In an extraordinary report that defies reality, the Trump administration is extolling United States’ global leadership in human rights and accusing its critics of threatening democracy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who created the US Commission on Unalienable Rights last year and ordered the report, introduced it on July 16 in Philadelphia, where the founding documents of the American republic were written in the late-18th century.
“America is special, America is good,” Pompeo said in his remarks. “America does good all around the world.” He argued further that the American Declaration of Independence had been a new, momentous idea. “Until 1776, human beings pretty much everywhere were ruled by might and brutality,” he said.
“And yet today, the very core of what it means to be an American, indeed the American way of life itself, is under attack,” Pompeo continued. “Instead of seeking to improve America, too many leading voices promulgate hatred of our founding principles.”
The culprits? The American media — singling out The New York Times — as well as Marxists generally and China in particular.
Reaction to the report was immediate.
Senator Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that the report “represents another effort by the Trump Administration to undermine internationally recognized human rights, further damaging the United States’ reputation as a global human rights leader. As feared, Pompeo used his speech to insinuate a hierarchy of rights where property rights and religious liberty are ‘foremost’ rights and some rights are not ‘worth defending.’ “
A group of five human rights and justice organizations issued a statement challenging the legality of Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights. It said: “The report is the product of a Commission that was unlawfully formed with a narrowly chosen membership made up of academics with little human rights experience and long records of opposition to the rights of women and the LBGTQI community. The Commission also unlawfully shut the public out of its work, leading Democracy Forward and four human rights organizations to file a lawsuit against the State Department.”
The release of the report took place in the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia in an event tinged with references to religion and God-given “natural” rights that could overshadow governments. The religious — Christian — element was not provided by evangelical Protestantism, however. Curiously, it was more in line with the thinking of the Vatican and conservative American Catholic leaders (and vote-influencers) in the US rather than those in Donald Trump’s political base.
Pompeo’s speech was prefaced by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, who prayed: “You — you, dear Lord — have bestowed these inalienable rights — not kings, tyrants, or any government; rights flowing from the innate human dignity of the person and the sacredness of all human life. You have made self-evident in reason and nature celebrated in your own revelation.”
The head of the commission and presider at the event, Mary Ann Glendon, is an emerita law professor at Harvard University and was US ambassador to the Holy See from 2008 to 2009. She also represented the Vatican at international conferences, including the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women. At the Beijing gathering, she contested the use of condoms for preventing HIV and AIDS. Glendon mentored Pompeo when he was a Harvard Law student.
Glendon, a Roman Catholic, grew up in the small Berkshires town of Dalton, Mass. Dalton was once a company town — controlled by the Crane Paper Company, which by the late 1800s became the only supplier of currency paper to the US mint. Dalton’s Main Street is dominated by brick municipal-government buildings and the town’s Catholic church, Saint Agnes.
The Glendons — an extended family, originally from Ireland — was esteemed in Dalton, and some Glendons still live there. (Glendon’s mother was from the area but a “Yankee,” as Mary Ann Glendon describes her.) Dalton leans left politically, like most of the Berkshires, and it even has a small house-museum that was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Glendon was a Democrat who voted for John Kennedy for president in 1960, and while working in Chicago as a lawyer after getting her degree from the University of Chicago, she became active in the civil-rights movement. At the time, in Mississippi, she met another young lawyer activist, a Black man, and they were married in a civil ceremony. The marriage didn’t last long; in 1970, Glendon married Edward Lev, a labor lawyer she had known from Chicago.
At some point, Glendon switched allegiances to the Republican Party, and George W. Bush nominated her as US ambassador to the Holy See, based on her strong public anti-abortion stance. One Harvard-educated historian said Glendon is the classic conservative that Republicans turn to when they set up commissions. In 2009, she declined to accept Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal, after learning that President Obama was the speaker at the commencement ceremony. Obama supported legal abortion.
In his remarks in Philadelphia, Pompeo referred repeatedly to the 1948 United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and seemed to endorse it, but with reservations and cautions about its use. At the end of the 60-page Commission report, much of it historical, the authors, led by Glendon, said what they really thought about the Universal Declaration and challenges to human rights in the US. (Glendon is also the author of “A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”)
“The Universal Declaration’s weaving of civil and political rights together with economic, social, and cultural rights into an integrated whole poses a certain challenge for the United States,” the report says.
“The increase in rights claims, in some ways overdue and just, has given rise to excesses of its own,” the authors argue. “Not all government forbearance or intervention that benefit some or even all citizens is for that reason a right, and not every right that democratic majorities choose to enact is therefore unalienable. The temptation to cloak a contestable political preference in the mantle of human rights, which are held to be objectively and universally true, and seek a final and binding judgment from a court, tends to choke off democratic debate, which is itself critical to self-government and therefore to the protection of unalienable rights.”
UN rights institutions, the report notes, can be key to promoting universal norms. “At the same time these institutions are rife with serious flaws . . . they lack democratic legitimacy inasmuch as they vest enormous discretion in the professional elites who staff their permanent bureaucracies. . . . Moreover, the quality of their work is hugely variable, and even the more serious institutions are often ineffective in accomplishing their basic purposes. Under these circumstances, maintaining a position of selective constructive engagement with international human rights institutions is reasonable.”
As an example, the US defended its decision to leave the Human Rights Council in 2018 using this rationale.
The authors of the report couldn’t be more confident. “Our survey of American rights principles reveals a tradition that, even as it is grounded in universal principles, is both distinctive and dynamic,” they say. “Its distinctiveness is the product of a unique blend of intellectual influences and historical experiences, and its dynamism is powered by a persistent argument among Americans about what kind of society we are and what kind of society we wish to be.”
How that sentiment relates to the words of the Declaration of Independence, so fulsomely embraced by Pompeo, is apparently not part of the report.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” the declaration says.
Life? More than 140,000 Americans have died in a ruinous government response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Liberty? Children locked in metal cages along the Mexican border, their parents somewhere far away in detention. The pursuit of happiness? Ask women whose reproductive health rights are constantly attacked or the peaceful mass marchers protesting police brutality who were assaulted and tear-gassed in front of the White House.
The Declaration’s words couldn’t seem more dissonant in the current political moment in American history.
Dulcie Leimbach contributed reporting from Dalton, Mass.
KEEP DEMOCRACY ALIVE: PLEASE DONATE TO PASSBLUE, A NONPROFIT MEDIA SITE BASED IN NEW YORK CITY
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.