How the Declaration of Independence should inform the human rights movement
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The Fourth of July is always an excellent opportunity to consider how, by challenging a global power in a distant land that was neglecting natural law and fundamental values, the Declaration of Independence changed the course of human history.

The causes of the adoption of America’s founding document and the universal principles it expresses have inspired people all over the world to seek liberty and justice.

In this vein, the Declaration of Independence can serve as a reference point for the international community, which is evaluating a human rights system that is fast becoming a global technocracy; for human rights experts, who may have forgotten the roots of the human rights movement; and for oppressed people, who seek to hold accountable leaders who abuse their basic human rights.

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The human rights system is in danger of becoming a global technocracy led by Geneva-based bureaucrats who believe they can best manage civil, political, economic, social, and cultural outcomes for individual nations.

 

Since the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), unelected and unaccountable experts in Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) have used the general text contained in subsequently-adopted international human rights treaties to generate a detailed body of “soft law,” which consists of official general comments defining human rights, communications resolving individual human rights complaints, and concluding observations from periodic monitoring of national human rights practices.

Human rights activists and national governments rely on this soft law to “name and shame” countries and businesses over their human rights records.

For example, the 2010 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United States criticized the U.S. for not ratifying seven international human rights treaties (the democratically-elected U.S. Senate decided not to ratify them), and the 2015 UPR criticized the U.S. for racism, racial profiling, and police brutality, as well as for not abolishing the death penalty, not closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and not adopting federal legislation to control climate change.

In theory, there is merit in identifying human rights abusers and holding them accountable; indeed, most international human rights treaties established committees to monitor national implementation of the treaty provisions.

However, it is unlikely that the original state signatories ever imagined that these monitors, and the over 1,000-person worldwide OHCHR staff, would create what has essentially become a catechism of human rights designed to regulate the domestic politics, policies, and practices of individual countries.

This overreach is most evident in the context of sensitive domestic policies relating to the right to life and right to health.

Exacerbating the global human rights technocracy’s unforeseen norm-setting and regulatory activities will be the OHCHR’s new partnership with Microsoft. The purpose of this alliance is to develop and deploy an online dashboard that will use artificial intelligence and big data analytics to assist in verifying alleged human rights abuses.

Through this technology, the OHCHR will be able to more aggressively monitor national progress, or lack thereof, on a multitude of human rights, the exact definition and scope of which are often subject to legitimate disagreement.

The OHCHR and NGOs will use the gathered data in an attempt to hold countries and businesses accountable for fulfilling ambiguous and controversial economic, social, and cultural rights that, in many cases, are beyond the capacity of national expertise, politics, or finances to achieve.

It is time to recalibrate the international human rights movement by returning to the fundamental values articulated in the Declaration of Independence — including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — which inspired some leading authors of the UDHR.

In this regard, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s June 13th opening remarks before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee are encouraging.

In them, he explained that the State Department will be guided by the longstanding values of freedom, democracy, individual liberty, and human dignity, as well as by the enduring conviction that all men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.

Many of the individuals responsible for drafting the UDHR appreciated the close relationship between American values and human rights. The great French-Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, who was actively involved in the drafting of the UDHR, believed that “the supreme value in the American scale of values is goodness; human reliability, goodwill, devotion, helpfulness.”

In his view, “what the world expects from America is that she keep alive, in human history, a fraternal recognition of the dignity of man — in other words, the terrestrial hope of men in the gospel.” Unfortunately, many modern-day human rights experts and activists ignore how American exceptionalism and the Christian faith inspired some drafters of the UDHR and positively influenced the development of the international human rights agenda.

The U.S. should also shift its focus from imposing a detailed human rights orthodoxy on countries regardless of the stage of their democratic evolution to promoting institutions and practices that enable citizens to hold their political leaders accountable for poor human rights records.

As the eminent professor of political theory and philosophy Rainer Forst explains, “[although] it is possible to construct a list of human rights that are to be accepted and realized in every legitimate basic structure, it is only in particular political contexts that they are concretely interpreted, institutionalized, and guaranteed.”

There are signs that the State Department understands this necessity. For example, the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America, convened by the U.S. and Mexico, recognized the link between economic prosperity and political stability.

Similarly, the U.S. Agency-International Development is making investments to strengthen democratic institutions, rule of law, and citizen participation in local and national governments in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

As Americans celebrate Independence Day, our leaders should consider the degree to which the usurpations of the international human rights treaty system are infringing on national sovereignty and interfering with organic, though often painfully slow and frustrating, democratic evolution.

Jim Kelly is president of Solidarity Center for Law and Justice, P.C. and serves as Director of International Affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies. From 2005-2008, he served on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO. The views expressed are his own.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.