On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unveiled a draft report produced by the Commission on Unalienable Rights, a panel he established last year to examine the role of human rights in U.S. foreign policy. Speaking in Philadelphia about the commission’s report, he said that America is fundamentally good and that human rights must play the central role in its diplomacy.
According to Pompeo and the commission’s report, the cause of fundamental human rights, as articulated by the Declaration of Independence and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has come under threat from authoritarian regimes, politicized human-rights advocacy, and the failure of multilateral human rights bodies. “The vital 20th-century human-rights project has come unmoored,” said Pompeo. “It needs a re-grounding. That is risky for Americans, and it is deadly for others around the world.”
Pompeo also pointed to an additional threat to America’s ability to promote human rights, arguing that “too many leading voices promulgate hatred of our founding principles.”
Our rights tradition is under assault. The New York Times’s 1619 project so named for the year that the first slaves were transported to America, wants you to believe that our country was founded for human bondage. They want you to believe that America’s institutions continue to reflect the country’s acceptance of slavery at our founding. They want you to believe the Marxist ideology that America is only the oppressors and the oppressed. The Chinese Communist Party must be gleeful when they see the New York Times spout this ideology.
Despite his criticism of those who call the United States irreparably evil, Pompeo did not shy away from the darkest chapters of American history, such as slavery, “our nation’s gravest departure from these Founding principles.” But he rejected any moral equivalence between America’s failings and authoritarian human-rights abusers. Quoting the report, he said, “There can be no moral equivalence between rights-respecting countries that fall short in progress towards their ideals, and countries that regularly and massively trample on their citizens’ human rights.”
When Pompeo established the commission last July, it was met with criticism from human-rights advocacy organizations. They worried that Pompeo’s attempt to elevate “unalienable rights” over other human-rights claims would create a hierarchy that would harm gender equality, LGBT rights, and abortion access. Some groups even sued the State Department under a law requiring that such commissions be “fairly balanced.”
Following Pompeo’s remarks yesterday, many of these groups claimed repeated those objections. Amnesty International condemned the State Department’s move to “cherry-pick rights in order to deny some their human rights.” The Center for American Progress said that the report does “plenty to undermine human rights defenders on the front lines of change around the world.” These critics were referring to Pompeo’s elevation of religious freedom and property rights as the cornerstones of this fundamental-rights tradition and to his assertion that not every right claimed by activists and international bodies can realistically be the focus of U.S. foreign policy.
They say that Pompeo’s outlook encourages authoritarian governments that seek to prioritize certain classes of rights over others. The Chinese Communist Party, for example, asserts the primacy of economic and social rights, justifying political crackdowns in the name of economic development. However, the critics fail to grasp that these regimes will continue to abuse human rights no matter the hierarchy of rights shaping the work of American diplomats, trafficking in all manner of distortions and lies to justify their human-rights violations.
The vision articulated by Pompeo and the Unalienable Rights Commission could actually do much to hold authoritarian countries accountable by homing in on the fundamental rights that they violate. The report is not the rollback of human rights that the critics fear. Even as Pompeo acknowledged a limit to America’s capacity to combat human-rights violators, he and the commission both re-commit the United States to the international-rights principles that come from universally recognized values. While the report does stress the importance of respecting national sovereignty, both the commission’s work and Pompeo’s remarks suggest an internationalist orientation to rights promotion grounded in pragmatic diplomacy.
This amounts to a notable divergence from President Trump’s foreign-policy instincts. After all, the 1948 Universal Declaration is the U.N. document that underpins the international human-rights architecture. It’s no secret that the president places a high premium on making deals, talking tough, and attacking multilateral arrangements — priorities that often conflict with promoting human rights. For his part, Pompeo says that human rights “ought to be the bedrock of our every diplomatic endeavor.” As he mulls a future presidential bid, Pompeo’s Unalienable Rights Commission has the potential to shift the debate on Republican foreign policy, perhaps re-orienting it from America First nationalism.