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Pompeo’s rights commission delivers an implicit critique of Trump

A report with a more expansive of human rights than the secretary of state — or his boss — may have anticipated.

A monitor displays the words

(RNS) — A year ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo created a Commission on Inalienable Rights to give him advice “for the promotion of individual liberty, human equality, and democracy through U.S. foreign policy,” as its charter put it.

This was urgently needed, Pompeo claimed, because whereas 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.”

The commission, the charter announced, “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.”

At the time, the commission drew fire from the left, including a letter urging that it be disbanded from a coalition of 430 human rights, civil rights, foreign policy and faith organizations, leaders and scholars.

“(W)e view with great misgiving a body established by the U.S. government aimed expressly at circumscribing rights through an artificial sorting of those that are ‘unalienable’ and those to be now deemed ‘ad hoc,'” the letter read. “These terms simply have no place in human rights discourse.”

My own view was that there wasn’t that much to be worried about. Yes, Pompeo’s commission was largely composed of conservative intellectuals. But the chair, Harvard Law Professor Mary Anne Glendon, happened to be a strong supporter of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes a decent standard of living and asylum from persecution in other countries among its enumerated rights.

On Thursday, the commission delivered its report and, I’d say, the critics didn’t have much to be worried about.

Yes, there are a few conservative oddities. Sketching the history of rights in the U.S., the report claims that the Declaration of Independence — the source text for any American treatment of inalienable rights — appeals to “faith” and “revelation” as well as to “philosophy” and “reason,” an assertion that would surely have taken its author, Thomas Jefferson, by surprise.

The report also declares: “Foremost among the unalienable rights that government is established to secure, from the founders’ point of view, are property rights and religious liberty.”

But the Declaration of Independence specifically substitutes “pursuit of happiness” for the philosopher John Locke’s identification of life, liberty and property as the foremost unalienable rights. And the Declaration does not so much as mention religion. When it came to addressing religious rights in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the founders gave the states free rein to restrict religious liberty except as concerned federal office-holding.

Otherwise, however, the report is careful to limit its celebration of the country’s human rights record, going so far as to pointedly discuss its failures with respect to Blacks, women, and Native Americans. Along with the expected celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., it praises Malcolm X’s 1964 “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, which “advocated taking ‘Uncle Sam’ to the United Nations so that the world could judge him guilty of violating the human rights of African Americans.”

Nor does George Floyd go unmentioned.

The brutal killing of an African-American man by a police officer in the late spring of 2020 and the subsequent civic unrest that swept the country underscore that much still must be accomplished. Indeed, appreciation of the work that remains, of its urgency and importance, is itself a crucial element of America’s distinctive rights tradition.

And did I mention that the report also notes that the U.S. “has undertaken military actions that, many have concluded, were ill-conceived and damaging to the cause of freedom”?

When it comes to the international human rights regime, the report makes clear that, far from departing from the nation’s founding principles, the provisions it signed back in 1948 are of a piece with them: “It must be recognized that along with civil and political rights, social, economic, and cultural rights, too, are an integral part of the Universal Declaration’s fabric.” There is even a suggestion that the right of asylum from persecution may have to be extended to migrants who have been forced to flee their homelands because of climate change — not exactly what you’d expect the Trump administration to push for.

Not likely to gladden the president’s heart is the singling out for extensive criticism of Russia and China because of their abysmal human rights records.

Moreover, there’s nothing in the report to suggest that “special interest groups” such as the LGBT community are undeserving of human rights protections. If anything, the report implies that such protections, like the Universal Declaration’s social and economic principles, follow from the rights enunciated by the nation’s founders. 

In brief, the Commission on Human Rights has given Pompeo some thoughtful, balanced advice on promoting human rights around the world. It’s pretty clearly not what he expected, but if he’s interested in recovering that which is enduring for the maintenance of free and open societies, he’ll convince his boss to take it.

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