Advocacy letter July 22, 2020
Comments on the Commission on Unalienable Rights' Draft Report
Freedom House urges the commission to take the following concerns under consideration in its final report.
Commission on Unalienable Rights
US Department of State
2201 C Street Northwest
Washington, DC 20520
Freedom House appreciates the hard work that went into the creation of your report, and we hope it will help catalyze bipartisan support for a strong US foreign policy centered on human rights and democracy.
Importantly, the commission recognizes the serious dangers to democracy and human rights in the world today, such as the fraying consensus behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, continuing gross violations in places like North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and China, and the erroneous claim by the Chinese government and other authoritarian regimes that political and civil rights are incompatible with economic and social progress.
The report’s conclusions reiterate many views long held by Freedom House: “It is urgent to vigorously champion human rights in US foreign policy” (p. 55). “The more the United States succeeds in modeling [the human rights principles] it champions, the more powerful will be its message and the more inspiring its example for people longing for freedom” (p. 56). “Human rights are universal and indivisible” (p. 56).
These are crucial ideas that should guide the actions of US policymakers and around which all Americans can rally.
Although we agree with these statements, we are concerned that the commission’s views on the vital importance of human rights are not held uniformly throughout the Trump administration, and we worry that some of the report’s language could be used by policymakers to justify ignoring or undermining certain rights.
In fact, the administration’s own words and actions have sometimes contributed to the “crisis” facing human right norms that the commission notes in its report (p. 5). President Trump himself has routinely overlooked or explicitly excused human rights abuses by authoritarian regimes in partner countries, such as Egypt, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia, and has praised or sought to ingratiate himself with oppressive leaders in countries such as China, Russia, and North Korea.
On domestic policy, the commission specifically notes the current movement for racial justice in the United States, stating that “with the eyes of the world upon her, America must show the same honest self-examination and efforts at improvement that she expects of others” (p. 4). Yet the administration has largely rebuffed public pressure for reform, the president has called for the suppression of related protests, and Secretary Pompeo spoke dismissively of the movement in his remarks accompanying the release of this very report.
We are also concerned that the report could provide justification for a troubling diminution of certain rights, or rights for certain people, especially LGBT+ people, women, and minority groups. By emphasizing religious liberty and property rights as unalienable rights and contrasting them with positive rights, the report implies a hierarchy of rights. We do not believe that there is or should be such a hierarchy. And though the report states that “a degree of pluralism in respecting rights does not imply cultural relativism,” and cites Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who said, “we cannot let cultural relativism become the last refuge of repression” (p. 55), the document’s repeated mentions of states’ varying cultural practices and traditions seem to empower relativistic views, both here in the United States and abroad. We believe this language, as well as the implication of a rights hierarchy, could lend support to authoritarian rulers who seek to ignore universal human rights on the basis of supposed cultural differences.
The report also warns against the acceptance of “new” rights without careful consideration and broad support. As mentioned in my testimony before the commission, Freedom House recognizes that humanity’s understanding of democracy and human rights evolves over time, as various nations, communities, and individuals struggle for inclusion. Poor people, enslaved people, women, ethnic and religious minorities, victims of ethnic cleansing and genocide—all have worked in different eras and different places to secure their liberty, and democratic institutions have expanded accordingly. This process should be encouraged, not viewed with suspicion or resisted. Freedom House believes that when women are not considered full citizens, or people are persecuted because of their language, or LGBT+ people are scapegoated and beaten, or people cannot freely practice their religion, the freedoms of all and democracy itself are in danger.
While the commission correctly points out that US policymakers face difficult choices on how to expend limited resources to address human rights abuses, it should be plainly stated that human rights and other national priorities need not be mutually exclusive. Human rights, national security, and economic success are interconnected, and the strongest economic and security policies are those that carefully consider and incorporate human rights principles. The full observance of human rights under democratic rule fosters long-term stability and prosperity, and the treaty alliances on which US security depends are grounded in shared democratic values.
We urge the commission to take our concerns under consideration in its final report. It is our genuine hope that the commission’s work will help renew the centrality of human rights to US foreign and domestic policy, for this administration and those to come, and we appreciate the opportunity to submit our comments.
Michael J. Abramowitz
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