When Rex Tillerson was secretary of state, he came under criticism for saying that promoting human rights in other countries sometimes conflicts with U.S. economic and national-security interests.
Much of the press portrayed Tillerson as being uninterested in human rights.
Now Tillerson’s successor, Mike Pompeo, has started another controversy by being too interested in them. Pompeo is starting a commission on human rights to rethink what they are and how they should fit into U.S. foreign policy.
There are two principal complaints, as related in The New York Times and The New Republic. The Trump administration is inconsistent on human rights, giving a pass to allies such as Saudi Arabia while coming down hard on adversaries such as Iran. And the commission will try to push a narrow theocratic conception of human rights, one that scants gay rights and the right to abortion.
The first complaint is correct, but not distinctive to President Trump.
No administration is or can be entirely consistent on human rights, because Tillerson was also right: The U.S. has a lot of interests and they cannot always be simultaneously pursued.
The Barack Obama administration was softer than Trump on Iran and harder on Saudi Arabia, in keeping with its own larger foreign-policy aims. (Homosexual acts are punishable by death in both countries.)
If the choice before our government were to advance human rights at all times and places or not to advance them at all, then the latter course would prevail.
The second complaint buries a real disagreement below layers of confusion and distortion. The critics are fixated on Robert P. George, a professor of politics at Princeton University who has reportedly played a leading role in formulating the commission’s vision. He is a prominent social conservative and theorist of "natural law."
Yale law professor Harold Koh told The New York Times that natural law is a threat to modern concepts of human rights, which “are based on the dignity inherent in all human beings, not on God-given rights."
This is a false opposition. Natural-law theorists, including George, believe that people have rights because they all share a human nature. (Hence the "natural" in "natural law" and "natural rights.") While most natural-law theorists believe in God, not all of them do.
The theists believe that God created humans with reason and free will because He wants them to have dignity and rights. But non-theists need not share this view about why people have reason and free will to draw the conclusion that they have inherent worth and dignity.
The Declaration of Independence compresses the thought by saying that all people "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." It’s not usually considered a theocratic document; and while Koh may consider its premise outmoded, the U.S. government has never officially taken that view.
George has twice chaired the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. He has been an outspoken defender of persecuted religious minorities from atheists to Zoroastrians, and has been involved in the fight against human trafficking. He does not advocate banning contraception, as some of his critics have ludicrously charged.
It’s true, though, that social conservatives do not believe the U.S. should prod other countries to liberalize their abortion laws.
They consider abortion to be itself a violation of human rights.
And while the U.S. should speak up against persecuting people for their sexual proclivities, social conservatives don’t want us to push other countries to recognize same-sex marriage.
In any case, the vision statement for the commission, which I have read, makes no reference one way or the other to abortion or gay rights, let alone to contraception.
Whether a human-rights commission can be successful in this administration is another story. While inconsistency is a feature of every administration, Trump has been more rhetorically hostile to human rights than any other modern president.
He has a long record of praising foreign dictators for their strength. During the presidential campaign, he advocated war crimes before reversing himself. Trump’s administration has separated migrant children from their parents in order to deter them from coming.
These are among the reasons that George has been a tough critic of the president (while also praising him on some issues). They’re also why the more serious and thoughtful the commission’s work is, the more jarring it will be.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of "The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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