America is going through an identity crisis. Many no longer look back at our history with a reverent eye, but with a critical one, questioning our history, principles, and values.
Others feel a sense of constant confusion. Coming from Somalia, a country steeped in its own disorder and unrest, I am alarmed to see this happening in the United States.
That is why I was so heartened to see the State Department publish a “Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights.” The report attempts to address our crisis of confidence.
Most government reports do not move the needle. But this report has the potential to reorient U.S. foreign policy, as well as our internal civic dialogue as it relates to shared values and humanitarian efforts for years to come. As such, the report provides clarity in a field that has increasingly suffered from fogginess. The report also marks the opening salvo of what will be a vigorous debate over the nature of human rights at home and abroad. This is a discussion worth participating in for anyone interested in the dignity of the human individual.
The report takes us back to our founding principles. The original aims of the founding documents were to ensure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while also protecting property rights and religious liberty. From its inception, our nation was diverse. Though most were of British origin, they came from different religions and classes, united by a desire for freedom. This fundamental aim was immortalized in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution.
It is so important to revisit our founding. I commend the Commission on Unalienable Rights for emphasizing its uniqueness in their report because those with the loudest megaphones keep insisting our nation is fundamentally racist and deplorable.
But this is not true. Our Declaration of Independence asserts liberty and unalienable rights for all. It was only a matter of time before the conversation turned to slavery and the necessity that all people, including those with darker skin, should enjoy freedom and equality before the law. We should not be proud of the existence of slavery in our history, but we can be proud the U.S. went to war against a secessionist Confederacy to end it. Led by President Abraham Lincoln, we returned to our founding principles and granted freedom to all men.
This is the story that should be told again and again. Yes, slavery was a kind of original sin, but defeating slavery was a victory all should celebrate. Our foundational principles, which time and again enable us to overcome injustices, are not only universal but timeless. Our identity rests upon cherishing the core principle that all of us are created equal and are endowed with the same unalienable rights.
The commission’s report candidly admits that while we have much to be proud of, we have much to do on policing, civic unrest, and basic human rights. Throughout our history, from ending slavery, giving women the right to vote, and seeking real racial equality during the Civil Rights Movement, the American story has been a constant acknowledgment and correction of imperfections. As the report puts it, “much of American history can be understood as a struggle to deliver on the nation’s founding promise by ensuring that what came to be called human rights were enjoyed by all persons who lived under the laws of the land.”
We must continue striving to live up to and defend our founding principles, without descending into forced criticism of American history that descends into nihilism. We cannot look at the bad in American history without simultaneously acknowledging the preponderance of good and America’s uniquely positive role as a beacon of freedom in the world.
Unalienable versus positive rights
The Commission on Unalienable Rights report addresses the major confusion our nation struggles with. It provides a much-needed distinction between unalienable rights, also known as human rights, and positive rights. The conflation of the two has fueled the discombobulation that we see today.
Unalienable rights are inseparable from humanity. They exist because we exist as individuals. These rights can be violated or ignored by an oppressive authority, but they cannot be removed or transferred. They “provide a standard by which positive rights and positive law can be judged, while positive rights and positive law make the promise of unalienable rights concrete by giving expression to and instantiating unalienable rights.”
While unalienable rights are universal, positive rights are local. They are particular to a specific nation’s identity. They are, as explained by the report, “created by, and can only exist in, civil society. Positive rights owe their existence to custom, tradition, and to positive law, which is the law created by human beings.”
Foreign policy and troubled international organizations
The report makes clear that some of the international organizations and institutions that purport to defend “human rights” (including the United Nations Human Rights Council and the U.N. more broadly) have not only become politicized and dysfunctional but deeply confused in the realm of human rights. They frequently play politics and fail to prioritize unalienable rights. It is up to the U.S. to keep a cool head when faced with such institutions.
In geopolitics, the report notes the Chinese Communist Party is a cause for deep concern, both with regard to China's subjugated populations (particularly Uighur Muslims) and growing pressure on other countries. The party rejects, negates, or ignores many unalienable rights in its quest for power and domination over the human individual. The Chinese Communist Party uses national sovereignty to shield itself from criticism of human rights violations, even as it undermines the sovereignty of other nations through debt-traps, manipulation, and coercion.
The Commission on Unalienable Rights lays out a road map for future action to defend unalienable rights, at home and abroad. Distinguishing unalienable from positive rights allows us to clarify our relationship with the rest of the world. As a breakaway nation ourselves, we respect the sovereignty of other nations and their differences in history, culture, and heritage. We lead by example, through diplomacy and, in rare cases, by military might when we see unalienable rights threatened.
Unifying us all
In just 60 pages, the report seeks to rescue the human rights conversation, where human “rights” have proliferated conceptually without an improvement of the human condition. As early as 1991, the legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon warned that a proliferation of “rights,” without a commensurate increase in duties and responsibilities, was not a sustainable trajectory. It was a recipe for growing moral and legal confusion that would result in a loss of focus on defending and preserving unalienable rights.
Nearly three decades later, we live in divisive times. Society is fragmenting into various groups. As I saw in Somalia, these tribes threaten the nation-state because they implicitly put each group on hostile footing toward “the other.” We see conservatives versus liberals, black people versus white people, the “woke” left versus the far-right. We see seemingly never-ending splintering. Often these divisions boil down to disagreements over positive rights. Less focus is placed on the individual, his rights, and his responsibilities; instead, more emphasis is placed on the collective “tribe(s)” to which an individual belongs. Who would not be confused?
But the Commission on Unalienable Rights report reminds us what unites us and shows what we should focus on in our foreign policy. To secure the promises of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, we still have work to do. The better we do it, the more credibly we can act to defend the unalienable rights of people abroad.