NATIONAL CONSTITUTION CENTER
JULY 16, 2020
Good afternoon, everyone. It is wonderful to be here. It’s beautiful. It’s absolutely beautiful here.
Thank you, Mary Ann, for that lovely introduction. I am confident that when we first met and I was a 27-year-old former Army captain that I’d be standing here today with you in this beautiful place talking about this important moment.
I was very moved by the rendition of the National Anthem. Let’s give a round of applause again to Sergeant First Class Charis Strange. (Applause.) None of you should be surprised that I chose an Army person to come give the opening singing.
Cardinal Dolan, thank you. Bless you for being here today. We are blessed to have you here.
I want to express too my appreciation for the National Constitution Center for hosting us. It took some doing to organize. This isn’t how this is normally laid out. Let’s give the people who made this all happen from this institution a big round of applause as well. (Applause.)
I’m happy too that so many of you took the time to come to Philadelphia – a place intentionally chosen – even if we do have to be socially distanced. And to those watching livestream at state.gov, welcome.
A special welcome today too to the commission members who could make it here: Paolo Carozza and David Pan, and to Peter Berkowitz, the commission’s executive secretary and the head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. We also have Duncan Walker and the rapporteur for the committee Cart Weiland here. I know that all of you and your colleagues put a lot of hard work into this report, and thank you so much for that.
I want to take just a second as well to acknowledge the commissioners who could not be here today: Kenneth Anderson, Russell Berman, Hamza Yusuf Hanson, Jacqueline Rivers, Katrina Lantos-Swett, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, and Christopher Tollefsen. I value deeply the contributions that each of you made to this important report.
I want to thank too – there were lots of public comments. We had a number of public meetings. There were many people who voiced a diverse set of opinions. I want to thank people who contributed, like Martha Minow, Cass Sunstein, and Orlando Patterson, who came to share with us their thinking about how we should write this report.
I know too that the commission is welcoming and providing a further opportunity for public input as we complete our work later this afternoon.
And a special thanks to you, Professor Glendon. You are amongst the most significant inspirations for this report that we’re unveiling here today.
Many of you will know this, but I spent a few years – a few years under Mary Ann’s tutelage. I was a research assistant for her. She paid me 7 bucks an hour. I thought I was rich. (Laughter.) It was one of my greatest gifts in life.
I’ve now read nearly everything you’ve written. I don’t agree with all of it – (laughter) – but we had a fun time. We debated human rights. We agreed on the big things, the important things, the things that really matter about this remarkable nation.
We agreed that our founders traveled to this great land to enjoy the fruit of freedom, not to spread subjugation.
We agreed, as Professor Glendon, the former 1960s civil rights advocate, wrote in her great work Rights Talk, that “A rapidly expanding catalog of rights…not only multiplies the occasion for risks of collision, but risks trivializing core American values.”
We agreed that the Declaration of Independence itself is the most important statement of human rights ever written. It made human freedom and human equality our nation’s central ideas.
And as I said to the Claremont Institute now just over a year ago, we agreed that America draws strength and goodness from her founding ideals and that our foreign policy must be grounded by those ideals as well.
But we know this: We can’t do good – at home or abroad – if we don’t precisely know what we believe and why we believe it.
And that’s why I asked Professor Glendon to form a commission composed of some of the most distinguished scholars and activists. I asked them not to discover new principles, but to furnish advice on human rights grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Because without this grounding – without this grounding our efforts to protect and promote human rights is unmoored and, therefore, destined to fail.
And so the Commission on Unalienable Rights was born.
These rights, these unalienable rights, are essential. They are a foundation upon which this country was built. They are central to who we are and to what we care about as Americans.
Now, I think Cardinal Dolan referred to this, but America’s founders didn’t invent the “unalienable rights,” but stated very clearly in the Declaration of Independence that they are held as “self-evident” that human beings were “created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights… among [those] are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
So too did these bright men know that each human being has inherent worth, just by virtue of his or her own humanity – a deeply Biblical idea. As Alexander Hamilton wrote, “The sacred rights of mankind…are written, as with a sun beam…by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”
Now, that may seem commonplace to some of you, but this was a momentous idea. Until 1776, human beings pretty much everywhere were ruled by might and brutality.
