The U.S. State Department recently released a document titled ‘Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights’, with the purpose of clarifying and assessing the role of human rights in U.S. foreign policy. Immediately, a coalition of over 200 human rights groups, former government officials, and academic experts released a letter condemning the report, saying it will undermine U.S. commitment to human rights and undermine the cause of human rights around the world.
Due to frustration (to put it mildly!) with the Trump administration, it’s hard to refrain from knee jerk criticism and cynicism about anything the State Department produces. Nevertheless, the report raises important points in a thoughtful way, and therefore merits careful consideration.
The letter has three main complaints. The first relates to the makeup of the committee that composed it and the limited opportunity for outside input. While those are legitimate points, I’ll set them aside here.
Human Rights Are All Equal
The first substantive complaint has to do with a key philosophical component of the human rights movement, the inseverable nature of rights. This the claim that all human rights are equally inviolate, and none may be deemed of lesser importance and then sacrificed in the name of supposedly greater ones.
Inseverability is an absolutely necessary safeguard. Without it troublesome rights wouldn’t make it to breakfast without winding up on the serving platter and disfavored individuals shouldn’t even bother getting out of bed. A government fed up with free speech can ban it- but look how good we are about guaranteeing education to everyone and access to healthcare! Don’t we deserve a pass? Yes we do torture dissidents and people accused of certain crimes don’t get a fair trial, but those are only a small number of people! Look how content the masses are with the stability and economic security we’ve designed. The response to any claims of this nature this must be a resounding no. All human rights must be respected for everyone. Noble ends cannot justify oppressive means.
To its credit, the State Department report explicitly affirms the interdependence of all rights. What rankles the report’s opponents is that it then says that in practice when conducting foreign policy the U.S. has to set priorities and pick its battles. It cannot react to all human rights violations everywhere the same.
While the practical rationale for this is obvious, the report seeks to also ground this in philosophical terms. It refers to a longstanding tension that goes back to the earliest attempts to lay out human rights, the conflict between rights that are primarily political and those that are economic.
Economic Rights vs Political
The Soviet Union and its allies gave primacy to economic rights- the right to healthcare, food, and shelter, claiming that without these other freedoms are worthless. Western nations such as the United States put a primary emphasis on political rights. Health insurance for every citizen, for example, has never been a clear priority in the United States but was seen as a necessary responsibility of government in the Soviet Union.
In the end, both basic economic and political rights were included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The report claims that this was with the understanding that while both political and economic rights are desirable, countries would be free to prioritize the pursuit of these as they wished. So the vast gulf between communist Russia and the capitalist West did not mean per se that either side was not living up to its human rights commitments, just that they had equally valid but different approaches or priorities on how to do so.
The report is making a valid point. Until we reach the Messianic era, no government will be able to guarantee the entire gamut of human rights completely for all its people. Priorities must be set. What opponents of the report are truly worried about, I believe, is that the department will use the necessity of trade offs to overlook violations by U.S. allies while harping on those by U.S. foes, turning human rights into just another political weapon. We certainly should criticize the makers of U.S. foreign policy whenever they do this. Nevertheless, the fundamental claim that human rights advocacy necessitates judgement and trade offs can’t be brushed aside.
Skeptical of Expansion
The second substantive complaint has to do with the section of the document which views expansion of human rights with a skeptical eye. The document notes that the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the U.N. in 1948 was a tremendous achievement. It was extremely difficult (and some thought it would be impossible) to get representatives from nations spread all across the globe, coming from different legal, religious, and cultural traditions, to agree on universal rights. Success depended on keeping the list of rights basic, limited to values all people share.
Here is what the State Department document says about the expansion of human rights in its conclusion:
The fact is that the power of the universal human rights idea is strongest when grounded in principles so widely accepted as to be beyond legitimate debate; it is weakest when it is employed in disputes among competing groups in society over political priorities. Such political disputes are usually best left up to resolution through ordinary democratic processes of bargaining, education, persuasion, compromise, and voting. The tendency to fight political battles with the vocabulary of human rights risks stifling the kind of robust discussion on which a vibrant democracy depends. The effort to shut down legitimate debate by recasting contestable policy preferences as fixed and unquestionable human rights imperatives promotes intolerance, impedes reconciliation, devalues core rights, and denies rights in the name of rights (p. 57).
No need to beat around the bush. Even though the document doesn’t specify, clearly the issues the writers have in mind are some of the bitter cultural disputes being litigated in the U.S. today- gay marriage, abortion, and the like.
I personally believe that gay marriage should be legal, and decisions about abortion should be up to the mother. That said, the State Department is still making a valid point.
Human Rights Views Are A Small Subset of Our Opinions
We need to recognize the vast chasm between human rights and all the rest of our views. We purport human rights to be universal- that small subset of rights that are so inherent in our humanity that they apply to all people at all times, regardless of religion, culture, or nationality. Of course, our belief systems are in fact shaped by our religion, culture, and nationality. So it’s only natural that we all hold many opinions that go far beyond human rights.
Human rights must therefore be a subset of our beliefs and opinions, not their entirety. We need the humility to step back and admit that many causes that we feel strongly about are not matters of human rights, just opinions about rights we believe people ought to have. For example, I believe that a woman should have the freedom to make her own decisions about abortion. But I also recognize that those who seek to define life as beginning early in pregnancy are not necessarily attempting an affront to basic human dignity- they may just have a different religious or legal tradition to draw on.
This distinction is in fact critical to the widespread acceptance of human rights. The biggest difficulty in winning acceptance for human rights is making clear that the human rights movement is an attempt to establish a limited number of absolute values that benefit us all, not a means for one group to impose its values on others. So we absolutely must be skeptical of any human rights claim to make sure it is not just an opinion, that while perfectly legitimate, has been inflated by passion or ego into an argument about inalienable human dignity which it is not.
U.S. Needs to Live Up to The Report
While this report somewhat limits human rights considerations in U.S. foreign policy, that’s not what should disappoint us. The real problem is the U.S. failing to live up to the human rights responsibilities that the report acknowledges. The report declares grandiosely in its introduction:
There can be no moral equivalence, however, between rights-respecting countries that fall short in progress toward their ideals, and countries that regularly and massively trample on their citizens’ human rights.
There’s no doubt on which side of this divide Secretary Pompeo sees the United States. In fact, much of the report is dedicated to flattering the United States for its contributions to and leadership of the human rights movement. But sadly, I’m not sure anymore that this is the way everyone would see it.
Pompeo’s boss recently sent troops in unmarked cars to round up demonstrators in Portland and had a peaceful assembly tear gassed outside his residence, regularly disparages the free press as the enemy of the people and threatens to shut down news coverage he dislikes, and delegitimizes and threatens to delay elections. And we all know these are just some of the problems with the current administration.
The role of the U.S. as a global leader for human rights is today very much in question. This is the criticism we should have for the State Department. Its report gives a limited but appropriate role for human rights in foreign policy. My complaint is that the U.S. has these last few years not shown any inclination to live up to the modest aspirations the report sets out.