Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a report on human rights last week. Written by a commission he appointed, it affirms that all people have unalienable rights that governments are obligated to respect, and that these rights are protected in both the U.S. Constitution and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
It notes that the U.S. has not always honored these rights, especially in its historical treatment of Black and American Indian people. But it concludes that "it is urgent to vigorously champion human rights" both at home and throughout the world.
Progressives could have responded to this report by commending such unobjectionable sentiments while holding the Trump administration to account for falling short as a human-rights champion.
No government has a perfect record on these issues, because there are too many competing economic and geopolitical interests for human rights to guide foreign policy in all times and places. But human rights have been more of an afterthought than usual under Trump. The Saudis have gotten waivers from sanctions, Trump has been sluggish in standing up for protesters in Hong Kong, and the administration's immigration policies led to a humanitarian catastrophe at the border with Mexico. Progressives had a clear shot to take at the administration's hypocrisy.
Instead, progressives chose door number two: criticizing the report for placing too much emphasis on religious liberty and hewing too closely to the views of America's founders. The commission observed that for the founders, "foremost among the inalienable rights that government is established to secure" are religious liberty and the right to property, with the latter understood to include "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
The New York Times reported that "experts" — all of them, apparently — rejected the idea that some rights are more important than others. "Human rights are not a choose-your-own-adventure," it quoted an official from Amnesty International. The Center for American Progress published a letter from progressive religious leaders rejecting the idea of a "hierarchy of rights" and the "politicization of human rights."
In fact, everyone, inescapably, chooses among rights. Amnesty International believes pregnant women have a right to abortion and unborn children don't have a right to life. It believes that gun control is needed to secure the right to physical safety. These are matters of political controversy in the U.S., and complaining about "politicization" is therefore empty rhetoric.
Everyone understands, as well, that some rights are more fundamental than others. The right to vote is vitally important, but a government can respect that right while setting 18 (or 17, or 16) as the minimum age for voting. No government, on the other hand, can legitimately exclude minors from the right to protection from being killed.
The Times write-up also complains that the commission is "rooted" in the idea of "natural law," which "human rights scholars say is code for 'God-given rights.'" Far from being an extreme idea, though, the notion that human beings are "endowed by their Creator" with unalienable rights appears at the start of the Declaration of Independence.
The report mentions natural law once, when discussing various schools of thought and denying that the founding settled their differences. It affirms the religious liberty of all, "irrespective of their faith."
It's true, though, that the debate is partly being conducted in code. The real division at work here is that most progressives want the U.S. to promote abortion rights and same-sex marriage in other countries, while most conservatives do not.
But neither side is being upfront. The commission said that abortion, affirmative action and other issues divide its members. Only by implication did it suggest that the U.S. shouldn't fight for these causes. The critics, for their part, are talking nonsense about how all rights are interconnected and equal in order to avoid saying what they really mean: that U.S. foreign policy should treat the modern liberal understanding of sexual liberty as on par with the rights to freedom of speech, religion and assembly.
Americans disagree among themselves about these issues, which have become central to the human-rights debate. And so the human-rights commission's sentiments, which once would have been considered unobjectionable and even banal, now register in some quarters as dangerous and divisive.
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." Read Ramesh Ponnuru's Reports — More Here.