(RNS) — Earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took to the opinion section of The Wall Street Journal to announce the creation of a departmental Commission on Unalienable Rights. This new advisory group, he wrote, "won't opine on policy" — which presumably means that, for example, it won't be recommending U.S. sanctions against Saudi Arabia for violating the human rights of Jamal Khashoggi.
Rather, the commission is intended to "generate a serious debate," Pompeo explained, about what human rights really are.
In Pompeo's view, this is a matter of great urgency, because where the human rights cause "once united people from disparate nations and cultures in the effort to secure fundamental freedoms and fight evils like Nazism, communism and apartheid," nowadays rights claims "are often aimed more at rewarding interest groups and dividing humanity into subgroups."
Thus, in the words of its charter, the commission "provides fresh thinking about human rights and proposes reforms of human rights discourse where it has departed from our nation's founding principles of natural law and natural rights." Its charge is "not to discover new principles, but to recover that which is enduring for the maintenance of free and open societies."
Although the reference to "natural law and natural right" is a bit murky, the ideological signals seem clear enough. American conservatives have long been hostile to efforts to expand the definition of human rights beyond a basically libertarian point of view of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence's "unalienable rights" of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
In line with this, Pompeo appears interested in having the commission push back against international agreements (to which the U.S. is signatory) that declare economic rights to food, shelter and heath care, and which recognize the specific rights of women, children and people with disabilities.
Nor is it difficult to imagine the 10-member commission going along with this agenda, dominated as it is by conservatives. The chair, Harvard law professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon, is a public intellectual on the Catholic right who has spoken out against same-sex marriage and been active in the pro-life movement. She has never recanted her vigorous defense of the church's most notorious pedophile, Marcial Maciel Degollado.
And yet, Glendon is no libertarian when it comes to human rights. Her best-known book, "Rights Talk," from 1991, laments the absence in America's founding documents of discussion of duties and responsibilities for the common good. As she writes, "The relative inconspicuousness, in American law, of individual and collective duties to come to the aid of others, cannot be said to be without consequences for the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, and those who ... are at especially high risk."
Here it's worth pointing out that the Catholic natural law tradition — in contrast to the framers' understanding — regards the state as having a duty to provide for "public well-being and private prosperity," as Pope Leo XIII put it in his 1891 encyclical "Rerum Novarum," the charter of modern Catholic social teaching.
Not that Glendon approves of the American habit of making every desirable social policy into a right. "A rapidly expanding catalog of rights — extending to trees, animals, smokers, nonsmokers, consumers, and so on — not only multiplies the occasions for collisions, but it risks trivializing core democratic values," she writes.
A more nuanced way of understanding this habit is to see it simply as how Americans, with their libertarian tic, prefer to talk about duties to each other, as well as trees and animals. What is a "right to health care," after all, but a way of identifying a collective responsibility to provide health coverage to all members of society?
Be that as it may, Glendon is a strong supporter of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, having written a celebratory narrative history of how Eleanor Roosevelt and colleagues from around the world worked under the auspices of the United Nations to draft the world's first international bill of rights. Here are a couple of items from that document.
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
Indeed, just three months ago, Glendon marked the just-passed 70th anniversary of the declaration by giving a talk at the Harvard Catholic Center titled "Can the Post-World-War-II Human Rights Project Be Saved?"
If she can convince her fellow commissioners to embrace her own long-standing positions on that project, and if they can get the secretary of state on board, maybe she can save it.