Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on Monday launched a commission on “unalienable rights” that will help the State Department determine what it considers a universal human right when deciding to commit American support.
“The time is right for an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy,” Pompeo said at a briefing at the State Department.
The purpose of the commission is to define what the United States should consider a universal human right, in line with its “founding principles” and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with the view that rhetoric on human rights today often conflates “unalienable” human rights with government-granted rights for certain groups.
“One thing that’s interesting about unalienable rights is that of course they accrue to the individual everywhere, they’re universal and for the common good,” a senior administration official told Breitbart News.
“Whereas everything that’s not an unalienable right must be given by somebody, it’s given or granted by a government or state, or an accord or a bureaucracy and those rights are often given too groups, not individuals. That’s divisive because it means this group is going to get a set of rights, but another group may not,” the official said.
For example, the official said, “unalienable” rights would be “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” for everyone regardless of race, age, gender, sexual preference, or nationality. Those are different than what some other multilateral bodies like the United Nations or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) consider “human rights,” such as the right to clean water, the official said.
“When we speak of human rights in the media, or in think-tanks or on Capitol Hill, you’ll often hear this rhetoric of human rights as if it’s all the same. But it’s not,” the official said.
Pompeo previewed the commission’s launch in an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal on Sunday:
America’s Founders defined unalienable rights as including ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ They designed the Constitution to protect individual dignity and freedom. A moral foreign policy should be grounded in this conception of human rights.
Yet after the Cold War ended, many human-rights advocates turned their energy to new categories of rights. These rights often sound noble and just. But when politicians and bureaucrats create new rights, they blur the distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights granted by governments. Unalienable rights are by nature universal. Not everything good, or everything granted by a government, can be a universal right. Loose talk of ‘rights’ unmoors us from the principles of liberal democracy.
Pompeo announced that the commission will be led by Mary Ann Glendon, a professor of law at Harvard Law School, and include human rights experts, philosophers, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents of “varied backgrounds and beliefs.”
Its charter states the commission may hold up to 15 members, and its members will be appointed by the State Department. Pompeo announced some of the members on Monday: Russell Berman, Peter Berkowitz, Paolo Carozza, Hamza Yusuf Hanson, Jacqueline Rivers, Meir Soloveichik, Katrina Lantos Swett, Christopher Tollefsen, and David Tse-Chien Pan.
State Department Senior Policy Advisor and Director of Policy Planning Kiron Skinner will serve as the head of the executive secretary of the commission, and Cartright Weiland will serve as Rapporteur, Pompeo also announced.
The commission would not make policy, but furnish advice to Pompeo to help guide future decisions on when the U.S. should provide U.S. taxpayer money for the protection of human rights.
“We want principle to drive our foreign policy,” the senior administration official said. “If we don’t understand what we’re talking about, how can we construct a human rights policy that is true to what America is all about…we can’t operate on instinct.”
The official said despite a bevy of existing declarations, legal judgments, treaties, and organizations devoted to defining human rights, “it never hurts to stand back…and say, do we really truly understand what our mission is through U.S. foreign policy when we say we want to protect human rights? Is it grounded in our founding principles?”
The official also noted that despite these institutions, there are still gross human rights violations and that the language of human rights is often corrupted by human rights violators.
“We’ve got these multilateral institutions [that] are supposed to protect human rights. Are they doing it? Are they successful?” the official continued. “Are we doing good through those institutions?”
Glendon, who spoke at the briefing Monday, said she was “deeply grateful” for the honor of chairing the new commission.
“I wanted to thank you especially for giving a priority to human rights at this moment when basic human rights are being misunderstood by many, manipulated by many, and ignored by the world’s worst human rights violators,” she said.
The conservative Family Research Council applauded the creation of the commission. FRC President Tony Perkins said in a statement:
With today’s announcement President Trump’s State Department has taken a historic, meaningful step in advancing human rights around the world. The rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the freedoms of religion, speech, and assembly, and other principles upon which our nation was founded are not merely American rights; they are human rights that we are compelled to protect and promote for all people of all nationalities. It is encouraging to see the United States take such a strong leadership role in promoting these unalienable rights around the world.
For decades, the international consensus on human rights has been eroded, as human rights abusers like China, Iran, and Cuba have wormed their way onto ‘human rights commissions’ in their search for international legitimacy. The world’s worst actors have used international platforms to shape policy on an issue of dignity that they neither value nor practice. Other special interest groups have sought to expand the definition of a ‘human right’ to include virtually anything. If everything is a human right then the term begins to have little meaning.
Most importantly, this commission will help further the protection of religious freedom, which is the foundation for all other human rights, and one which every government has a moral obligation to protect. In light of the increasing attacks on religious freedom around the world today, this comes as especially good news.
The senior administration official said Pompeo has been thinking about human rights ever since Harvard Law School, and launching the commission has been a priority. The commission is part of a theme of unalienable rights, which includes the Ministerial on Religious Freedom, the official said.
The commission will meet at least monthly, and its activities will be open for public comment.