International Law in Brief
Commission on Unalienable Rights Publishes Draft Report
By: Justine N. Stefanelli | August 4, 2020 - 10:11am
The U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights, announced last July by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, published its Draft Report on July 16, 2020. The Commission’s task is “to furnish advice to the Secretary for the promotion of individual liberty, human equality, and democracy through U.S. foreign policy.” As such, the Commission decided to first engage in a review of the principles that have shaped America’s distinctive, dynamic rights tradition over the years” and compare those principles to the international principles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The resulting Draft Report consists of four main sections (excluding the introduction). Section II discusses “The Distinctive American Rights Tradition,” providing an overview of, e.g., the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and Post-Civil War Reforms. Section III focuses on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the important role the U.S. played in their development. The report states, “[w]ithout U.S. State Department support, it is unlikely that human rights would have figured prominently in the UN Charter, or that the first UN Human Rights Commission would have been tasked with drawing up an ‘International Bill of Rights.’”
The Report underscores that Declaration “was intentionally crafted as a moral and political document, but not as a legal instrument creating formal law. It provides ‘a common standard of achievement’ and invites a competition in excellence among nations.” The Report spends some time examining the relationship between civil and political rights, and economic and social rights, pointing out in particular that the U.S. struggles with the latter set of rights because the U.S. Constitution “does not generally recognize, let alone entrench, economic and social rights.” Moreover, the reluctance to recognize such rights “as an integral part of the canon of international human rights” has persisted since the end of the Cold War, regardless of political party. The Report’s discussion in that regard concludes:
…the principles of the [Declaration] do demand that economic and social rights be taken seriously in formulating U.S. foreign policy. However, for many reasons – ranging from our own constitutional traditions to the language of the Universal Declaration itself to prudential concerns about the abuse of rights – it is reasonable for the United States to treat economic and social rights differently from civil and political rights. In emphasizing the civil and political rights while realizing economic and social rights through programs of economic assistance and development, the United States operates consistently with both its constitutional principles and the UDHR’s principles.”
The Report ends with a number of “Concluding Observations,” including that “[i]t is urgent to vigorously champion human rights in foreign policy”; “human rights are universal and indivisible”; “[t]he universality and indivisibility of human rights do not mean uniformity in bringing them to life”; “[n]ation-states have some leeway to base their human rights policy on their own distinctive national traditions”; [s]ocial and economic rights are essential to a comprehensive foreign policy”; and “[n]ational sovereignty is vital to securing human rights.”
Upon its publication on July 16, the Draft Report was open for a two-week period of public comment before its finalization.