Summer 2018 was a landmark season for the US and its participation in advancing international human rights. First, the US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley led the US withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, and then the US Department of State hosted the first ever international religious freedom ministerial to advance religious liberty around the world.

Both events served as a pivotal moment for US foreign policy and human rights strategy abroad. As State Department senior official Michael Kozak remarked, “if we’re going to bring about change, we need to think of something more that we can do to change attitudes and get the institutional changes we need…and formulate [this objective] into our policy.” Although Kozak is correct, the US and other international actors cannot effectively shape human rights strategy until individuals’ fundamental natural rights are differentiated from, and elevated above, social and economic goals. These goals, often called “rights,” are in actuality only the political interests of certain groups of society.

Simply put, human rights are individual rights based on natural law and illuminated by reason, and they include “life,” “liberty,” “freedom of religion or belief,” “freedom of speech,” and “freedom of conscience.” These rights are universal and based on man’s common nature across all cultures and societies. They are intrinsic to human beings, immutable, and therefore not dependent on government bestowment. Christians recognize these rights as God-given and transcendent, a concept reflected in the third chapter of Galatians, which states that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus”; as such, Christians are equal heirs to the promises of God.

In his book The Debasement of Human Rights: How Politics Sabotage the Ideal of Freedom, Dr. Aaron Rhodes explains how the international community has developed a distorted view of human rights which elevates economic and social goals over authentic human rights. This distortion is “used to justify restrictions on basic individual freedoms and to advocate the global regulation of an immense range of social and economic activity.” Examples may include universal healthcare in Germany, the promotion of abortion within “sexual and reproductive health rights” at the United Nations, and “sexual orientation and gender identity” inclusion in US law.

Rhodes, a human rights activist and former executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, traces this distortion to two twentieth-century events. First, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 combined basic human rights with government-legislated economic and social rights. Second, the UN World Conference of 1993 adopted a doctrine of “indivisibility” between these two kinds of rights. Rhodes and Dr. Roger Pilon posit in National Review that this conference “set the stage for the proliferation of rights, including group rights and rights to combat racism, discrimination, xenophobia, and intolerance.” Over time, this distortion “compromised the capacity of the international human rights system, and of civil society, to protect individual liberty.”

A prime example is Swedish pastor Ake Green. Pastor Green was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to prison for 30 days for allegedly violating Sweden’s hate speech law. His offense? In a sermon delivered to his congregation in his own church, he quoted directly from the Bible regarding homosexuality—Sweden’s hate speech law prohibits expression that criticizes homosexual behavior. The chief prosecutor in this case demanded Pastor Green “get a new Bible,” one which did not include text that was offensive to radical secularists. Fortunately, the Supreme Court of Sweden overturned his conviction, citing the European Court of Human Rights.

This case and many others like it illustrate the issue that individual freedoms are frequently being threatened by the elevation of political agendas over and against human rights. This issue needs to be fundamentally addressed in both theory and practice, beginning with a renewal of the concept of human rights. An effort must be made to divide them from, and elevate them over, economic and social goals. From there, human rights actors will have a clearer concept of how to develop effective policy and implement strategies to protect authentic human rights.

Although human rights should be differentiated from economic and social goals, they are not necessarily incompatible. The practice of natural rights—such as freedoms of expression, conscience, and belief—can allow the individual to achieve his or her economic goals. Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen theorizes in his book Development as Freedom that a person’s freedom and agency to participate in his or her country’s economic, social, and political activities can make him or her an “active agent of change for their community” to “impel the progress of these opportunities.” In fact, much of an individual’s success in improving his or her living standard and well-being rests on whether or not society supports the exercise of personal rights.

Religious liberty is unique in that it embodies freedoms of belief, expression, speech, and conscience. In his article, “Religious Freedom: Good for what ails us?,” Dr. Brian Grim asks whether religious freedom could be “an essential part of the solution to socio-political problems.”

Participatory theory promotes community participation as the most effective means to achieve sustainable economic and social development. For example, if a large percentage of a country’s working age population is unemployed or under-employed due to religious (or other) discrimination, there is a significant underuse of the country’s potential labor force. According to the International Labor Organization World of Work Report 2014, this undermines “the economic potential of a country.” A country that does not use its population—whether religious minorities or LGBT communities—to its full advantage in the labor force will not reap its full production or income-earning potential.

A strong mathematical correlation exists between religious liberty in a country and that country’s economic and social success. A 2007 study of 101 countries and territories by the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom shows that the presence of religious freedom is strongly associated with overall human development, as assessed by the Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI includes well-being indicators such as longevity (life expectancy at birth), knowledge (school enrollment and adult literacy), and standard of living (purchasing power parity-adjusted Gross National Income per capita). In addition, countries with fewer religious restrictions tend to have higher Gross Domestic Product, and citizens enjoy higher earned incomes. And where religious freedom is high, countries tend to have fewer incidents of armed conflict and infant mortality, but higher rates of women’s political participation, educational attainment, and skilled workforce participation.

For human rights activists and policymakers alike, an awareness of the divisibility and compatibility of human rights and economic and social goals is vital. All must recognize the importance of elevating human rights above group social or economic goals. In doing so, fundamental human rights will be better protected, which in turn will increase the ability to achieve the social and economic goals societies value most.

Shea Garrison (PhD, Tulane University) serves as Vice President of International Affairs for Concerned Women for America in Washington, DC, and as Affiliated Faculty and Policy Fellow at George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government. As an international development professional, she has travelled extensively throughout the world delivering capacity-building technical assistance and training programs to international partners. She regularly presents on international economics, women’s empowerment, and human rights to venues such as the Wilson Center for International Scholars, Foreign Services Institute, Heritage Foundation, and the US Department of State.

Photo Credit: US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley delivers remarks to the press on the UN Human Rights Council, at the US Department of State in Washington, DC, on June 19, 2018. State Department Photo.