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Eroding Human Rights and the Nation’s Collective Moral Imagination



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On July 7, 2019, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally established a “Commission on Unalienable Rights” at the State Department. The following day, The Wall Street Journal published a commentary he wrote, in which he provided the principal rationale for his action. Foremost among his claims were the following:     

Yet after the Cold War ended, many human-rights advocates turned their energy to new categories of rights. These rights often sound noble and just. But when politicians and bureaucrats create new rights, they blur the distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights granted by governments. Unalienable rights are by nature universal. Not everything good, or everything granted by a government, can be a universal right. Loose talk of ‘rights’ unmoors us from the principles of liberal democracy.[1]

The Secretary employed this assertion to buttress another:

This may sound abstract, but the work is urgent. The human-rights cause once united people from disparate nations and cultures in the effort to secure fundamental freedoms and fight evils like Nazism, communism and apartheid. We have lost that focus today. Rights claims are often aimed more at rewarding interest groups and dividing humanity into subgroups.[2]

Finally, in remarks introducing this effort, Pompeo declared:

International institutions designed and built to protect human rights have drifted from their original mission. As human rights claims have proliferated, some claims have come into tension with one another, provoking questions and clashes about which rights are entitled to gain respect. What does it mean to say or claim that something is, in fact, a human right? How do we know or how do we determine whether that claim that this or that is a human right, is it true, and therefore, ought it to be honored? [3]

Pompeo offered these “concerns,” and his contention concerning “politician-created rights,” (in fact, governments formally sustain all such claims), as a chief foreign policy representative of a presidency that has steadfastly supported the usurpation and violation of human rights in the most obvious and grotesque of ways, such as:

  • Providing public and frequent support of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, accused of manifold human rights violations,
  • Calling North Korean leader and known murderer Kim Jong-un a “friend,” also accused of rampant human rights violations,
  • Consistently providing support to Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, perpetrator of human rights outrages and the official responsible for the premeditated murder and dismemberment of The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi,
  • Engaging in egregious violations of the human rights of families and individuals petitioning for asylum or refuge in the United States during the last two years,
  • Organizing a last-minute U.S. threat to veto a United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution designed to address rape as a weapon of war; that action resulted in the provision offering women who have experienced rape in such circumstances little protection.[4]
  • Undertaking the targeted derogation and degradation of members of minority groups and their communities, whether duly elected members of Congress, African-Americans, Hispanics, women, Jews, Muslims, gay individuals or those with disabilities.  

In addition to the hypocrisy to which this ugly list points, and as Pompeo, a self-proclaimed evangelical Christian, made clear in his comments, the Trump administration apparently believes that there is a need to revisit the principles of human rights since “too many groups and individuals” are being accorded them. This contention is clearly without merit in light of the fact that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated in its first article, in unequivocal language, that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”[5] That document, which the United States played a lead role in developing, did not state that only white people, or Protestants or Christians, or the rich or any other group should alone be accorded such standing, but that all people are entitled to rights on the basis of their humanity and that fact alone.

There is, therefore, no need to examine whether “too many” individuals have been accorded human rights—all human beings, by definition and in principle, possess them. There is also no reason to suppose that the religious beliefs of any group will not, also in principle, be protected by that Declaration. All are. In consequence, Pompeo’s vague and unsubstantiated concern about undue individuals and groups enjoying human rights is logically absurd while also appearing to provide the Trump administration authority to decide which populations “merit” human rights.

The same must be said of Pompeo’s frequent contention, offered without reasoned justification, that religious freedom is the most important human right. In fact, it appears that the Trump administration is employing this rhetoric as cover for a pernicious form of discrimination. As Martin Castro, then Chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights observed in 2016:

The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance. Religious liberty was never intended to give one religion dominion over other religions, or a veto power over the civil rights and civil liberties of others. However, today, as in the past, religion is being used as both a weapon and a shield by those seeking to deny others equality. [6]

Irrespective of their claims that they are preserving their own religious freedom by persecuting others, religious evangelicals who behave in such manner, and their surrogates in the Trump administration, should not be permitted to discriminate against others and deprive them of their right to their preferred religious beliefs. Such contentions are quickly exposed as the in-principle abridgements of human rights and freedom they represent.

