Mark Silk: Don’t Write Off the State Department’s New Commission on Unalienable Rights Just Yet

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on July 18, 2019. Photo by Michael Gross/State Department/Public Domain

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college’s Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


Earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took to the opinion section of The Wall Street Journal to announce the creation of a departmental Commission on Unalienable Rights. This new advisory group, he wrote, “won’t opine on policy” — which presumably means that, for example, it won’t be recommending U.S. sanctions against Saudi Arabia for violating the human rights of Jamal Khashoggi.

Rather, the commission is intended to “generate a serious debate,” Pompeo explained, about what human rights really are.

In Pompeo’s view, this is a matter of great urgency, because where 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.”

Thus, in the words of its charter, the commission “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.”

Although the reference to “natural law and natural right” is a bit murky, the ideological signals seem clear enough. American conservatives have long been hostile to efforts to expand the definition of human rights beyond a basically libertarian point of view of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence’s “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In line with this, Pompeo appears interested in having the commission push back against international agreements (to which the U.S. is signatory) that declare economic rights to food, shelter and heath care, and which recognize the specific rights of women, children and people with disabilities.

Nor is it difficult to imagine the 10-member commission going along with this agenda, dominated as it is by conservatives. The chair, Harvard law professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon, is a public intellectual on the Catholic right who has spoken out against same-sex marriage and been active in the pro-life movement. She has never recanted her vigorous defense of the church’s most notorious pedophile, Marcial Maciel Degollado.

And yet, Glendon is no libertarian when it comes to human rights. Her best-known book, “Rights Talk,” from 1991, laments the absence in America’s founding documents of discussion of duties and responsibilities for the common good. As she writes, “The relative inconspicuousness, in American law, of individual and collective duties to come to the aid of others, cannot be said to be without consequences for the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, and those who … are at especially high risk.”

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Source: Religion News Service