Buzz has begun about a possible U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council. It is no wonder; the Human Rights Council is largely a sham. Critics rightly cite its anti-Israel bias and domination by authoritarian, human rights violating states. But problems with the Human Rights Council are symptomatic of international human rights’ larger malaise, to which the UN’s corrupted and politicized concept of human rights contributes.
The system has become a bloated, regulatory bureaucracy addressing a grossly inflated range of economic and social justice issues, marginalizing the protection of basic civil and political rights and balancing those authentic human rights against other objectives. The concept of human rights has been exploited by so many political actors that no one can tell what it means; the meaning of human rights has incrementally drifted from the core obligation to protect individual rights and freedoms, becoming deeply politicized as a vehicle for national agendas and leftist ideologies. Indeed, the debasement of human rights is one of the reasons for widespread distrust of international institutions and calls for national sovereignty against international law. It is a driver of the current devolution of the international liberal democratic order.
The question of withdrawal from the Human Rights Council thus needs to be addressed within the broader question of how best to reform international human rights, and, for Americans, the question of what role the United States can and should play in this process. We are led to believe by some that international human rights standards are somehow inconsistent with the vision of our Founders and with our Constitution and that international human rights law threatens our freedom. This is true to the extent that this framework of law extends beyond protection of individual rights and freedoms, and intrudes into the political realm, where questions of social policy need to be addressed democratically and not by courts.
But let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The Declaration of Independence did not affirm the moral equality only of Americans, but rather that of all human beings. The Declaration was, and is, a call for freedom throughout the world. That call was founded on the “laws of nature and Nature’s God”; the Declaration is clear that Americans share with all people a common human nature and that human rights are universal. It was an affirmation, in political terms, of the vision of the brotherhood of man in the Book of Genesis, which forms the moral core of Western civilization.
The new American government was unique in history by making itself legally accountable for upholding freedoms based on natural rights. Indeed, America’s true “exceptionalism” lies in its natural law universalism. American exceptionalism was, and is, its political and legal system based on natural law and on individual rights, a government set up to limit its own power in deference to the natural rights of the individual. Without a foundation in natural rights, human rights are reduced to nothing but arbitrary political decisions. American constitutional principles were established on the basis of natural law, and if you believe in natural law you must believe in universal human rights and in the intrinsic value in efforts to uphold those rights through international engagement.
Indeed, international human rights law really began with the Declaration of Independence, in which freedom in America was framed in universal terms, as an “appeal to the opinions of mankind.” But just as international human rights law owes its main impetus to American beginnings, so does it owe many of its profound failures to the U.S. At the end of World War II, Americans promoted the importation of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Second Bill of Rights” into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while conceding they were not enforceable and required positive state actions to be honored. And although the United States has refused to ratify a number of treaties centered on those “human rights,” American diplomats have traditionally assumed an ambivalent posture, apparently in an attempt not to appear insouciant about poverty and other social problems.
Under the Obama Administration, the United States moved stealthily but firmly toward an embrace of economic and social rights. When the United States’ human rights compliance was examined by the UN, American officials sought to give assurances that their social policies were consistent with those rights, basically sucking up to the watery socialism of the system. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton mixed up human rights with the redistributive policies of countries like China. President Obama, meeting with Cuban dictator Raúl Castro, affirmed his belief in entitlements being human rights, rather than defending the natural rights basis of the Bill of Rights. Heir to the Pragmatist and Progressive traditions, Obama ignored natural rights and, as a result, had no visceral feeling for freedom.
Ronald Reagan had the greatest fidelity to human rights of any American president since Abraham Lincoln. Reagan would have none of the degraded and fraudulent concept of human rights promoted by the Soviet Union, Socialists, and Progressives. American officials like Elliot Abrams forcefully made the case for human rights as they were formulated in the classical liberal tradition. In compelling, plain language, Reagan demanded political freedom for all; his words inspired oppressed people around the world and pushed world politics in the direction freedom and democracy. It was our commitment to freedom that made America great—at home, and abroad.
The international human rights community has been a poor custodian of the concept of human rights, but is understandably full of fear about the future of human rights as chauvinistic nationalist movements denounce “globalism.” But American nationalism, properly understood, is a civil identity, not ethnic nationalism. It is a nationalism based on a compact between rational individuals, regardless of their ethnicity or creed. And whining about populism won’t solve the problem of clarifying human rights, and without clarification the protection of basic individual rights and freedoms will be further diluted and eroded. In fact, this fluid and uncomfortable moment in history offers American leaders an opportunity to put human rights on a firmer footing. There is no antagonism between an authentic American nationalism and international human rights law that defends individuals against tyranny, and they should harmonize. America needs to work toward that goal by once again insisting that individual freedom lies at the heart of human rights.
The Trump Administration should thus articulate an approach to human rights consistent with that of the Founders and the U.S. Constitution, a policy of promoting political freedom. The government should develop clear priorities, including freedom of religion, speech, and association, and emphasize the need for women to enjoy these freedoms. The President should meet with embattled human rights activists and show support, which will generate goodwill among people around the world. But the United States should stand for political freedom and human rights as universal principles, not as “American values.”
In the Human Rights Council and other international forums, the United States should take on all who hide or rationalize oppression behind a hypocritical embrace of economic and social rights. The United States should focus available resources on assisting civil society initiatives that seek respect for fundamental civil and political rights. The State Department should assemble a loose community of national leaders and parliamentarians who share core human rights values, and begin to form a functioning human rights coalition that might eventually replace UN human rights institutions. Such a coalition would give members of transitional societies a much-needed moral and political North Star.
If we can find our feet in standing for human rights in the way our Founders did, America may arouse anxiety among dictatorial regimes. If we do, we will be taking steps toward true international stability, and will find both respect among citizens around the world and peace with ourselves.
Aaron Rhodes was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights between 1993 and 2007, and was a founder of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, as well as the Freedom Rights Project, a think tank. He is President of the Forum for Religious Freedom—Europe.
Photo Credit: A general view of participants at the 16th Session ot he Human Rights Council. UN Photo by Jean-Marc Ferre, via Flickr.