Donald Trump is not known as a supporter of international human rights. However, late last week, the Trump State Department announced a new Commission on Unalienable Rights to provide advice and recommendations regarding international human rights policy. Advocacy NGOs are likely to be unhappy, as the commission is likely to attack many of their preferred policies, using human rights — albeit a very different set of rights than most activists prefer — as a justification.
The United Nations likes to argue that there is an “indivisible” rights culture in which “the improvement of one right facilitates advancement of the others.” The new U.S. initiative suggests this may be wrong.
The commission will focus on natural law and natural rights
As its anachronistic title suggests, the Commission on Unalienable Rights will focus on how current “human rights discourse” has “departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” Those principles, their scope and application were controversial when the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” In the Revolutionary era, slaves, women and men without property experienced a notably different reality.
Natural rights have remained controversial to this day, and the expression itself has fallen out of fashion. Today’s more common term, “human rights,” remains equally contentious. It has lost its relation to divine creation and may now be associated with the political left, but any group with any ideology can use the resonant language of rights to push its own agenda.
Unalienable rights are going to be all about traditional values
The Trump Commission on Unalienable Rights is likely to champion the “natural family” and “traditional values.” As one of its first official acts, the Trump administration reimposed the “Mexico City policy,” also known as the global gag rule, banning support for international family planning programs that perform, promote or offer information about abortion.
The United States has sought to purge all references to “sexual and reproductive health” at the United Nations since 2017. This term, favored by mainstream human rights activists, is viewed by conservatives as code for abortion, gay and transgender rights, as well as other acts or identities that they see as “unnatural.” In April, the United States threatened to veto a Security Council resolution on sexual violence in war zones unless the term was removed, pleasing “traditional values” groups around the world.
Another likely commission favorite will be the right to individual self-defense as a justification for opposing international and domestic gun control. The National Rifle Association and its foreign allies already argue that the right to own a gun is basic to self-defense and fundamental to all other human rights. At the NRA convention in April, President Trump publicly repudiated the Arms Trade Treaty regulating the international gun trade as a threat to Americans’ Second Amendment freedoms.
Mainstream human rights organizations have ignored the right to self-defense. Instead, they have lobbied for international gun control as a means of upholding human rights, including the right to life.
Natural rights could also be used to justify a tougher stance on immigration, as the expression of the sovereign right of a people to protect its territorial integrity and established culture. This clashes with a long-standing concern of human rights groups, the rights of immigrants and refugees. But it jibes well with the sentiments of nationalist movements in Europe and elsewhere, who often promote the rights of majorities.
Finally, the new commission will look dimly on a recent growth area for many activists: rights to water, food, housing, health, development and similar social and economic issues. A natural rights approach will argue that all of these require government action and therefore are not individual human rights at all.
The commission will find allies not only among conservative Americans but also internationally. For every left-wing NGO promoting today’s dominant conceptions of human rights, there is a right-wing NGO promoting something different, often in the name of human or natural rights. For instance, in Brazil, gun rights activists have built a following around the natural right to self-defense, grounded in biblical teachings. Right-wing governments in Europe and elsewhere have taken similar stances, often using rights language with natural law overtones.
‘Human rights’ can mean many different things
Where does that leave today’s human rights activists? It should be obvious that no ideological group has a monopoly on the term “human rights.” Even the more specific terminology in international rights treaties leaves much room for debate. That includes the right to life or the “right of men and women of marriageable age to marry and to found a family” in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or the rights to free expression and association in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. All sides to conflict can and do use claims about rights to advance their goals, even when these goals clash.
If rights are ideologically empty — capable of being filled by agendas of both left and right — labeling a particular goal as a “right” will not convince opponents. Activists will need to gather political power if they wish to implement their own visions of the good society. The rhetoric of rights may be a useful way to mobilize those already sympathetic to the cause, or as a weapon for bashing opponents as rights abusers. But those terms can be used for other points of view as well.
Proclaiming rights to be “natural,” “human” or “universal” can help rouse support at home and abroad. Asserting that rights are “apolitical” and “absolute” are political gambits aimed at winning others to one’s side. It worked in the American Revolution, as colonists declared their “unalienable” rights to a “candid world” hoping for its aid — and eventually receiving it.
Despite its title, Trump’s new commission seems likely to follow in that same pattern. The conservative goals it portrays in rights language will appeal to an important segment of world opinion. But they will leave mainstream NGOs and their left-leaning audiences unmoved and still committed to defending their own vision of society. The battle over the political content of “human rights” will continue.
Clifford Bob is professor and chair of political science at Duquesne University. His latest book is “Rights as Weapons: Instruments of Conflict, Tools of Power” (Princeton University Press, 2019).