Since World War I, successive administrations in the United States, on a bipartisan basis, have taken pride in their declared commitments to basic civil and human rights at home and abroad. Consequently, US foreign policy, to a certain degree, has always had some evidence of that commitment embedded in the formulation of its international relationships with friends and foes alike around the world. Indeed, on its official website, the US Department of State still affirms that “The protection of fundamental human rights was a foundation stone in the establishment of the United States over 200 years ago. Since then, a central goal of U.S. foreign policy has been the promotion of respect for human rights, as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Although this commitment to democracy and human rights has wavered over time from one administration to the next, it has become virtually impossible in 2020. The Trump Administration cannot be convicted in any independent or impartial court of law on charges of actively and consistently endorsing such widely held American values as human dignity, equality, the right to self-determination, freedom of thought and expression, freedom of religion and conscience, freedom of movement, and the overarching right for all human beings to seek life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Frankly, the human rights record of this administration fails to meet the “city on a hill” standard proclaimed by a bipartisan list of former US presidents such as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, to name a few.
The human rights record of this administration fails to meet the “city on a hill” standard proclaimed by a bipartisan list of former US presidents.
Since the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as 45th president of the United States on January 20, 2017, his administration has embarked on domestic and foreign policies quite oblivious to the fluctuating, although customary, adherence to civil and human rights principles followed by most of his predecessors. Administration advocates and supporters often take credit for Trump’s success in “making America great again,” expanding its international military power, enhancing respect and fear of America worldwide, and above all, improving its economic global reach. Seldom, however, have administration officials been caught claiming success in the realm of advocating democracy and respect for human rights around the globe. Therefore, it was not surprising at all when on July 16, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo presented his rather hypocritical, imperious, and “selective” vision of human rights in a highly publicized speech delivered in Philadelphia.
The Pompeo speech marked the unveiling of the draft report issued by the Commission on Unalienable Rights (CUR). The controversial group was established in July 2019 by the 70th US secretary of state to redefine American commitment to universal human rights by narrowing the scope of the administration’s human rights policy—assuming such policy did exist. The commission was given “two very terse instructions” by Pompeo, as acknowledged by its chairperson Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard University: “One was to ground our work in the principles of the U.S. founding and in the principles of the international human rights project – specifically the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and the second was to keep our work at the level of policy – I’m sorry, of principle – and not to get involved in policy, where the State Department is already very well supplied with policymakers.” The Freudian slip in this case is quite revealing!
The CUR effort was doomed from the start, as reflected in the strong-handed and ideologically motivated “terse instructions” issued by Pompeo that sought to divorce what has historically evolved as universal rights from their universal applicability and to de-link the international promotion of human rights from US policy making. The project was widely criticized by a broad array of human rights, civil liberties, foreign policy, and social justice experts from across the political spectrum. In a harshly worded July 23, 2019 letter to the secretary of state, the signatories objected above all to the harmful nature of CUR “to the global effort to protect the rights of all people” by a group that clearly lacked “ideological diversity” and appeared intent on limiting rather than enhancing human rights universally.
Pompeo insisted on mixing the pursuit of civil liberties with that of private property and religious rights under the rubric of conservative American founding principles.
Instead of responding directly to the forceful criticism leveled at his commission since its inception, Pompeo doubled down and used his July 16 speech in Philadelphia to settle scores with his detractors by resorting to demagoguery and ideologically laden clichés that failed to advance the cause of human rights or strengthen the leadership role by the United States in this realm. He insisted on mixing the pursuit of civil liberties with that of private property and religious rights under the rubric of conservative American founding principles, declaring emotionally that “America is special. America is good. America does good all around the world.”
Pompeo’s version of “America First” as applied to universal human rights did not stop at asserting American exceptionalism in the historical development of such rights; he went further by claiming American exclusivity in their universal pursuit and applicability. He stated with a straight face that “we have to be realistic, because our first duty is, of course, to secure American freedoms … Our dedication to unalienable rights doesn’t mean we have the capacity to tackle all human rights violations everywhere and at all times.” Pompeo concluded, “Indeed, our pursuit of justice may clash with hard political realities that thwart effective action.” In other words, the US secretary of state is calling for prioritizing which human rights to defend, and when and where, based on political realities, reinforcing such a perspective with the maddening assertion that “More rights does not necessarily mean more justice.”
In his attempt to claim success for his human rights approach, including the framework developed by the commission, Pompeo suggested to his audience in Philadelphia several questions as his own litmus test. He asked the following four questions:
- “Are our foreign policy decisions rooted in our founding principles?”
- “Are the decisions consistent with our constitutional norms and procedures?”
- “Are they rooted in the universal principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?”
- “Does a new rights claim that’s being presented represent a clear consensus across different traditions and across different cultures … or is it merely a narrower partisan or ideological interest?”
As far as Middle East policy is concerned, particularly regarding the Palestine issue, Pompeo and his administration have flunked the test of the four questions raised. Affiliating with military occupying powers and the region’s worst abusers of human rights, including convicted murderers, does not root Trump’s foreign policy with US founding principles nor with those of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The founding fathers who helped draft our constitutional norms and procedures are turning over in their graves as they witness Mike Pompeo “botching his job” at the State Department, in an obscene attempt at enhancing his own political career at the expense of American values.