Editor’s Note: This essay is the second in a series on American Ideals and Interests. The first essay, Tod Lindberg’s “Moral Responsibility and the National Interest,” can be found here.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s launch of a new Advisory Commission on Unalienable Rights has raised more questions than answers. For starters, what is driving the need for such a commission? What role will it play in policy? How were the members of it chosen? And how will it address human rights problems created by the Trump Administration itself through its affinity for authoritarian leaders and its actions here at home?
“I made clear that the Trump Administration has embarked on a foreign policy that takes seriously the Founders’ ideas of individual liberty and constitutional government,” Pompeo said at the launch July 8. “Those principles have long played a prominent role in our country’s foreign policy, and rightly so. But as that great admirer of the American experiment Alex de Tocqueville noted, democracies have a tendency to lose sight of the big picture in the hurly-burly of everyday affairs. Every once in a while, we need to step back and reflect seriously on where we are, where we’ve been, and whether we’re headed in the right direction, and that’s why I’m pleased to announce today the formation of a Commission on Unalienable Rights.”
Invoking former Czech dissident and human rights champion Vaclav Havel, who became President of his country after the Velvet Revolution, Pompeo warned that “words like ‘rights’ can be used for good or evil; ‘they can be rays of light in a realm of darkness . . . [but] they can also be lethal arrows.’”
“We must, therefore, be vigilant that human rights discourse not be corrupted or hijacked or used for dubious or malignant purposes,” Pompeo added, without saying by whom.
He lamented 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. International institutions designed and built to protect human rights have drifted from their original mission. As human rights claims have proliferated (emphasis added), 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.”
Again, Pompeo leaves unanswered who the guilty parties are. Is it those who have been repressed and seek equal treatment under the law? Or is it authoritarian regimes who pretend to observe human rights but in reality commit abuses on a regular basis?
Pompeo’s argument that human rights have “proliferated” is true to some extent, but one certainly hopes that Pompeo is not implying that equal rights for LGBTQIA people, women, people with disabilities, children, and minorities are a bad thing. Might he have in mind LGBTQIA rights and those who do not believe, for example, that gays should have the right to marry, when he said, “some claims have come into tension with one another, provoking questions and clashes about which rights are entitled to gain respect?” Most of the members whom Pompeo has chosen to serve on the Commission appear to lean against gay marriage as a right. Is the Commission going to review that?
Pompeo went on to lay out his vision for the Commission:
I hope that the commission will revisit the most basic of questions: What does it mean to say or claim that something is, in fact, a human right? How do we know or how do we determine whether that claim that this or that is a human right, is it true, and therefore, ought it to be honored? How can there be human rights, rights we possess not as privileges we are granted or even earn, but simply by virtue of our humanity belong to us? Is it, in fact, true, as our Declaration of Independence asserts, that as human beings, we—all of us, every member of our human family—are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights?
Of course, the line in the Declaration of Independence to which Pompeo refers states: “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. . . .” In the Constitution that was ratified 13 years later, Article I, Section 2 treats non-free persons, i.e., blacks, as “three fifths of all other persons.” This was not changed until ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868. Similarly, women were denied the right to vote until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.
The evolution, or proliferation to use Pompeo’s term, of rights in this country has fixed problems dating from our founding. Surely Pompeo would not disparage these rights that were cemented decades after our founding as a “proliferation.”
U.S. human rights policy over the years has tended to emphasize political rights and civil liberties over economic and social rights. Some argue in Europe and even here in this country that it is a human right to have health coverage, to have a job, to own a home. Many Americans would disagree with such claims, but if Pompeo wants to review and debate these matters, the composition of his commission may not be well suited to do so.
Open Letter Disagrees
On July 22, more than 350 human rights organizations, activists, and former officials (including this author) released a letter criticizing Pompeo’s decision to create the Advisory Commission on Unalienable Rights. Among the criticisms in the letter, “Almost all of the Commission’s members have focused their professional lives and scholarship on questions of religious freedom.” While religious freedom unquestionably is a fundamental right, the Open Letter goes on to note that a number of members of the Commission are “overwhelmingly clergy or scholars known for extreme positions” opposing LGBTQIA rights.
The chair of the commission, Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard and former Ambassador to the Vatican in the George W. Bush Administration, sought to allay concerns about the commission in a podcast with Lawfare earlier this month. And yet her public stance opposing gay marriage, for example, has stirred controversy. “What same-sex marriage advocates have tried to present as a civil rights issue is really a bid for special preferences,” Glendon has said, a view shared by a number of other commission members.
