Legacy of the Unalienable Rights Commission: Discussion with Dr. Peter Berkowitz, Director of the Policy Planning Office, U.S. Department of State

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In May 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced formation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, tasked with reexamining human rights in U.S. foreign policy.  The very concept of “unalienable rights” proved immediately controversial with “traditional” human rights organizations, and four of them sued the State Department in federal court, claiming the Commission was unbalanced in its view on human rights.  The Commission completed its work in August with a report outlining how “unalienable rights” – the rights inherent in all persons – inform the Declaration, and the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, and how unalienable rights should inform U.S. foreign policy.

Human Rights organizations continue to write that they are alarmed by the Commission, arguing that it is the basis of a “pick-and-choose” version of human rights.  Mary Ann Glendon, the Commission’s chair, recently stated, in a curated discussion with Secretary Pompeo, that human rights should be independent of sovereign decision making: “[I]f there are no rights that exist independently of the sovereign, then we are in a world where the strong do what they will and the weak and the vulnerable suffer the consequences.” 

Are the Commission’s concerns different from the concerns that have been traditionally expressed in international human rights law, and, if so, what does the future hold for the Commission’s report? 


Dr. Peter Berkowitz, Director of the Policy Planning Office, U.S. Department of State




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