At the State Department, human rights have generally been a not-so-high priority. The big kahunas tend to focus on war and peace, allies and adversaries, national security and global economics.
So it came as something of a surprise when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week launched a bipartisan Commission on Unalienable Rights. Its task, Mr. Pompeo wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “isn’t to discover new principles but to ground our discussion of human rights in America’s founding principles.”
Commission members “will address basic questions: What are our fundamental freedoms? Why do we have them? Who or what grants these rights? How do we know if a claim of human rights is true? What happens when rights conflict? Should certain categories of rights be inextricably ‘linked’ to other rights?”
Good questions and a praise-worthy initiative, yes? Not to members of the human rights establishment and their tribunes.
The New Yorker took the lead with two of its writers attacking Mr. Pompeo and the new commission. Robin Wright’s piece was titled: “The Unbelievable Hypocrisy of Trump’s New ‘Unalienable Rights’ Panel.”
Serra Sippel, president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity, tells Ms. Wright what time it is: “It’s time to call the Commission on Unalienable Rights what it really is: a thinly veiled religious fundamentalist panel that aims to cut back the human rights of people all over the world.” (Did I mention that the panel was launched only last week?)
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch says: “We don’t need a commission to figure out that the Trump administration will have little credibility promoting human rights so long as the President continues to embrace autocrats.” She neglects to mention that last week on Twitter, Mr. Roth praised Javad Zarif, foreign minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
New Yorker staff writer Masha Gessen observes that Mr. Pompeo, a West Point graduate who previously served as a member of Congress and CIA director, “was, for many years, a Sunday-school teacher and a church deacon.” Ouch!
Mark Bromley, chair of “an L.G.B.T. foreign policy advocacy group,” tells Ms. Gessen that he “fears the State Department is about to create a hierarchy of human rights and will place religious freedom at the top of the pyramid.” He adds: “It’s pretty scary.”
Let me attempt to explain what’s going on here, drawing on the two years I served as a commissioner on the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom. FoRB, for Freedom of Religion or Belief, is not at the top of the human rights pyramid. It’s at the bottom.
To believe or disbelieve is the most foundational right. Until regimes stop punishing “thought crimes,” there is zero chance they will progress to such rights as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The development of human rights has to start somewhere, and FoRB is the logical place.
The New Yorker writers are smart enough to grasp this but don’t want anyone detouring, however briefly, from the priorities of the human rights establishment, in particular abortion rights, LGBT rights, and migrant rights.
Ms. Gessen writes: “A troubling word in Pompeo’s speech was ‘citizen.’ Did the Secretary of State mean that only the rights of citizens are inalienable?”
Of course, that’s exactly the kind of question this commission should contemplate. But I’ll take a stab at it.
America’s Founders believed that “unalienable” rights were “endowed” by the “Creator.” They were acutely aware that rulers could deprive citizens of these rights. They deemed such rulers illegitimate. They understood that only in a democratic society could rights be guaranteed.
That was to be accomplished by limiting state power. Re-read the Bill of Rights. Each amendment imposes restrictions on the government. “Congress shall make no law.” The right to bear arms “shall not be infringed.” Law officers may not conduct “unreasonable searches and seizures.”
Also significant: The Founders believed in individual rights. Later, Marxist-Leninists decreed that one’s rights should be determined by one’s economic class.
Similarly, today’s social Marxists champion “identity rights.” They insist that groups they perceive as qualifying for victim status deserve enhanced rights – to be endowed by the state – while the rights granted to groups they regard as “privileged” are to be limited.
Social justice warriors have developed the habit of asserting that a right is whatever they demand and insist the state provide. I think that’s conceptually flawed. A right is something everyone can have starting this minute because, as Jamie Kirchick observed in Commentary last year, “there is no scarcity of freedom that we must apportion in a judicious manner. There can never be a valid reason to ‘cut’ one’s natural rights.”
By contrast, health care, a “living wage,” college tuition at no cost to students, and “affordable housing” – these require resources. To provide them, the state must appropriate labor or property from some citizens to give to other citizens (or non-citizens).
Which suggests these are not “natural” or “unalienable” rights. What are they instead? Taxpayer-provided benefits, social goods, or welfare-state entitlements – a different kettle of fish.
To head the commission, Mr. Pompeo named Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard professor, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, and author of a book on Eleanor Roosevelt’s impact on human rights. She said the panel would attempt to provide clarity at a time when “basic human rights are being misunderstood by many, manipulated by many and ignored by the world’s worst human rights violators.”
A worthy mission, no? Not to the members of the human rights establishment and their tribunes.
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for the Washington Times.