One week ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rolled out the US Commission on Unalienable Rights. The Commission is being formed to help rescue human rights discourse from politicization. President Trump and Secretary Pompeo deserve praise for launching this initiative, which is the first of its kind.
“The time is ripe for an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy,” Pompeo told the press as he introduced the chair of the new Commission (and Pompeo’s law professor and mentor), Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School, during a press briefing at the State Department. Pompeo decried the politicization of human rights discourse, which has degenerated into a cacophony of demands from special interest groups. He described how, more often than not, “human rights” claims are made for social and economic entitlements as opposed to basic human rights. Indeed, judging by the disproportionate emphasis on economic and social rights in international institutions, one might think it was the Soviet Union that won the Cold War.
The corruption of human rights is especially glaring on social issues. The multilateral system promotes abortion, social acceptance of homosexuality, surrogacy, legal prostitution, sex education for pre-schoolers, and other such oddities under the guise of promoting human rights.
The role of the Commission will be to advise the Secretary of State on the global landscape of human rights discourse. It will attempt to distill those human rights that are “unalienable”—and are therefore in line with our nation’s tradition of individual freedom and self-government—as opposed to mere “privileges” granted by states to their citizens. The name of the Commission is appropriately drawn from the Declaration of Independence, which refers to self-evident truths and unalienable rights.
If the Commission is able to help steer human rights discourse internationally toward a more principled and coherent ideology of rights, it would certainly be a welcome result. But it is going to take significant political will and resources to actually achieve this. In the past, Republican administrations have been unwilling or unable to dedicate this kind of resources to changing the human rights paradigm.
So, will the Commission be able to deliver on its stated goals? That will depend entirely on the ability of the Republican administration to influence a recalcitrant United Nations and US State Department bureaucracy.
International Policymaking and the Corruption of Human Rights
International policy is often derided by conservatives as non-binding and insignificant, especially when it comes to social policy. The only problem is, it isn’t.
Even though most implements of international policy are not binding on states, they are not insignificant. For example, UN resolutions are, in fact, binding on UN agencies and the international bureaucracy that runs the multilateral system. Moreover, even though they are not strictly binding, entire nations are designing their laws and political systems based on the human rights standards worked out within the multilateral system. Academics and activists promote these standards as binding law. These standards currently include abortion on demand, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and the buying and selling of children through commercial surrogacy, just to name a few of the more egregious items promoted as human rights norms in the multilateral system.
How did we ever get here?
The reason human rights are corrupted is that the left almost completely controls the international policy space where new human rights discourse is minted every day. Conservatives have ignored this reality, apparently failing to understand its importance. They have conceded the battle ground of human rights entirely to the left. Whether it is because of complacency following the collapse of the Soviet Union, distrust and skepticism about international institutions, or a legalistic vision of foreign relations that downplays non-binding international policy, Republicans simply don’t engage on issues of international human rights policy the way that Democrats do.
The United Nations is little more than a blip on the horizon of US conservative institutions and politicians. There are barely a handful of conservative journalists and intellectuals who closely follow the dealings of the United Nations. The left, on the other hand, has skillfully woven a web of domestic and international funding streams, organizations, personnel, and policies, ensuring that the United Nations and US State Department bureaucracies will lean to the left for decades to come.
Working with their European counterparts, the Clinton and Obama administrations used the multilateral system to shape human rights discourse and advance their social policy goals to great effect, promoting abortion, same-sex marriage, and gender ideology. They have expended hundreds of thousands of man hours to advance these goals and institutionalize them as State Department priorities. These priorities remain in place, even under Republican administrations.
Republicans, on the other hand, have done little to nothing to affect international discourse on human rights and social policy, either through the United Nations or within the State Department. They have limited themselves to great symbolic gestures and political statements that are soon forgotten. You’d have to go back to the Mexico City Policy in 1984 and Michael Novak’s work on the UN treaty on civil and political rights to find a lasting conservative influence on UN policy. The most US conservatives have done over the last twenty years is threaten to cut UN funding and withdraw from the Human Rights Council. Ironically, both these moves tend to reduce the influence of the United States on the multilateral system.
An Open Question
Can the US Commission on Unalienable Rights help correct the international human rights paradigm? Maybe. At the very least, the formation of the Commission shows that conservatives are finally waking up to the threat of international social policy spaces. It could be the beginning of something very good and valuable. But it all depends on how the Trump Administration and Secretary Pompeo are able to translate the suggestions of the Commission into policy for the State Department and the United Nations System.
That will require the president to exercise his executive prerogative to interpret the US Constitution and the international obligations of the United States in the broadest possible sense. This could go so far as to include refusing to follow the constitutional lucubrations of the US Supreme Court on thorny issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. When Clinton and Obama were in power, they had no qualms about promoting their own interpretations of the Constitution and international law, however outlandish, to support the cause of abortion and LGBT “rights” internationally. Whether Republicans will display the same creativity and persistence in promoting life and the family internationally is still an open question.
Without a doubt, US State Department and UN bureaucrats are scoffing at Pompeo’s Commission while they wait for the next Democratic administration to control the White House. Whether it is in two or six years’ time does not matter to them. They can’t be fired.
Can the Trump administration make them regret their scoffing? That is the question.