David Kramer, who served in the State Department under George W. Bush, assails Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent speech on human rights as well as the human-rights report that was the occasion for it. (It’s the same report my Bloomberg Opinion column discusses, much more positively.) Kramer makes two charges, and has half a point.
First, he accuses the report of trying to “to downgrade the rights of women and the LGBTQ community, dismissing them as ‘divisive social and political controversies in the United States’ and suggesting that they are, in fact, not ‘unalienable rights.’” Here’s the actual passage in question that Kramer is distorting:
In divisive social and political controversies in the United States — abortion, affirmative action, same-sex marriage — it is common for both sides to couch their claims in terms of basic rights. Indeed, it is a testament to the deep roots in the American spirit of our founding ideas about unalienable rights that our political debates continue to revolve around the concepts of individual freedom and human equality, even as we disagree — sometimes deeply — on the proper interpretation and just application of these principles.
The increase in rights claims, in some ways overdue and just, has given rise to excesses of its own. Not all government forbearance or intervention that benefits some or even all citizens is for that reason a right, and not every right that democratic majorities choose to enact is therefore unalienable.
The report does not, as you can see, make any claim about whether abortion is an unalienable right. If it had denied it — if it had instead claimed that abortion is the infringement of an unalienable right, as I believe it should have done — it would not have been “downgrad[ing] the rights of women.” It would have been denying that killing vulnerable members of the human species are among those rights.
A later passage of the report suggests that the proliferation of rights in various international treaties and declarations is a mistake: “Transforming every worthy political preference into a claim of human rights inevitably dilutes the authority of human rights.” Kramer swipes: “As if legalizing same-sex marriage somehow compounded the plight of political prisoners rotting in Iranian, Egyptian, Chinese, or North Korean jails.” That’s not the claim. The claim is closer to the idea that proclaiming same-sex marriage an unalienable human right on par with religious and political freedom would undermine our ability to stand up for those basic freedoms. Maybe that idea is mistaken, but jeering at a different idea that uses some of the same words isn’t a refutation.
Second, Kramer faults Pompeo for his omissions. Pompeo, in his view, should have taken some time to denounce his boss for being corrupt, divisive, and abusive; repudiated the administration’s foreign policy; and apologized for his own treatment of journalists and congressional subpoenas. Part of this critique seems to me to be right. The administration has not been a great champion of human rights, as I note in my own column; Pompeo’s sniping at Mary Louise Kelly was a low point of his tenure (and an episode on which Joel Gehrke’s profile sheds some light). But if your point is that moral integrity requires that Pompeo and everyone else in the administration resign and maybe commit ritual suicide, then you should just say that instead of pretending that you disapprove of the way they’re doing their job.