On July 17, President Trump met with several human rights leaders who have personally experienced and fought religious persecution around the world. The President’s “conversation” event was captured on video. One of those attending was Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year for her efforts to end the use of rape as a weapon of war.7 Murad was forced into sexual slavery by members of ISIS when that group seized her village in Iraq in 2014. Here is how The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen described this encounter:

Allow me to render the scene in the present tense. Trump sits there at his desk, an uncomprehending, unsympathetic, uninterested cardboard dummy. He looks straight ahead for much of the time, not at her, his chin jutting. … He cannot look at her.
Every now and again. … he swivels his head toward her and other survivors of religious persecution. When Murad says, ‘They killed my mom, my six brothers,’ Trump responds: ‘Where are they now?’[7]

The video of this moment revealed the President to be absolutely uninformed, completely ill at ease and uninterested in the meeting he hosted. More, it showed Trump to be devoid of any evident understanding of the centrality of human rights or of the moral necessity of working assiduously to ensure their preservation when attacked. He also appeared incapable of empathy for those individuals, including Murad, who had just shared the harrowing experiences they had undergone.

This moment was of a piece with Pompeo’s efforts to parse who should be permitted standing to be provided rights according to partisan, sectarian or ideological criteria. Both episodes suggest government leaders who do not grasp the abiding significance of human rights as a principal foundation of freedom, but instead are intent on creating a clan identity for “true believers” and culling those who do not meet their conforming criteria. Such action is prima facie undemocratic and it undermines freedom and equality. As Roger Cohen has observed in recent days, “On this president’s wish list, every right is alienable.”[8]  

These episodes and the Trump presidency’s continued disdain for, and abridgment of, human rights more generally reveal a profound lack of moral imagination combined with a cynical willingness to jettison the most basic protections of human freedom for partisan, personal or ideological advantage. Philosopher Mark Johnson has defined moral imagination, whose provenance can be traced to Edmund Burke and which was embraced by T.S. Eliot, too, as “envisioning the full range of possibilities in a particular situation in order to solve an ethical challenge.”[9]  Johnson has stressed that acting morally requires empathy and capacity to discern what is morally relevant in a given situation. Trump exhibited neither in his conference with the group of men and women who had been victims of sexual assault and slavery as a weapon of war.

Liberal societies rely on a scaffolding of shared norms and values, a de facto moral foundation, to sustain their free institutions, and those are only (and ever) so strong as the population’s willingness to maintain them. The President and his administration’s continuing racism and overt and reactionary attacks on human and civil rights in the United States and abroad are now testing the strength of that underpinning. It seems clear that millions are willing to descend into a fear-driven and fear-mongering clan led by a demagogue. The question remains whether a sufficient number of other Americans still maintain their devotion to freedom, democratic principles and human rights, and can therefore act to prevent this effort from succeeding. The administration’s wholesale assault on the nation’s foundational principles will surely continue, in the name of power. This scenario is historically familiar and demands a tough-minded response from citizens unwilling to see their country become a space defined by warring clans, each of which has been convinced of its absolute superiority and rectitude, and each of which is willing to work to subjugate other(s) on that basis.  


[1] Pompeo, Michael. “Unalienable Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy,” The Wall Street Journal, July 8, 2019, Accessed July 30, 2019.

[2] Pompeo, “Unalienable Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy.”

[3] Wong, Edward and Eileen Sullivan, “New Human Rights Panel Raises Fears of a Narrowing U.S. Advocacy,” The New York Times, July 8, 2019,  Accessed August 3, 2019.

[4]The United States objected to the resolution on grounds that it might sanction abortion of children who might be conceived in such rapes. In fact, the resolution noted only the need for UN agencies and donors to provide timely “sexual and reproductive health” assistance in such cases.

[5]United Nations, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Accessed August 1, 2019.

[6]United States Commission on Civil Rights, “Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties: A Briefing Report,” September 2016,, p. 29. Accessed August 3, 2019.

[7] Cohen, Roger. “Trump’s Inhumanity Before a Violent Rape,” The New York Times, July 26, 2019, Accessed July 26, 2019.

[8] Cohen, Roger. “The Who-Can-Beat Trump Test Leads to Kamala Harris,” The New York Times, August 2, 2019,  Accessed August 3, 2019.

[9]Johnson, Mark. Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, p.202.

Publication Date

August 12, 2019