It has been six years since ISIS perpetrated a genocide against Yazidis, Christians, Shiites, and other groups, inflicting mass violence and killing thousands simply because of their beliefs. Despite the United Nations Security Council’s formal recognition of this crime, not one person has been tried by an international mechanism. Perfunctory acknowledgment means nothing without real justice. Global disregard for religious freedom is a multifaceted human rights tragedy, occurring in every corner of the world. In Myanmar, almost one million Rohingya as well as other minority groups are denied eligibility for full citizenship, opening up a never-ending list of human rights abuses. In China, more than one million Muslim minorities—most notably Uighurs—have been detained in internment camps, among other widespread violations. And yet the UN systematically stops short of concrete action.
Countries such as Nigeria and Pakistan hold seats on the UN Human Rights Council, in spite of their classification as Tier 1 religious freedom violators by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom because, among other discriminatory laws and policies, they enforce blasphemy laws for “insult to religion,” which provide penalties ranging from a fine to death. India, Nepal, Myanmar, and Bhutan have anti-conversion laws that effectively ban conversion from the majority religion to another religion or no faith at all, laws that are largely ignored by the UN. As these cases reveal, the international response is tragically inadequate. The violation of religious freedom may take different forms, but it is always a breach of a person’s fundamental right to seek and express a religious identity and remain free from unjust violence.
Recognizing the global plight of religious freedom, the Commission on Unalienable Rights—a body of the US Department of State—has charted the way forward for American engagement in the world of international human rights. The Commission posits that the US has the unique capacity to revitalize the international human rights project, launched in the aftermath of World War II and now on the brink of failure. The recently released draft report of the Commission is grounded on the premise that the US has a rich national history of human rights protection that “should inform and elevate America’s conduct in the world.” It underscores that as human beings, each of us possesses unalienable human rights that are deemed such insofar as they are inherent to all persons. Astonishingly, this simple and critically needed message that fundamental rights are rooted in natural law exist has sparked outcry, even on the part of self-described defenders of human rights.
While it is the view of the Commission that fundamental rights are inextricably linked to our innate dignity, critics such as Amnesty International oppose the idea of a defined category of fundamental rights in general, and religious liberty as such a fundamental right in particular. Amnesty’s claim that the Commission “could damage human rights protections globally” reveals the depth of the disagreement at hand: we no longer agree on what constitutes a fundamental right as defined by our human nature. Given this impasse, what can save the future of international human rights? The Commission details a path based on a historical reflection on American constitutional democracy, alongside the foundations of the international human rights project. Its analysis is optimistically oriented toward the future, demonstrating that it is necessary and possible to revitalize international human rights by returning to the principles that informed their original articulations. As a result of America’s domestic heritage, we have a particular responsibility for ensuring the protection and advancement of religious freedom on the world stage.
Religious Freedom: A Fundamental Right Required for All Rights to Flourish
Religious freedom, as identified by the Commission, is a fundamental right essential to the ethos of the US from its founding. Despite the many (and ongoing) missteps of American democracy, our country was built on a solid foundation of respect for fundamental rights. These include a robust understanding of religious liberty as a broad right to exercise one’s religion freely, which transcends mere tolerance. Religious liberty allows for the flourishing of other rights in turn. The Commission explains that the reverberations of this essential right can be felt in the “guarantees of freedom of speech, press, peaceful assembly, and petition of government [that] enable citizens of diverse views to exchange opinions, to hear and be heard, and to hold their leaders up to public scrutiny.” Freedom of religion is at the crux of what makes America free.
Amnesty International, in contrast, contends that the Commission’s prioritization of religious freedom jeopardizes all other human rights. It claims that designating certain rights as fundamental “will only undermine human security, exacerbate conflict, and encourage other governments to utilize ‘cultural relativism.’” But this is not reflected in the interplay of international human rights historically or today. The origins of the international human rights project confirm that religious freedom is an essential precondition for the authentic exercise of all human rights. Contrary to what Amnesty argues, the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights did not devalue religion at all. Representing a broad array of cultural and religious perspectives, they accorded religious freedom utmost primacy as a fundamental right.
Back to Basics: The Focus on a Narrow Set of Evils
Enhanced attention to religious freedom as a fundamental right firmly established in international law is necessary in itself. However, it is also a crucial prerequisite for human rights in general. As the Commission makes clear, the US can lead the charge on the revival of the international human rights project by hinging its foreign relations on an unwavering insistence on respect for religious freedom and other fundamental rights. As the Commission so rightly points out, the international human rights project is in crisis. This is due to a specious polarization of the human rights discourse, a surge in neo-colonial ideological agendas, and the proliferation of false “rights”—all of which undermine fundamental, universally recognized human rights. Ideology often prevails, leaving preferential ideas of “rights” to trump those that are universally recognized.
Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon, chair of the Commission, explains that the international community must focus on “the systematic elimination of a narrow set of evils for which a broad consensus exists across all societies.” In an age of whirlwind emergent human rights issues and complicated considerations regarding our very essence as persons, the only realistic answer is to return to the basics.
Constructive Engagement: Practical Implications for the United States
A laser-like focus on the protection of the fundamental rights on which we can all agree—such as the cessation of genocide—is imperative for the relegitimization of the international human rights project. What does this mean at a practical level for US international engagement?
