The problems with Mike Pompeo’s Commission of Unalienable Rights

In this June 17, 2019 photo, shown is a 1776 broadside printing of the Declaration of Independence at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

“Unalienable Rights,” the formula stopped me the first time I read it, used as I was to the modern variant “inalienable.” It turns out, however, that “unalienable” is Jefferson’s precise wording in the Declaration of Independence. “Unalienable Rights” is also the title of a new commission named by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to provide “an informal review of human rights in American foreign policy.”

It is hard to anticipate exactly what the commission will do. Mr. Pompeo told reporters the commission’s work would address principles, not policy. Actually, one of the most useful things the commission could do for this administration would be to offer a principled examination of its own exceedingly weak human rights policy, which treats many rights as alienable at the whim of the president.

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Critics have argued that the commission is a way for the Trump Administration to begin to restrict access to abortion as a human right and to halt the advance of L.G.B.T. rights, but an anonymous State Department spokesperson avows the commission will take up neither issue. If the commission is intended neither to review U.S. human rights policy nor examine today’s debates over abortion and same-sex marriage, what, then, might it be doing?

One possibility is to re-make international human rights in the American mode, narrowing their scope to reflect an exceptionalist American view of human rights. This seems to be Mr. Pompeo’s intention. In a Wall Street Journal column announcing the commission on July 7, he expressed his hope that the review would hew more closely to the American founding documents, namely, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

If the commission is intended neither to review U.S. human rights policy nor examine today’s debates over abortion and same-sex marriage, what, then, might it be doing?

Secretary Pompeo’s review of unalienable rights represents a threat to two key dimensions of the modern human rights law: First, it threatens our acknowledgement of the historic development of rights over the centuries. We have come a long way since Magna Carta. Second, it puts the universality of rights, proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, at risk.

In the 18th century only men of property were perceived as full citizens. But for two and a half centuries individual nations and the world community have been expanding our commitments to human rights.

In the late 20th century the process accelerated, beginning with the Helsinki Accords in 1975, and continued with a series of U.N. treaties acknowledging rights for various groups as members of the one human family: racial minorities (1971), women (1979), children (1979), migrants (1986) and people with disabilities (2006). In addition, conventions prohibited torture (1984) and enforced disappearance (2006). Does Mr. Pompeo hope the United States will renege on these commitments?

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Turning its back on International Human Rights Law would not be unprecedented for this administration, which has withdrawn or expressed its willingness to withdraw from several treaties, and flouted others. In his announcement, Mr. Pompeo cited socio-economic rights as one category of rights he did not find compatible with American values, noting that during the Cold War they were embraced by the Soviets.

After the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the United States did hold back from affirming socio-economic rights. While it signed the U.N. Protocol on Civil-Political Rights, which was a closer match to those rights we had in the American system, it took 30 more years before President Jimmy Carter signed the Protocol for Socio-Economic rights and included them in U.S. human rights policy. Shall we turn our backs on four decades of social progress?

Turning its back on International Human Rights Law would not be unprecedented for this administration.

We cannot turn our backs on the development of human rights. Our unfolding understanding, just like that of the founders, is a reasoned response, based on experience, aimed at upholding the dignity of human persons.

There may be mistakes and abuses in claiming and implementing rights that need correction, but the fallibility of our formulations and judgments argues for discernment of particular rights, not denial of development. We should be open to correction, re-consideration, admission of our personal and collective misconceptions, and, when we are wrong, ready to honor rights we had not previously acknowledged. Abuses must be corrected.

The second problematic suggestion in Mr. Pompeo’s announcement concerns the universality of human rights. While the secretary holds that all humans enjoy God-given rights, along with many conservative thinkers he has a decided preference for American over foreign interpretations of rights, including those established in international law. Out of “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” a credible philosophy of human rights should show respect for international human rights law.

Indeed, the U.S. government is constitutionally obligated to hold to those international laws to which the United States is a signatory. For the founders, it was an elementary principle of government that treaties became part of domestic law. Unlike the current administration, they abided by the ancient legal maxim Pacta sunt servanda (“Treaties are to be honored.”)

While the American founding made a unique contribution to the history of that tradition, defining human rights in solely American terms denies the universality of human rights, a quality essential to their nature. Since human rights are universal rights, it is inevitable that Americans will learn from others about further ways in which human dignity will need to be protected and served.

Some critics object that Mr. Pompeo would like to replace the Anglo-American Natural Rights tradition, which underlay the U.S. founding documents, with a traditional Catholic Natural Law position. But the differences today relate to particular issues, like abortion, rather than to the theories as a whole or to philosophical differences between schools of the two traditions.

Since John XXIII’s “Pacem in terris” in 1963, moreover, Catholicism has reconciled with the Liberal rights tradition. While the two philosophies were in tension in “the long 19th century,” they are not so today. Any review emerging from the Commission on Unalienable Rights ought to recognize that development is part of the human rights tradition and that, since they are human rights, others besides Americans have and will contribute to that ongoing development.

