On July 8, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched a Commission on Unalienable Rights, charging it with the task of rethinking the foundations of human rights in a time when “gross violations continue throughout the world, sometimes even in the name of human rights” and when “International institutions designed and built to protect human rights have drifted from their original mission.”
The State Department’s first announcement of the commission on May 30 also claimed that “[human rights] discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” In reaction, several critics publicly decried the terms “natural law” and “natural rights” as fig leaves for conservative politics, religious commitments, and the denial of abortion and LGBTQ rights. In Pompeo’s remarks on July 8, he made no mention of natural law or natural rights. Hopefully, though, the Commission will take up this language again, for it is essential for repairing the cause of human rights.
The original rationale for the Commission was plumb correct: The cause of human rights has gone awry as the most prominent human rights organizations have loudly asserted rights that have no basis in natural law. What natural law establishes is nothing less than the truth in human rights—the quality that gives these rights backbone and without which they collapse like jellyfish.
It is precisely this truth that violators of human rights make great efforts to circumvent. Sometimes they torture and execute their opponents—and sometimes even harvest their organs, as does the government in China—in dark secrecy so as to avoid the light of truth. When they do justify their actions, they deploy rhetoric designed to appeal to those around them. Why have the governments of Egypt and Syria turned their countries into torture capitals of the world? Because security and stability must be maintained and modernization must go forward. Why does Iran imprison and execute Bahá’ís? Because Bahá’ís threaten the foundation of an Islamic Republic. Why did the United States waterboard prisoners? Because the war on terrorism demanded it.
It is only truth, universal truth, that can sustain a counterclaim that there are things that nobody ought to do to anybody. In natural law thought, the core truth behind human rights is human dignity, the term that opens the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the great document that launched the global human rights movement and that Secretary Pompeo mentioned in his remarks. Dignity is rooted in reason, free will, and the person’s capacity to realize goods that are valuable for their own sake. Everyone’s obligations to respect every other person’s dignity with regard to these goods are the essence of natural law norms—do not kill, do not torture, do not unjustly imprison, do not destroy property—and these norms’ corresponding entitlements are the essence of natural rights, or human rights. Rights amount to what theorists like Ronald Dworkin and Nicholas Wolterstorff call “trump cards,” meaning that they justly override other ends or states of affairs to which violators appeal. Severed from these truths, rights are little more than the conventions or culture of this sector or that society. They are feeble in the face of caudillos, strongmen, and commandants.
When the world’s most prominent advocates of human rights abandon truth, rights easily become “corrupted or hijacked or used for dubious or malignant purposes,” as Secretary Pompeo put it. In 2007, Amnesty International, long the most venerable voice for human rights, announced that it would promote abortion rights. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have also taken up the cause, as have many western governments, including that of the United States under the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
The right to life, though, is the most basic of natural, human rights. That preborn children are persons is disputed but not disputable. Science textbooks attest that the embryo, once formed, is a unified, distinct being that has begun to develop on its own impetus. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Emma Green describes abortion rights activists as being “on high alert for what they describe as efforts to ‘humanize fetuses,’” revealing that abortion rights rely on a denial of the humanity of the preborn person. This humanity is not absent from the human rights heritage, in which the 1959 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child holds that every child “needs special safeguards and care, including legal protection, before as well as after birth.”
What follows is staggering. According to the most reliable (and conservative) figures, abortion takes the lives of twelve million people every year—at least twelve times that of the Rwandan genocide. Since abortion was first legalized by the Soviet Union in 1920, it has taken the lives of over a billion persons. Abortion even dwarfs democide—a term coined by peace researcher R. J. Rummel to define the murder of people by governments like those of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—which took 262 million lives in the twentieth century, according to Rummel. The paradox of abortion is that the largest human rights violation in the world is supported by the very community whose mission is to secure human rights.
LGBTQ rights are also in tension with truth. People with same-sex attractions merit compassion, respect, mercy, and friendship. The LGBTQ movement has taught the world this much and has brought to light the lack of such treatment in the past. Those who would promote human rights must confront the many countries where LGBTQ people are subject to cruel mistreatment, including through draconian laws.
Claims of rights to same-sex “marriage,” however, run contrary to natural law, which holds what virtually every civilization has affirmed until yesterday: namely, that marriage is an exclusive and permanent union of man and woman ordered to the intrinsic goods of life and the marital bond. It is because marriage produces children, whose welfare is integral to the common good of societies, that governments favor it through law and policy. Apart from this end, no coherent reason exists why one form of relationship but not another merits the status of marriage, whether it be gay, lesbian, polyamorous, or non-sexual—say, the bond between two lifelong roommates united by their love for backgammon. Absent a stable meaning, marriage cannot be the object of a claim to rights. It is false, then, to speak of a right to same-sex marriage. In supporting such a right, the human rights community speaks not for the conscience of mankind, to use the famous phrase of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but rather for the conscience of San Francisco, Manhattan, and London.
When the champions of human rights promote rights that are not grounded in natural law, they undermine their credibility to speak for all human beings. Those who understand the truth about human rights—as every rational person has the capacity to do—will cease to trust the human rights community. Instead, they will view it as little more than another party, faction, or lobby. Those who are confused by its claims may well give up on human rights altogether. Either way, the cause suffers, as do those whom the cause aspires to help. Once we knock the struts and joists of truth out from under human rights, then on what basis do we uphold the claims of Uighurs, Bahá’ís, and the prisoners at Guantanamo?
The task that Secretary Pompeo has bequeathed to the Commission on Unalienable Rights is sound and urgent. He closed his remarks of July 8 with a reference to Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, whose most enduring idea is the need to live in truth. By this, he meant that we must speak the truth, even when we are surrounded by lies packaged in power. For the Commission, living in truth means giving voice to natural law, natural rights, and the human rights community’s egregious departures from these principles.
Should the Commission fail to speak this truth, it will be anodyne and forgotten. If it succeeds, it will face howls of opposition yet will begin to restore the credibility of the past century’s most important movement for justice.