There they stood in the Oval Office: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and members of other faiths from every corner of the globe, speaking to the leader of the free world about human rights.
A quiet Holocaust survivor in a pink suit stood near the young, Nobel Prize-winning Nadia Murad, who pleaded for thousands of her Yazidi sisters enslaved by the Islamic State. Also present was the sober but passionate son of Salman Taseer, the brave Muslim official slain by his own bodyguard’s bullet for defending Asia Bibi, his Christian countrywoman, against Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
United by injustice and tragedy, they sought help from America because they have nowhere else to turn.
Religious Freedom Is Under Attack Around the World
According to Pew Research, 80 percent of the world’s population live under serious restrictions of religious freedom. The White House meeting was a culmination of the second annual Ministerial to Advance International Religious Freedom convened by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sam Brownback, the ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom. The State Department estimates that more than 800 like-minded diplomats, advocates, and survivors attended from more than 100 countries.
A few pastors from Cuba were unable to make the trek because their government prevented them from leaving the country. Also absent from the gathering were notorious abusers: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea were not invited. Contrary to the narrative that this administration cozies up to dictators, Trump’s team shut those leaders out.
Instead, representatives from every faith and region of the world assembled: the EU Special Envoy for the Promotion of Religious Freedom Ján Figeľ, former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair, Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and the lion of the international religious freedom movement, former Republican Rep. Frank Wolf. In a rare moment of bipartisanship for Washington these days, members of both parties came together for a greater purpose, human freedom.
Human Rights Are Not Man-Made Nor Cultural
In 1785, one of America’s Founding Fathers, James Madison, articulated an eternal truth: man’s duty to obey his creator precedes in time and in degree of obligation any claims of civil society. A century and a half later, in 1948, delegates to the United Nations from America, Canada, China, Lebanon, and France drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or UDHR, and affirmed Madison’s insight.
The UDHR not only protects freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, it cites man’s endowment with conscience and reason as evidence of human dignity, the source of all universal human rights. As Princeton professor Robert P. George explained at a recent Heritage Foundation event, across the ages and the oceans, man’s nature as conscientious truth-seeker has demanded freedom. Because this freedom is required by something common to all men, it is both universal and pre-political.
But seven decades later, it is abundantly clear that the human rights movement has become unmoored from its foundations — not just from a transcendent source but from nature and reason. Departure from the laws of nature has left rights without claims to universality and vulnerable to the shifting winds of culture and to manipulation by despots.
Communist regimes such as China point to economic growth to deflect criticism of the more than 1 million Uighur Muslims they have put in detention camps. The leftist “woke” West asserts human rights to a clean environment, free internet access, and self- identification as the opposite sex. In the name of combatting “Islamophobia,” theocrats claim Islam (yes, the religion itself) has a right to be free from “defamation.”
In other words, these governments want a right to censor critics and dissidents. When citizens and governments reduce human rights to the man-made products of particular cultures, everyone loses.
The United Nations Is Failing to Protect Human Rights
The United Nations has built a vast human rights bureaucracy over the last seven decades, but there is little indication that this has led to a greater realization of human rights. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres just launched a global initiative against so-called hate speech that should raise the hackles of every freedom-lover.
Like beauty, hate speech is in the eye of the beholder and too frequently in the hands of those who hold power. Power-hungry leaders just happen to define hateful speech as views that run afoul of their orthodoxies.
It is an ominous sign that the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which supports blasphemy laws, also fully supports the U.N.’s new campaign. The U.N. independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity has explicitly urged member states to punish religious and political leaders’ “hate speech” that offends LGBT sensibilities.
The U.N. Human Rights Council notoriously elects serial human rights abusers such as Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and China to its ranks, causing many to warn that arsonists are in charge of putting out the fires. Last summer, when former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced that efforts to reform the council had failed and the United States would withdraw, advocates and U.N. officials accused the United States of a lack of commitment to protecting human rights.
The State Department Is Working for Clarity
Perhaps to better protect universal human rights, we need a clearer understanding of what they are. Recently, Pompeo formed a Commission on Unalienable Rights to initiate this conversation. Almost immediately and reflexively, liberal human rights groups such as Council for Global Equality (an LGBT advocacy group) dismissed and attacked the effort. It derided the commission as anti-woman and anti-LGBT before it even held its first meeting.
State Department officials have explained that universal rights belong to all human beings. There’s no question that freedom from torture is universal and that no one should be subjected to it anywhere at any time, including for homosexual conduct. However, when the U.N. is effectively creating a right not to be offended, there’s a good reason to step back and ask what limiting principles should apply.
Unfortunately, critics have essentially boycotted the discussion before it’s begun. Of course, doing so won’t help the victims who came to the White House or the billions more they represent.
Demonized and abused at home, the survivors found a warm welcome in the Oval Office. Although their theologies differ and sometimes clash, members of the Abrahamic faiths, Bahá’ís, Buddhists, Hindus, and more united in seeking freedom for themselves and for each other. They didn’t seem to care much that groups have criticized the State Department for elevating religious freedom to not just a top human rights priority but a top foreign policy priority.
Instead, for a moment, they basked in the solidarity they shared with one another, the public acknowledgment of the wrongs they had suffered, and the opportunity to make the universal desire for freedom heard.
This piece originally appeared in The Federalist