Why Liberals Fear the State Department’s Review of the Nature of Human Rights

COMMENTARY Progressivism

Why Liberals Fear the State Department’s Review of the Nature of Human Rights

Jun 3, 2019 3 min read
Mike Gonzalez

Angeles T. Arredondo E Pluribus Unum Senior Fellow

Mike is the Angeles T. Arredondo E Pluribus Unum Senior Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
Aquinas’s observation that human law either ratifies natural law or perverts it is a good North Star in promoting human rights around the world.  vincent_ruf/Getty Images

“Every human law has just so much of the nature of law as is derived from the law of nature,” Thomas Aquinas wrote. “But if at any point it deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of the law.”

Aquinas’s observation that human law either ratifies natural law or perverts it is a good North Star in promoting human rights around the world. 

Now that the State Department is looking to form an advisory panel to ponder whether the debate on human rights has departed from these principles, however, progressive groups are running around crying foul.

The panel, officially to be called the State Department Commission on Unalienable Rights, “will provide fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.”

It is a much-needed corrective to what has taken place for several years. To be fair to the liberals, they do have much to fear.

The entire edifice the left has built in the United States and abroad is based on a foundation of laws and policies that depart from defensible ideas about the natural rights of humans. Instead, we have been promoting compulsions that trample these rights.

America decided at its very beginning that the individual has unalienable rights to free speech, freedom of conscience, self-defense, private property (which is the physical manifestation of our labor), and so on. 

Good governments secure these universal rights, while bad governments abridge them.

Our founding documents say that these are God-given rights, a statement that nobody from Aquinas to John Locke to Thomas Jefferson (who wrote those words into the Declaration of Independence) would have found controversial. One does not need to have faith, however, to understand that these are universal axioms that precede the creation of government.

We can observe in our own human nature, for example, what Leo Strauss—one of the 20th century’s leading proponents of the theory of natural rights—called “the equality of all men in regard to the right of self-preservation.” 

We don’t need government—or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), for that matter—to tell us that each of us would fight to prevent our murder. The right to liberty and property are really extensions of our survival instinct.

There is a debate within conservative circles at the moment as to whether rights regarding freedom from government interference are truly universal or, just like rights regarding freedom from want, they are the product of tradition and cultural values.

Strauss has Aquinas clarifying the matter this way: “the axioms from which the more specific rules of natural right are derived are universally valid and immutable; what are mutable only are the more specific rules.”

In other words, cultural habits tend to produce governments that put a premium on the defense of universal natural rights, and others that do not.

The United States and other freedom-loving nations have the responsibility to criticize those governments that quash the universal rights to religious conscience, to life, to property, etc.

These nations also have an obligation to stay out of each other’s internal debates over the size of the welfare state, for example. Ditto for such issues as abortion, same-sex marriage, or identity group rights, about which we ourselves continue to have a robust debate.

The promotion of these cultural values would undermine real universal rights. As The Heritage Foundation’s Emilie Kao and Grace Melton write, in a warning about United Nations mischief-making, “creating new rights based on membership in special identity groups corrodes principles of equality and universality.”

 “The freedom to live according to one’s conscience is integral to the flourishing of all human rights,” Kao and Melton add, yet Europe and the U.S. provide “numerous cases” of “non-discrimination laws being used to force individuals to endorse a new sexual orthodoxy by supporting same-sex relations or same-sex marriage, under threat of economic punishment.”

Progressives may have a problem with these issues being considered at the State Department; no one else should.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal

More on This Issue

COMMENTARY 4 min read

Harvard Takes a Small Step Forward

SPECIAL REPORT Over an hour read

How DEI Undermines U.S. Diplomacy