'Unalienable Rights' Made America Great | Opinion

The international human rights project stands at a crossroads between the doctrine of natural rights espoused by the Declaration of Independence and a progressive view that treats human rights as the pragmatic result of historical processes and power disparities.

At a time when specious human rights claims proliferate at the United Nations and other international treaty organizations, the recent draft report issued by the State Department's Commission on Unalienable Rights is a timely tour de force in defense of natural rights. Perhaps even more importantly, the report reminds Americans of the Founding principles that make this nation great at a time when many are questioning the moral basis of the regime.

As the report acknowledges, the Declaration of Independence is among the greatest expressions of natural rights doctrine. For the first time in human history, that document invoked "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" to establish a political community based on the self-evident truth 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."

Contrary to the Hegelian and Wilsonian view that human rights are the product of historical processes and social "progress," the Founders understood that unalienable rights stem from human nature itself. Despite inequalities in intelligence, social condition, wealth or appearance, human beings possess a fundamental, qualitative equality. All humans are equal to one another in a way that humans and animals are not. No person is born a natural ruler, just as there are none who are born to be ruled. As Thomas Jefferson later wrote, "the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately."

Because unalienable rights are universal and rooted in human nature, the report calls them "pre-political in the sense that they are not created by persons or society." Those who signed the Declaration believed that it was to "secure these rights that Governments are instituted among Men." Such rights include the "negative" rights to life, to enjoy private property and to exercise religious liberty. "Positive" rights, by contrast, owe their existence to civil society and its traditions or preferences. Such rights vary from country to country, according to local law and custom.

Yet it is precisely these positive rights that progressives seek to elevate at the expense of unalienable rights. No wonder President Woodrow Wilson said that "if you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface." In other words, the Declaration should be understood as a pragmatic, time-bound response to historical grievances rather than as a timeless expression of universal human rights. According to the progressive view, it is historical contingency, not permanent principle, that undergirds human rights.

No wonder, then, that The New York Times warns that the report's distinction between unalienable rights and positive rights "could reverse the country's longstanding belief that 'all rights are created equal.'" The Times makes the strange claim that "all rights are created equal" without attribution, perhaps because it has no basis in either the American Founding or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As the Commission's report observes, all basic human rights are interdependent, but some norms—such as the prohibition against genocide—cannot legitimately be set aside by any nation-state. Other rights, such as the protection of privacy, "allow of considerable variation in state practices."

The genius of the Declaration is not the assertion that all rights are created equal, but rather that all men are created equal. Rejecting time-bound historicism, Abraham Lincoln called the Declaration "an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times." It was to this truth that Lincoln, standing at Gettysburg, re-consecrated the American experiment in self-government. And it is this truth that makes America exceptional. Even when the United States has fallen short of its principles, as it did with the sin of race-based slavery, the distinctive natural rights tradition of the Founding ultimately helped to conquer those shortcomings. It has proven a blessing to all nations.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ANDREW HARNIK/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Today, however, human rights bodies at the United Nations (UN) and other international organizations are more interested in promoting new "rights" that lack any grounding in human nature or international law than they are in protecting the unalienable rights of oppressed peoples in China, Cuba or Venezuela. For example, even though no international treaty recognizes a "right to abortion," member-states are forced to report to UN monitors about the extent to which they permit abortion in their countries. One analysis showed that during a recent cycle of treaty compliance review, recommendations concerning abortion increased 155 percent over the previous cycle, and nearly 60 percent of those recommendations directly called for liberalization of national abortion laws.

These new "rights" are often contrary to natural rights and lack the near-universal consensus of those listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Further, efforts to force these novel rights claims on member-states erodes national sovereignty, which the Commission's report calls a "crucial condition for securing human rights." After all, "it is typically at the level of the national political community that human rights can be protected best." When nations commit human rights abuses, the problem is not sovereignty, but rather its flawed exercise.

The UN is presently undertaking a review of its treaty bodies, with an eye toward reform. Motivated by a progressive view of rights, these treaty bodies engage in activism outside the scope of internationally agreed human rights treaties, raising questions about their independence and impartiality. Too often, it seems the real goal is to impose the liberal positive rights currently ascendant in developed countries onto developing countries that generally hold more traditional customs and mores. The United States should engage the UN's treaty body review and urge substantial reform. Thanks to the Commission's report, it is now well-equipped to do so.

The report helps Americans—and the world—distinguish between rights claims that are woven into the fabric of human existence and those that are advanced by activists hoping to clothe their desired policy outcomes in the language of rights. Now more than ever, Americans need the Commission's reminder of those Founding principles that made this nation great. Refocusing on those principles and situating unalienable human rights within the State Department's multidimensional foreign policy framework is essential to effectively confronting the great human rights abusers of our day.

Josh Craddock is an affiliated scholar with the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.