The founders changed the course of history when they established a nation built on the premise that government exists not to diminish or cancel the individual’s rights at the whims of those in power, but to secure them.
I’ll never forget – I’ll never forget being spellbound by the founders’ ideas for the first time. As a cadet, too many years ago now, at West Point, I was issued uniforms, a rifle, and the Federalist Papers. I still have that copy. Some have seen it on my desk. It’s a bit more tattered now. But I’ve continued to go back to that and harken back to those central ideas that these men brought to this great nation. And it’s important – it’s important for every American, for every American diplomat, to recognize how our founders understood unalienable rights.
As you’ll see when you get a chance to read this report, the report emphasizes foremost among these rights are property rights and religious liberty. No one can enjoy the pursuit of happiness if you cannot own the fruits of your own labor, and no society – no society can retain its legitimacy or a virtuous character without religious freedom.
Our founders knew. Our founders knew that faith was also essential to nurture the private virtue of our citizens. The report speaks to that.
In his now famous letter from 1790, a letter to the Jews of Newport, George Washington proudly noted that the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Our founders also knew the fallen nature of mankind. Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 10: “Men are ambitious, vindictive, rapacious.”
So in their wisdom, they established a system that acknowledged our human failings, checked our worst instincts, and ensured that government wouldn’t trample on these unalienable rights.
Limited government structured into our documents protects these rights. As the report states, “majorities are inclined to impair individual freedom, and public officials are prone to putting their private preferences and partisan ambitions ahead of the public interest.”
The genius – the genius of our founders was evident to one man in particular. In 1838, a 29-year-old – 28-year-old lawyer gave a speech to the local young man’s lyceum in Springfield, Illinois.
Abraham Lincoln said, quote, “We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us.”
This is still true. This is still true of America today. America is fundamentally good and has much to offer the world, because our founders recognized the existence of God-given, unalienable rights and designed a durable system to protect them.
But I must say, these days, even saying that “America is fundamentally good” has become controversial.
The commission was never intended to time the release of this report to the current societal upheavals that are currently roiling our nation. Nevertheless, the report touches on this moment, and so will I, because today’s unrest directly ties to our ability to put our founding principles at the core of what we do as Americans and as diplomats all across the world.
Now, it’s true that at our nation’s founding our country fell far short of securing the rights of all. The evil institution of slavery was our nation’s gravest departure from these founding principles. We expelled Native Americans from their ancestral lands. And our foreign policy, too, has not always comported with the idea of sovereignty embedded in the core of our founding.
But crucially – crucially – the nation’s founding principles gave us a standard by which we could see the gravity of our failings and a political framework that gave us the tools to ultimately abolish slavery and enshrine into law equality without regard to race.
You don’t always hear these ground truths today. Nor do you hear about the greatest strides our nation has made to realize the promise of our founding and a more perfect union.
From Seneca Falls, to Brown vs. Board of Education, to the peaceful marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Americans have always laid claims to their promised inheritance of unalienable rights.
And yet today, the very core of what it means to be an American, indeed the American way of life itself, is under attack. Instead of seeking to improve America, too many leading voices promulgate hatred of our founding principles.
President Trump spoke about this at Mount Rushmore on the Fourth of July. And our rights tradition is under assault.
The New York Times’s 1619 Project – so named for the year that the first slaves were transported to America – wants you to believe that our country was founded for human bondage.
They want you to believe that America’s institutions continue to reflect the country’s acceptance of slavery at our founding.
They want you to believe that Marxist ideology that America is only the oppressors and the oppressed. The Chinese Communist Party must be gleeful when they see the New York Times spout this ideology.
Some people have taken these false doctrines to heart. The rioters pulling down statues thus see nothing wrong with desecrating monuments to those who fought for our unalienable rights – from our founding to the present day.
This is a dark vision of America’s birth. I reject it. It’s a disturbed reading of history. It is a slander on our great people. Nothing could be further from the truth of our founding and the rights about which this report speaks.
The commission reminds us – it’s got a quote from Frederick Douglas, himself a freed slave, who saw the Constitution as a “glorious, liberty document.” That it is.
America is special. America is good. America does good all around the world.
