The State Department recently published a brief, enigmatic notice announcing the formation of a new Commission on Unalienable Rights. With a modest budget of $385,074 and merely advisory powers, the commission received little attention beyond head-scratching over its strange name. Yet the significance of the endeavor should not be overlooked. It puts the government's imprimatur on an assault upon one of the cornerstones of modern liberalism: international human rights.
According to the commission’s draft charter, its job will be to explore “reforms of human rights discourse where it has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights” — rights of the sort that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. upheld as ideals, the charter says.
This language may sound unusual to a modern ear, but it is easily translated. Start with that ungainly name of the commission. If "unalienable" sounds anachronistic, that's because it is. Today, we normally use the word "inalienable." But in the 18th century, the more common term was "unalienable." The Declaration of Independence refers to "unalienable rights," and there is little doubt the commission's name is meant to recall that, in the words of the Declaration, the people are endowed with those rights "by their Creator."
This supposition is reinforced by the references to "natural law" and "natural rights," terms that have also fallen out of fashion. In the 18th century, educated people used the phrases to refer to universal moral laws that transcended national boundaries and that generally (though not always) were thought to reflect God's will. With the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, these abstractions lost much of their grip on people's loyalties.
Finally, there is “human rights discourse.” Normally, we refer to “human rights law,” embodied in numerous treaties that were negotiated and (mostly) ratified after World War II. With names like the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, these treaties purport to bar governments from mistreating their citizens. Yet “discourse” means “talk.” The implication here is that the human rights that people talk about are not, despite the treaties, actually law. They’re something else — advocacy. And this advocacy is wrong: It has “departed from ... natural law and natural rights.”
The protections offered by modern “human rights law” differ from those of the “natural rights” regime of the 18th century. Those were (more or less) embodied in the British constitutional tradition, the common law, and the U.S. Bill of Rights: rights to political participation — freedom of speech, for example — and protection of person and property. Modern human rights are both broader and narrower, encompassing “economic rights” (for example, rights to work, to health care and to education), rights to not be discriminated against on the basis of race or ethnicity, and, according to some interpreters, expansive rights to reproductive freedom. Modern human rights law de-emphasizes property rights and, to some extent, speech rights. In a word, it’s lefty.
Modern human rights have also morphed into something like a system of universal moral values that transcends specific treaties. The United States, virtually alone among nations, has refused to ratify most of these treaties and accordingly is technically not bound by them. But much “human rights discourse” rejects the notion that countries can opt out of the rights system. Quite a few scholars and an occasional U.S. Supreme Court justice believe, to the intense irritation of conservatives, that left-leaning human rights treaties that the United States has never ratified nonetheless override American law. The influence of “foreign law” — including “human rights discourse” — has been apparent in Supreme Court opinions limiting the death penalty and striking down the criminalization of same-sex "sodomy."
Most of the offending decisions were written by the court’s most enthusiastic proponent of foreign law, then-Justice Anthony Kennedy. As the late justice Antonin Scalia put it: “The Framers would, I am confident, be appalled by the proposition that, for example, the American peoples’ democratic adoption of the death penalty ... could be judicially nullified because of the disapproving views of foreigners.”
But today, other conservatives see an opportunity, and the Commission on Unalienable Rights is their declaration of intent. Its plainly stated goal is not just to wipe away the baleful foreign influence of human rights "discourse" but to revive (conservative) 18th-century natural law.
What does natural law require? Liberals, already dimly perceiving that they are about to be hoist with their own petard, worry that natural law, in the hands of conservatives — and specifically, Catholic conservative intellectuals, who kept alive the academic tradition of natural law long after mainstream secular intellectuals forgot what it was — means goodbye to reproductive rights and protections for sexual minorities. (ABC News reported that the Princeton professor Robert George, a prominent Catholic intellectual, natural-law theorist, and opponent of abortion rights and same-sex marriage, played a role in the creation of the commission; George did not respond to requests for comment from ABC or from The Washington Post.) The Commission on Unalienable Rights will, in other words, provide the ideological justification for the antiabortion foreign policy that the Trump administration has undertaken.
Natural law can also be used by conservatives to argue for expanded religious freedoms that override statutes with secular goals, and to push back against progressive government programs, like universal health care. The "right to health," a centerpiece of "human rights law," is firmly rejected by natural law theorists like George.
But the mission of the commission may be even bolder. If we take the idea of natural law seriously, it not only overrides statutes in foreign countries that protect abortion rights and respect same-sex marriage. It also overrides American laws that protect abortion rights and respect same-sex marriage. One can imagine a day when a Supreme Court justice, taking a page from Kennedy, invokes natural law — supposedly endorsed by the founders, after all, and embodied in the sacred Declaration — to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade and to prepare the path for an even holier grail, the abolition of state laws that grant abortion rights.
Liberals hoped that human rights, sanctified by the sacrifices of the victims of totalitarianism, would provide common ground in a world of competing ideologies. But what human rights actually helped produce was a liberal international order that has offended a great many people who do not share liberal values. The backlash began years ago in authoritarian countries, in developing countries that saw human rights as an affront to their traditions and as a mask for imperialist goals, and in highly religious countries. These countries advanced interpretations of human rights law that conform with their values or interests but made little headway against dominant elite opinion.
What is new is that the government of the world’s most powerful nation, long acknowledged (if grudgingly) as the leader of the international human rights regime, has officially signed on to that backlash.
Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, is a co-author of “Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society.”