by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M.
July 17, 2020
Seeking to address what U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called a “moment of crisis” for human rights, the newly-created Commission on Unalienable Rights yesterday released a draft of its inaugural report—a report which articulates and unpacks the link between America’s founding and the very idea of human rights.
It is no secret that human rights advocacy has lost its way. The term “human rights” is often used today to refer to any number of desirable social programs or preferences—basically, anything anyone wants to cloak in noble terms. Yet such an approach strays far from the core human rights the movement sought to address in its earlier years. Hence, the new State Department commission will aim to bolster the modern human rights project initiated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in light of our founding, and recalibrate the United States’ approach to human rights promotion abroad.
Divided into three sections, the report explores the origin of America’s human rights tradition and the ways in which these rights are under threat.
First, the report provides a careful review of the country’s founding principles. It argues that America has a distinctive rights tradition, grounding the origin of an individual’s unalienable rights—rights that are unable to be taken away or given away by the possessor.
Second, the report discusses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a momentous document outlining a comprehensive view of human rights following World War II and the Holocaust. It describes how this document provides a standard of achievement for all people from all nations.
Finally, the report outlines new challenges to human rights internationally, concluding with 12 pertinent observations.
Despite all the modern talk of human rights, we face a world in which authoritarian regimes increasingly perpetuate injustices, and international human rights organizations are continually ineffective in addressing them. Human rights advocacy groups are quick to reject fundamental rights grounded in an ordered human nature in favor of a newly imagined, culturally popular set of “rights.” To the contrary, the very definition of human rights is tightly bound to the qualities and shared traits that make all of us human. This idea—though imperfectly implemented—permeated our nation’s founding, as well as subsequent human rights developments.
Yet today, the unalienable rights that founded our nation and lay at the heart of the original international human rights project are frequently attacked as “discriminatory” and “outdated”—and modern social preferences take over in the guise of “human rights.”
Meanwhile, others try to portray a moral equivalence between the United States and other human rights violators. Yet the very existence of debate domestically should help us see we are still free—compared to places that lack a debate (China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, etc.). It is there that opposition, dissent, and human rights are truly being suppressed.
The State Department is right to evaluate the scope of human rights at a time when human rights are widely championed and rarely understood. This report lays the groundwork for foundational questions to be asked and a thoughtful assessment of human rights going forward.
An understanding of what is innate to each person must inform such an assessment. Only then could the mass of humanity, with all its vast differences, even begin to agree on certain unchanging moral principles as the basis for human conduct. Moral objectivity is required in any shared endeavor to protect human rights for all human beings around the world.
For human rights work to endure, we must be able to agree on a shared definition around which we can unite and guard the term from becoming meaningless. As the report observes, the “enduring success” of human rights efforts “depends on the moral … commitments that undergird them.” The alternative is the status quo, represented by the “sad irony” that “the idea of human rights—which reflects the conviction that the positive laws of nations must be accountable to higher principles of justice—[is] reduced to whatever current treaties and institutions happen to say that it is.”
One way out of this is what the commission—whose diversity of different backgrounds and faiths should give us hope—proposes: identifying and substantively defending our shared unalienable rights. If it succeeds, we can perhaps begin reclaiming a true understanding of human rights for all, and not a moment too soon.