Pompeo identified other members of the commission: Russell Berman, Peter Berkowitz, Paolo Carozza, Hamza Yusuf Hanson, Jacqueline Rivers, Meir Soloveichik, Katrina Lantos Swett, Christopher Tollefsen, and David Tse-Chien Pan. Some have solid records on human rights; others have been dismissive publicly of human rights abuses committed by so-called friendly regimes such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
In his July 8 announcement, Pompeo acknowledged the role of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “An American commitment to uphold human rights played a major role in transforming the moral landscape of the international relations after World War II, something all Americans can rightly be proud of. Under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights ended forever the notion that nations could abuse their citizens without attracting notice or repercussions.”
The Universal Declaration lays out universal freedoms by which all countries should abide. These include freedoms of expression, association, assembly, and belief. Citizens should have the right to choose their own leaders through free and fair elections. Rule-of-law systems with checks and balances and independent institutions ensure protection of these human rights. A free and diverse press acts as an additional check on power, as does a vibrant civil society. At root, all people are created equal and should be free from discrimination regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or political views. In a hundred words, I’ve just outlined what the commission likely will spend countless hours pondering.
Finally, the advisory commission will not fix larger problems of the Trump Administration’s own making.
Well into the Trump Administration’s third year in office, for example, there is still no Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL). Created by Congress in the late 1970s, DRL’s responsibility is advancing the cause of democracy and human rights around the world. Robert Destro was nominated for the Assistant Secretary position late last year and after a rough hearing this spring has still not been confirmed. While some responsibility for this rests with the Senate, it is hard to take the Administration seriously on human rights when it doesn’t fill the top position responsible for this portfolio. (DRL was also excluded from the decision to create the advisory commission.)
Additionally, with three country exceptions (Cuba, Venezuela and Iran—and maybe a fourth, Nicaragua) and one thematic exception (religious freedom), this Administration has done a woeful job in advancing human rights. On Cuba and Venezuela, the Administration has taken a tough stand on human rights abuses. It has taken a similar stance when it comes to Iran as part of its larger hardline approach to the regime there. It used to highlight human rights outrages in North Korea, until President Trump “fell in love” with North Korea’s brutal dictator Kim Jong-un.
Pretty much everywhere else, however, the Administration has been silent about, if not complicit in, human rights abuses around the world. President Trump’s whitewash of the role played by Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the massive human rights abuses in neighboring Yemen, with U.S. military weapons, ranks at the top of the list.
With rare comments as the exception, the Administration has said and done precious little about the cultural and ethnic cleansing of Uighurs in the northwest part of China or the broader human rights crackdown in China, the worst there in decades, under President Xi. It seems worried that criticism on human rights might damage fragile trade negotiations. (To his credit, Pompeo described China’s treatment of the Uighurs as the “stain of the century.”)
Trump has taken a very hands-off approach to the inspirational protests in Hong Kong. “The Hong Kong thing is a very tough situation,” Trump told reporters on August 13. “I hope it works out peacefully. I hope nobody gets hurt. I hope nobody gets killed.” He should be warning authorities in Beijing of a strong response to any bloody crackdown there.
The Administration has been silent while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan holds the unenviable distinction of imprisoning more journalists than any other country. Trump embraces brutal strongmen leaders like Egypt’s al-Sisi and the Philippines’ Duterte and has dismissed criticism of Russian President Putin’s human rights record by arguing that the United States is “not so innocent” either. After the biggest protest in years in Moscow recently, the Administration has said virtually nothing about these brave Russians who risk arrest, beatings and possibly even worse in their demands for a level political playing field in upcoming Moscow elections and against a thoroughly corrupt, increasingly authoritarian leadership.
For the past 13 years—going back to the days of the Bush Administration—Freedom House has documented a decline in political rights and civil liberties worldwide. The Putins, Kims, Castros, Maduros, Erdogans, al-Sisis, and Xis of the world would commit human rights abuses anyway, but Trump’s regular attacks at home against the media and journalists and his coarse demonization of and racist tweets against his political opponents and others give them succor and cover. His Administration’s appalling treatment of people seeking to enter this country through the southern border, including the separation of children from their parents, and the President’s polarizing and divisive rhetoric undermine the U.S. image as a shining city on a hill.
I criticized the Obama Administration’s human rights record and acknowledge the shortcomings of the Bush Administration, but the current Administration’s behavior, rhetoric and actions are demoralizing human rights activists around the world and damaging the cause of freedom. No advisory commission is going to fix that.