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Charles Erlinger
2 months 1 week ago

The quotation that I read about Secretary Pompeo’s human rights commission, in which he noted first, a truism that rights claims and assertions frequently come into conflict with one another, and secondly, as reported by NPR, that this is:

“provoking questions and clashes about which rights are entitled to gain respect”

indicates that the commission could have a positive outcome if the commission devotes the time and effort to answer basic questions as to “why” a given right should be affirmed, in terms of its derivation, and “how” it should be respected, in terms of the impact on others if a person asserts the right—that is, what are the concomitant obligations.

Nora Bolcon
2 months 1 week ago

Pompeo is another Trump moron. Watching these paranoid nutjobs try to interpret Human Rights is like watching Scooby Doo perform brain surgery, an experience both terrifying and bazaar.

J Jones
2 months 1 week ago

When Congress expressed concern that North Korea's dictator was taking Trump for a ride, Pompeo refused to provide any information and, instead, offered them a pacifying smile and the words "Fear not, Senator, fear not."

That quasi-religious, calm-yourself, father-knows-best response from the Secretary of State to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent chills through my body.

Pompeo is simply one more dangerous man in a dangerous administration.

Lisa Weber
2 months 1 week ago

Pompeo and the Trump administration undertaking to redefine human rights can be assumed to be an attempt to take rights away from those they deem unworthy of having any rights. Women and those of color will be the first to lose rights, if the history of this administration is any guide.

Oz Jewel
2 months 1 week ago

To the whole rest of the world, that is those who have not been conditioned like Pavlov's dogs to believe something about people having rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, any group or committee could spend a generation making clear just what is meant by both "unalienable" and the substitute in the mantra "inalienable".

I take it that a common understanding would be - "cannot under any circumstances or situations be taken away" without a breach of absolute justice.
This from a nation which has death as a punishment for some crimes and imprisonment for legions of offences. If the life and liberty of the citizens executed or imprisoned is not being alienated, then how does one describe this sort of thing happening?

Marion Husler
2 months 1 week ago

This quote from the article seems misleading -
"In the 18th century only men of property were perceived as full citizens. But for two and a half centuries individual nations and the world community have been expanding our commitments to human rights.*

It discounts the revolutionary extension of unalienable rights to non property owners in the founding of the U.S.A..
Over the centuries, further evolution has been to other races and women.
Slavery and gender discrimination were not specifically codified in U.S. foundations, although the 'Left" tries to say they were.
Today the application of unalienable rights is extending to other countries and cultures, un-revised. I hope Pompeo's commission is devoted to sustaining that direction.

There is a disturbing counter challenge against unalienable rights that attempts to curtail one right by proposing an imposter right. Example is how hurtful or disagreeing words are being attacked as infringement on rights, infringing on free speech. Note that is not speech that promotes violence which is not free speech. The fact I need to clarify that is another example how attempts are being made to curtail rights under the guise of false rights.
There is also the right to pursue happiness. Happiness is not a right and cannot be guaranteed. If I pursue happiness and achieve that through material things, should I be compelled to forfeit that to the payment for happiness of people who do not pursue their happiness, and believe they have a right to what they did not pursue?
I hope that is what Pompeo's commission aims to prevent.

David Osullivan
1 month 4 weeks ago

It’s interesting that you claim that ‘Slavery and gender discrimination were not specifically codified in U.S. foundations’. Perhaps you haven’t heard of the 3/5ths clause (Article I, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution of 1787) which clearly stated that enslaved blacks in a state would be counted as three-fifths of the number of white inhabitants of that state. If that’s not specifically codified then I would love to know what is.

Randal Agostini
2 months ago

It would be so refreshing if just once, once, there would be a positive remark about this administration. Could I go so far as to say that this article is a denial of Mr. Pompeo's right to express his viewpoint honestly? I am very relieved and excited that our Secretary of State would convene an examination of our "rights," seeing that I no longer can presume what is up or down, left or right. Our Declaration of Independence was explicit in declaring that we are to assume "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them - us," "that all men are created equal, that they (we) are endowed by their (our) Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them"...... Should I remind readers that this is a Catholic organ, which should express Catholic thought and that these foregoing principles are in accordance with our Faith. Progress does not give license for us to to accept force fed "Rights," which are solely intended as a means to indoctrinate, in the relentless pursuit of power. There are two commandments given us by Jesus - Love God and Love our Neighbor and these should be our guiding principles, not a daily debate upon the legitimacy of LGBTQ+ doctrine. We are human, which means we make mistakes and the very first was the acceptance of immoral slavery. True progress was the acceptance in the unalienable dignity of our black brothers and sisters, a work still in progress, despite tearing the nation apart, spilling the blood of countless adherents in false ideologies. "Choice" was something we had in Eden, and we blew it and now it is a United Nations "right." Lets get real for once, get behind the Secretary and reinforce what made America different - it is our pursuit of the Truth imbued in and emanating from our God.

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