- Leverage US Influence for Reform
The US has a responsibility to exert pressure to end human rights abuses internationally, starting with those that fall under the category of the egregious but narrow set of evils that Commissioner Glendon references. American influence must be leveraged for the pursuit of human rights everywhere. An evident example is Myanmar, to which the US has granted over $18 million in COVID-19 relief. Given that country’s horrific discrimination and persecution of minority populations, it would behoove the US to ensure that serious and real efforts to reform human rights abuses accompany every humanitarian dollar. A recent Executive Order on international religious freedom mandates such an approach by directing US government agencies to consider religious freedom measures when conferring aid.
- Selective Constructive Engagement
As the Commission highlights, the US is wise to maintain “a position of selective constructive engagement” with institutions such as the UN. This is a nuanced third way of understanding American foreign policy, which transcends the tired liberal/conservative divide on international engagement. The reality is that for the foreseeable future, the influence of the UN will persist. After all, despite its penchant for bureaucratic overreach, it is the sole place of dialogue for 193 countries of the world. As the US navigates appropriate avenues to express its skepticism in international bodies (for example, withdrawing from the World Health Organization), it should also look for opportunities to remain actively engaged to protect American interests, including human rights at large.
Restricting funding, such as to the UN Population Fund over coercive abortion concerns, is necessary to spare US taxpayers the burden of supporting corrupt and inhumane systems, but that does not preclude watchful engagement. While critics demand that the US rejoin the Human Rights Council or make peace with the WHO, it should only do so following meaningful reform. Without such reform, rejoining would simply affirm the human rights distortions emanating from these bodies. The US instead should exert all possible diplomatic means to hold the international institutions accountable to their mandates and prevent unwarranted incursions on sovereignty.
- A Cautious Approach to “New” Rights
The US must proceed very carefully with regard to the proliferation of “new” human rights, which some may argue must be added to the international framework, given emerging issues and needs. Many of these may in fact be false “rights,” driven by dictators or activists “determined to bypass ordinary politics and domestic democratic processes . . . to advance agendas that are not widely shared in the community of nations,” as the Commission noted. Furthermore, ensuring that sufficient attention is paid to universally recognized human rights demands the willingness of the American government to expose false rights for what they are.
In its submission to the Commission, Amnesty International states that “the authority and competence of UN human rights treaty bodies to comment on the obligations [of States] under treaties is clear,” as are the “findings and recommendations of Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council.” And yet these bodies, tasked with interpreting the letter of international law, often issue recommendations with no clear connections to the treaties that they are mandated to uphold, thereby fueling the creation of false rights.
For example, a recent report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief encourages the liberalization of abortion laws and new “rights” based on sexual orientation and gender identity, with scant regard for urgent religious freedom violations. Beyond mere rejection, the US must bring accountability to these attempts to rewrite international law. Far from repudiating human rights, such a stance would signal the US’s commitment to the real renewal of the international human rights project.
The False Rights Agenda: Resistance to the Back to Basics Approach
The rejection of fundamental rights points to an ultimate denial of objective truth. Religious freedom, for example, allows religion to serve as a reference point for moral action. It therefore makes sense that promoters of progressive agendas would devalue religious freedom in the interest of relativistic “rights” for the radically autonomous person. The abortion-advocacy group Ipas embodies this approach. They wrote to the Commission that “religious freedom cannot be used as a basis for denying life-preserving medical care or life-sustaining economic support”—an indisputable statement distorted to argue that religious freedom impedes access to abortion. The assumption here is that abortion “rights” must trump any competing rights. Unlike religious freedom, a right to abortion is not recognized in international law. This represents the kind of false right that the Commission warns has damaged the international human rights project.
Of course, for Ipas, abortion deserves the status of fundamental right, but this is the subject of heated debate. The Commission provides a useful solution for handling the standoff. The international human rights project is strongest when “grounded in principles so widely accepted as to be beyond debate,” and “weakest when it is employed in disputes among competing groups in society over political priorities.” In accordance with this view, it recommends that controversial and very recent claims to new “rights” are best handled at the level of the democratic processes of each sovereign state. Political battles, such as the debate on abortion, should not be couched in the vocabulary of human rights. Correspondingly, the US should insist that controversial agendas be removed from the UN’s discourse when no consensus exists. Such a stance protects the integrity of the human rights project, as well as the many states that lack the ability to stand up to the UN in defense of their national laws and norms.
The Revitalization of the International Human Rights Project
Despite the innumerable failings of the international human rights project, the message of the Commission is one of optimism. The US can, and must, revive the project for its intended purpose. It is evident that the way forward will be arduous—but fundamental rights must be defended unapologetically. We must not forget that like today, there were stark disagreements over what human rights consisted of at the dawn of the international human rights project in 1948. It was the focus on a common denominator on which all states could agree that allowed for an international human rights framework to emerge.
The Commission is right to encourage a recommitment to this vision if we are to save the international human rights project. For far too long, fundamental rights have gone unheeded and crimes against humanity overlooked. Ideological preferences are heralded as “human rights,” at the expense of countless ignored atrocities. It is the role of the US to guide the international community in returning to a mindset in which respect for the basics results in tangible human rights attention.