Early last month, Secretary Pompeo announced the formation at the State Department of an advisory Commission on Unalienable Rights, chaired by Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon.
In an Op Ed in The Wall Street Journal, Secretary Pompeo explains that the purpose of the Commission will be to generate a serious, substantive, and far-reaching debate about human rights, one that revisits the most basic questions: What are human rights, correctly understood? What is their essential nature? Why do we have rights and where do they come from, the generosity of the state or the hand of God? And when someone claims that something is a human right, how can we determine if the claim is valid?
The answers to such questions are urgently important. For, as Secretary Pompeo points out, the concept of human rights once united people across the world in fervent efforts to secure fundamental freedoms against recognized evils like Nazism and communism. Unfortunately, over time, human rights advocacy lost its bearings as the core concept of human rights was repeatedly redefined – inflated and overextended – to include every sort of positive entitlement that might be created and granted by the state.
The Secretary is concerned that the endless proliferation of rights claims has blurred the fundamentally important distinction between universal unalienable rights and ad hoc rights granted by government. This proliferation has led to division and discord as the advocates for particular state-granted rights compete for public support. The concept of human rights has been further debased by authoritarian regimes appealing to contrived rights to advance their agendas.
The confused and frequently conflicting rights discourse has made it increasingly difficult to keep public understanding focused on the fundamentally important fact that universal unalienable rights – the natural endowment of every member of the human family – are absolutely essential to the establishment and preservation of human liberties.
America, of course, was founded on a commitment to recognize, respect, and protect the unalienable rights of a sovereign people. The Framers enacted the Constitution and established the rule of law to secure our natural rights and to protect each of us from the abuses that flow from unbounded power.
Secretary Pompeo looks to the newly formed Commission to provide him with advice on human rights that is grounded in our nation’s founding principles so that those principles can guide our nation’s foreign policy. As he noted in his Op Ed, he hopes that the work of the Commission will “ground our understanding of human rights in a manner that will both inform and better protect essential freedoms – and underscore how central these ideas are not only to Americans, but to all humanity.”
The Commission’s formation is timely, its work important, and not just for our foreign policy. The blurred distinction between unalienable natural rights and state-created positive entitlements has complicated and confused our public debates on law and public policy for years. Our public discourse would be greatly improved by a serious, substantive, and far-reaching domestic debate about our rights, one that is firmly grounded in our nation’s founding principles.
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J. Kennerly Davis, Jr. is a former Deputy Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Virginia. He currently serves on the Executive Committee of the Administrative Law & Regulation Practice Group for the Federalist Society.