HKS Authors

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Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy
Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights, Global Affairs and Philosophy


In July 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched a Commission on Unalienable Rights, charged with a reexamination of the scope and nature of human rights–based claims. From his statements, it seems that Pompeo hopes the commission will substantiate—by appeal to the U.S. Declaration of Independence and to natural law theory—three key conservative ideas: (1) that there is too much human rights proliferation, and once we get things right, social and economic rights as well as gender emancipation and reproductive rights will no longer register as human rights; (2) that religious liberties should be strengthened under the human rights umbrella; and (3) that the unalienable rights that should guide American foreign policy neither need nor benefit from any international oversight. I aim to show that despite Pompeo's framing, the Declaration of Independence, per se, is of no help with any of this, whereas evoking natural law is only helpful in ways that reveal its own limitations as a foundation for both human rights and foreign policy in our interconnected age.


Risse, Mathias. "On American Values, Unalienable Rights, and Human Rights: Some Reflections on the Pompeo Commission." Ethics & International Affairs 34.1 (2020): 13-31.