Americans may not usually think about July 4, 1776, as the most important date in the history of human rights, but it was. At the heart of our Declaration of Independence was a profound statement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” That creed informs the purpose of our own government – and from the point of view of the Declaration, all legitimate governments – which is “to secure these rights.” By holding to those truths over the centuries, America has become the world’s indispensable force for good.
Our nation’s example has inspired countless others to defend their own rights and seek greater freedom. One seminal moment in this history came 172 years after the message to King George III heard ’round the world, when the Universal Declaration on Human Rights echoed our Declaration by recognizing “the equal and inalienable rights of the human family.”
But today, the international human rights project is in crisis, and is increasingly untethered from history or a realistic understanding of human nature. Aggressive authoritarian regimes twist rights claims to serve their malign ends. Failing international institutions apply human rights selectively and with bias. And political gain too often comes before human dignity. These developments threaten the great and noble progress we have made.
To understand how America can continue to honor the promise of our founding rights tradition, it’s vital to return to first principles and confront essential questions. What are our fundamental freedoms? How do we know if a claim about human rights is true? Who or what grants these rights? These were some of the questions I had in mind in the summer of 2019 when I formed the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights. I’m glad that The Heritage Foundation is also taking up the call with these timely essays.
This “First Principles on Human Rights” series is in the finest tradition of Heritage’s scholarship in service to America. You’ll find areas of disagreement and differences of emphasis among the essays. But common cords tie them together, most notably dedication to the scholarly pursuit of the truth and appreciation that respect for individual liberty is at the heart of America’s founding documents and great achievements.
That ethos guided the State Department Commission’s work as well. The commissioners also didn’t agree on everything, but they all affirmed the centrality of unalienable rights and the distinctive form of constitutional government through which the United States secures those rights. The commission members’ independence of mind demonstrated the values of freedom of thought, freedom of conscience and religion, and freedom of expression that Americans hold dear. The competition of ideas makes us all better.
These two projects are deeply meaningful in the formulation of foreign policy, especially regarding the greatest threat to human rights today: the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP has built the most sophisticated surveillance state in history; crushed the freedoms it promised to the Hong Kong people; and locked more than a million Uyghurs and other minorities in internment camps in Xinjiang, subjecting them to horrific abuses.
As history has shown time and again, nations that disrespect the rights of their own citizens soon threaten their neighbors. Today the CCP is attacking free nations’ sovereignty and threatening other nations in the Indo-Pacific, and indeed the world, militarily, economically, diplomatically, technologically, and politically.
America is rising to this challenge. And we recognize that upholding unalienable rights may require us to reform failing human rights bureaucracies or even withdraw our support from those we can’t fix, such as the UN Human Rights Council. The Council has become a venue for shameless hypocrisy, with some of the world’s worst human rights offenders sitting in judgment over other nations. The Council’s most frequent target is Israel – the nation-state of the Jewish people, a thriving democracy, and by far the freest country in the Middle East. Many other multilateral organizations at best confuse human rights, and at worst dishonor their founding purposes and harm American interests and sovereignty.
Another example of the crisis of the international human rights project today is the proliferation of new and novel concepts of rights. Some claims about rights conflict. Some are more important than others. Some are empty promises or partisan preference masquerading as “rights.” No one could possibly remember the thousands of rights claims being made or comprehend how they relate to one another or to a coherent, realistic understanding of human nature.
The bottom line is that more so-called “rights” does not mean more justice. The constitutions of some of the most repressive regimes in history, such as the Soviet Union, promised a multitude of rights their citizens while the regimes produced ever-climbing death tolls and daily deprivations.
And the failures to uphold fundamental rights go beyond authoritarian regimes and disagreements over the number and nature of rights themselves. International experts and organizations repeatedly seek to impose their views regardless of objections by sovereign governments. For instance, the International Criminal Court abuses its mandate by targeting members of the U.S. military – among the greatest forces for good around the world – even though we have never accepted its jurisdiction over our personnel, and our own justice system is more than capable of investigating and addressing allegations of misconduct. In contrast, the ICC is most often incompetent where it does truly exercise jurisdiction. The Court has been in operation for 18 years and is now staffed by nearly 1,000 people, yet it has secured only four convictions for major crimes, at a cost of more than a billion dollars.
Despite these challenges, America is well-positioned to lead the fight to clarify human rights internationally and restore their meaning because, as the Commission and these
essays make clear, securing those rights is the call of our founding and part of our national character. Understanding human rights allows America to speak with clarity, to know who shares our objectives, to grasp the nature and intentions of the regimes with which we engage, and to forge strong alliances and make multilateralism actually work in service to our principles and priorities.
But returning to the course our founders set is perhaps even more critical in the domestic sphere, especially given the distortions and smears directed at American history. Some of our most powerful cultural voices seem determined to cast doubt on the very goodness of our nation. We must counter these false narratives with the truth about America’s magnificent rights tradition. If Americans lose a clear understanding of, and respect for, our own ideals, then our foreign policy will suffer, and our country and world will be a darker place.
Foremost among the rights that concerned our founders are those rights that are ours by nature as human beings. The founders affirmed that these rights come from our Creator, and are therefore before government. Our knowledge of them draws on our distinct Biblical and Enlightenment heritage. Prominent among them are religious freedom and property rights, with property rights understood to include the right to the fruits of one’s labor, as well as our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
America has often fallen tragically short in in the promise our founding fathers made in the Declaration of Independence about the natural equality and unalienable rights of mankind. Most notable among these failures is the legal sanction our nation once gave to slavery and the injustices our country perpetrated against Native Americans. But it is a slander to say that America is exceptional only in a catalogue of abuses that set the supposed oppressor against the supposed oppressed in an endless, invented, toxic, and dehumanizing dialectic.
America is exceptional for the opposite of what her detractors so often claim. The truth is that, more than any other nation in history, we have worked, as George Washington said, to “give to bigotry no sanction,” and to correct our mistakes, uphold our founding ideals of equality and opportunity, and serve as an ever-brighter beacon of freedom for each passing generation of those who, like us, seek a better future and a more perfect union.
Our founders set us on a path to abolish slavery, recognize women’s rights, and refine our understanding of the political requirements of the rights inherent in all persons. That’s why Martin Luther King Jr. called our founding documents a “promissory note” to which all Americans are heirs. As the authors of The Federalist so eloquently explained, the most important guarantee of our rights is the form of limited government, rooted in the will of the people, that the Constitution establishes.
One of the most important days of my tenure as America’s 70th Secretary of State was July 16, 2020, when I presented to the public the Commission on Unalienable Rights’ draft report in Philadelphia. It was a privilege to look out over Independence Hall and to be reminded of the revolutionary history of sacrifice and freedom that brought every person to that room that day.
The central message from that speech is this: “America is special. America is good. America does good all around the world.”
Americans can only understand the truth of that statement if we get back to basics about why unalienable rights are at the heart of the American experiment in freedom. We’ll also see that a strong, sovereign, and prosperous United States – a nation that lives out the true meaning of its creed – is good for Americans and good for the world. By renewing our sense of purpose, we can encourage other nation-states who, through their sovereign laws and political decisions, secure rights for their own citizens, to strengthen their partnerships with the United States. We’ll continue shining the light of freedom abroad.
Since its own founding in 1973, The Heritage Foundation has exceled at studying the promise of America. These essays take on some of the most important questions before our nation today as we continue to fulfill that promise. My thanks to the authors and editors for their work to teach a new generation the old truths that make our nation exceptional.