Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday that the American way of life and its founding principles are “under attack,” focusing his criticism on voices in the mainstream news media and protesters who have torn down statues of historical figures …“And yet today, the very core of what it means to be an American, indeed the American way of life itself, is under attack. Instead of seeking to improve America, leading voices promulgate hatred of our founding principles,” he said in his speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. ...Pompeo had harsh criticism for the New York Times’s 1619 Project, on the history of American slavery, saying its underlying message was that “our country was founded for human bondage.”“They want you to believe the Marxist ideology that America is only the oppressors and the oppressed,” he said. “The Chinese Communist Party must be gleeful when they see the New York Times spout their ideology.”
Perhaps those oddities might be due to the underlying reason for him speaking — the release of the draft report from the Commission on Unalienable Rights that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo convened last year to some controversy. Over the weekend, the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts read that report, and it’s an odd document.
The commission is seeking public comment on the draft report, and so far the reviews have been mixed at best. Let’s avail ourselves of the freedom of the press and make my public comment super-public! I’ve adopted the form — useful in evaluating this State Department’s output — of how I would grade this if it was, say, a Fletcher School capstone project.
Dear Esteemed Commissioners,
You were given a hard assignment. As your chair, Mary Ann Glendon, said in Philadelphia, Secretary of State Pompeo did not give you much in the way of guidance. First, you were to ground your work “in the principles of the U.S. founding and in the principles of the international human rights project — specifically the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Second, you were to keep your work “at the level of [principle] and not to get involved in policy.”
Credit where it’s due, the draft report fits with these instructions. You do a very solid job in particular of connecting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to America’s founding documents and the country’s idiosyncratic traditions of human rights promotion. You succeed in avoiding much in the way of policy recommendations.
That said, the draft report raises more questions than it answers. Some of these questions cannot be resolved — but some of them should be wrestled with further before publishing your final draft. In particular:
1) Why the special emphasis on property rights and religious freedom? The sentence that has garnered the most attention: “Foremost among the unalienable rights that government is established to secure, from the founders’ point of view, are property rights and religious liberty.” Secretary Pompeo stressed this in his speech as well. You further elaborate that “for the founders, property refers not only to physical goods and the fruit of one’s labor but also encompasses life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
This is odd for several reasons. First, there are obvious elements of liberty in particular that are disconnected from any conventional understanding of property rights concept. The First Amendment right to peaceably assemble, for example, seems like a core aspect of liberty and yet does not quite work as a property right per se.
Second, you pretty much fail to back up the preeminence of either property rights or religious liberty in the rest of your report. There is a paragraph or two tying them to the Declaration of Independence — and then both of these unalienable rights disappear from the rest of the report. Your claim appears to rest on little more than your assertion.
This is particularly odd because later on in the document, you refer to rights that are “fundamental” and “core concept” and “absolute or nearly so” rights. In none of these instances, however, are you referencing your core unalienable rights, but rather the right to vote, human dignity and the genocide prohibition. In other places, you reference economic and social rights but fail to connect them to the property rights that you hold dear. So I am completely unclear why your thesis paragraph is so unmoored from the rest of the document.
2) Where’s the evidence? The report is chock-full of passive, tentative claims like, “There is good reason to worry that the prodigious expansion of human rights has weakened rather than strengthened the claims of human rights and left the most disadvantaged more vulnerable,” and “The surfeit of new treaty obligations in human rights does not seem to have increased the effectiveness of human rights law.”
Where is your evidence to support these assertions? The draft report does not contain a single footnote or reference. The nice way to describe the empirical support in your text is that it is light. The less-nice way is to say that there are passages that read like an 11th-grade book report.
Do more research! Add some relevant citations!
3) You need to do a better job of acknowledging U.S. hypocrisy. It is unfortunate that Secretary Pompeo did not read this document closely. While bashing the 1619 Project and the like, he must have glossed over sections of this report, like: “The legally protected and institutionally entrenched slavery that disfigured the United States at its birth reduced fellow human beings to property to be bought, sold, and used as a means for their owners’ benefit,” and “Progress toward the securing of rights for all has often been excruciatingly slow and has been interrupted by periods of lamentable backsliding.”
Unfortunately, you need to acknowledge American hypocrisy in one or two additional places. You lament, for example, that “some of our closest traditional allies, especially in Europe, sometimes show greater eagerness to accommodate China and Russia for commercial reasons, than determination to oppose them by holding up the banner of human rights.” You’ll need to include the Trump administration on that score, too.
4) Eliminate the conceptual sloppiness. Stop using the term “nation-state” — it doesn’t mean what you think it means. Almost all of the sovereign jurisdictions in the world are not ethnically homogeneous. Just use “states.” Don’t describe the Helsinki Accords as “extralegal,” they are an example of “soft law.” Speaking of which, you rubbish the “soft law” concept and stress the importance of settled law and treaties but later state that “not every moral imperative and political priority need be translated into juridical form to demonstrate U.S. seriousness of purpose regarding human rights.” Which is it?
5) What is your purpose? In the report, you note that, “the widespread proliferation of nonlegal standards — drawn up by commissions and committees, bodies of independent experts, NGOs, special rapporteurs, etc., with scant democratic oversight — gives rise to serious concerns.” You are one of those commissions. To be blunt, why should the reader pay more attention to you than to these other bodies?
This is an uneven first effort. You have some serious revisions to hammer out. Get to work.
Provisional grade: C+.