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US must rise to today's challenges and keep fundamental rights alive

US must rise to today's challenges and keep fundamental rights alive
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With the nation in turmoil over the rights and wrongs of its citizens, the plight of half the world’s population living under authoritarian regimes tends to fade from sight. In the U.S. State Department, however, it remains a center of intense attention. Today the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights, released a report on human rights in foreign policy, pursuant to its charge to furnish the Department with the advice “grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Though the commissioners, like other Americans, have differing views on many domestic issues, our work was dominated by a common concern for the millions of men and women in countries where the freedoms we take for granted in the U.S. are systematically denied.  

Countless victims of persecution, torture and arbitrary imprisonment in places where citizens lack even the ability to protest, look to the United States — even with its shortcomings — as a beacon of hope and encouragement. They count on America to champion the rights they dream of having, especially at this moment when freedom, equality and democracy face strong ideological opposition from powerful states, and when some liberal democracies appear to be placing economic considerations ahead of human rights in their foreign policy.

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The certainty that American support means so much to so many led the Commission to its principal conclusion: the United States must remain strong in promoting the principles that have enabled free societies to achieve, in the words of the UN Charter and the UDHR, “better standards of life in larger freedom.” 

At the same time, the commissioners were keenly aware that America can be an effective advocate for human rights abroad only if she demonstrates her commitment to those same rights at home. The many questions currently roiling the nation about the rights and responsibilities of citizens lend urgency to another of the report’s major conclusions: One of the most important ways in which the United States promotes human rights abroad is by serving as an example of a free society where citizens live under the law in relative peace despite the nation’s great religious, ethnic and cultural heterogeneity. 

Notorious rights violators like ChinaIran, and Russia are quick to charge that our country’s domestic shortcomings destroy its standing to defend universal human rights. There can be no moral equivalence, however, between rights-respecting countries that fall short in progress toward their ideals, and countries that regularly and massively trample on their citizens’ most basic rights. 

A major purpose of the Commission’s report is to strengthen the intellectual defense of the post-World War II human rights project in the face of new and growing threats to human freedom. As Human Rights Watch has pointed out, the broad international consensus that once supported the core set of rights in the UDHR is increasingly fragile. 

China and other nations are promoting an alternate vision in which national priorities prevail over the rights to speech, assembly, and free elections. Ominous risks to human freedom and dignity are also emerging in the realm of artificial intelligence, biological science, and sophisticated surveillance techniques. 

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As a nation that came into being by affirming universal moral principles “to a candid world," America must rise to today’s challenges with the same energy and spirit that it brought to the building of a new international order after World War II. The U.S. was a major force in the historic events that embedded basic rights in the moral terrain of international relations: the founding of the United Nations; the Nuremberg Trials; the Marshall Plan (based on the conviction that basic human rights, free markets, and food security are mutually reinforcing); and the approval by the UN General Assembly of the UDHR with its small core of principles to which people of vastly different backgrounds could appeal. 

With U.S. support, the human rights idea played a crucial role in the movements that led to the demise of apartheid in South Africa, the toppling of totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe, and the decline of military dictatorships in Latin America. Now is not the time to step back from a foreign policy that serves vital American interests while promoting American ideals.

One of the most useful contributions of the report may be its retrieval of several international human rights principles that have been obscured by what Lincoln called the “silent artillery of time.” Chief among these is the principle that the rights enumerated in the UDHR are “indivisible and interdependent and inter-related.” 

This means that a nation violates its international commitments if it ignores any of those basic rights or completely subordinates one to another — as China does with the political and civil rights, or as some western states do with the provisions on the family, freedom of religion and belief, and the prior rights of parents concerning their children’s education. The report should also be helpful to policymakers in determining where legitimate leeway in modes of implementation ends and cultural relativism begins. 

It is the Commission’s hope that its report will not only be of use to U.S. officials engaged in framing foreign policy but that it will stimulate fruitful discussion among friends of freedom everywhere on how to keep fundamental rights alive where they are firmly rooted or to bring them to a life where they are stifled. 

Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon is Chairwoman of the Commission on Unalienable Rights