thought, or our parents thought, that all you had to do as a Catholic was go to Mass and try to lead a good life — and Vatican II changed all that. We see this change especially in the way that John Paul II reiterated the call to the laity. But even before John Paul II, the pope of my youth — John XXIII — spoke out against racism and for women’s rights. Such witness changed everything in the Church’s approach to the world for many of us in those days.

I also come from a long family tradition of public and private service. For that reason, when I was a young lawyer, I just naturally began looking around for pro bono work. When I was practicing law in Chicago, for example, in my first experience of this sort, I served on a committee to provide defense for indigent prisoners. In addition, in Freedom Summer in 1964, I went to Mississippi and defended civil-rights workers there. Later, I went on to co-found with some other women here in Boston a group called Women Affirming Life, which is a group whose motto is “pro-life, pro-woman, pro-child and pro-poor.” In this way, on my academic side, I also gravitated toward human rights. I devoted a good deal of my writing to that subject.

When I was president of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, human rights was a major theme. I organized several international conferences on human rights for the academy. Then, as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, I thought about what I should focus my attention on since it was the 60th anniversary of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration. So, in 2008, I made the joint commitment of the U.S. and the Holy See to human rights the centerpiece of all of my service. As part of this focus for that year, I organized five conferences, four of which were dealing with various aspects of human rights at the Holy See. We had a conference on human trafficking, a conference on religious freedom, a conference on human rights in Latin America, and a big conference on the 60th anniversary of the declaration.

Lauretta Brown is the Register's Washington-based staff writer.