In recent weeks, I’ve had the chance to walk around Arlington Cemetery a few times, as I was thinking about today. And I’ve been reminded of the hundreds of thousands of young men America sacrificed during the Civil War. We forget them at our peril.
And that grand struggle for rights wasn’t the only one in American history. There are many remarkable Americans still engaged in the drive to fulfill the Declaration’s promises.
One of them is here with us today, David Hardy. David was the founding CEO of Boys Latin School – a charter right here in Philadelphia. He’s still very involved in the charter school community.
At Boys Latin, and other schools like it, aspiring young men, nearly all of them from some of the most difficult parts of Philadelphia, have a better chance to pursue their happiness. Eighty-nine percent of the students there matriculate to college.
He – David – has devoted the great part of his adult life to equal opportunities for a good education, often called the civil rights movement of our time.
Mr. Hardy, please stand. And let’s give him a round of applause. (Applause.) David, thank you again for being with us here today.
Our nation, too, has the responsibility to inculcate our founding values and reward their adoption. C.S. Lewis said it best when he lamented that “we make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”
We must do better. America must build on its founding ideals and its leader must fearlessly defend them.
It is clear – and this report makes it even more so – it is clear that unalienable rights are central to who we are as Americans. But here’s where I come in as Secretary of State. They have to underpin our foreign policy.
The Declaration itself is a foreign policy matter. It was written to explain why our nation broke away from British tyranny.
If we truly believe – if we truly believe that rights are unalienable, inviolate, enduring, indeed, universal, just as the founders did, then defending them ought to be the bedrock of our every diplomatic endeavor.
Indeed, our own commitment to unalienable rights at home has proved a beacon of hope for men and women abroad pursuing their own liberties.
The examples are countless. I’ll just give a couple.
Natan Sharansky – when he heard of President Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech while imprisoned, he said it was a “ray of hope” in the darkness of his punishment cell.
Last year – Professor Glendon referred to this – Hong Kong waved the American flag as they protested a communist crackdown. There is no symbol of freedom more recognizable all around the world.
Today, I’m proud to have with us Wei Jingsheng, who is considered the father of today’s Chinese democracy movement. On December 5th, 1978, the young electrician from Beijing Zoo shook the world by bravely posting an eloquent essay on Beijing’s short-lived Democracy Wall.
Mr. Wei boldly insisted that the CCP’s Four Modernizations in industry, agriculture, defense, and science weren’t enough to truly make China a modern – a modern and civilized nation.
Hearkening back to the May Fourth Movement, generations earlier, he said China needed a fifth modernization: democracy.
The Chinese Communist Party repeatedly threw Mr. Wei in jail for his advocacy.
In 1997, he emigrated. He emigrated to America, where he has continued his courageous call for the Chinese Communist Party to honor the unalienable rights that God has given to every Chinese citizen – from Tibet to Tiananmen and from Hong Kong to Hubei.
Mr. Wei, please stand and be recognized. (Applause.) It’s a blessing to have you with us here today. Thank you, again.
Now, if you believe our founding principles should inform foreign policy, and especially the promotion of unalienable rights, we have to lay down a framework – a framework for how to think about this around the world.
Now, we have to be realistic, because our first duty is, of course, to secure American freedoms. That’s what I raised my right hand to do, when I was sworn in as America’s Secretary of State.
Our dedication to unalienable rights doesn’t mean we have the capacity to tackle all human rights violations everywhere and at all times.
Indeed, our pursuit of justice may clash with hard political realities that thwart effective action.
And our promotion of rights may be possible to achieve through diplomatic tools, but it, from time to time, will certainly not be.
And our Declaration isn’t a license for foreign adventurism, nor does it direct such.
And so we are forced to grapple with the tough choices about which rights to promote and how to think about this.
Americans have not only unalienable rights, but also positive rights, rights granted by governments, courts, multilateral bodies. Many are worth defending in light of our founding; others aren’t.
Prioritizing – prioritizing which rights to defend is also hard. There was a research group found – combined 64 human rights-related agreements, encompassing 1,377 provisions, between the United Nations and the Council of Europe alone. That’s a lot of rights.
And the proliferation of rights is part of the reason why this report is so important. It reorients us back to the foundational, unalienable rights that we are bound to protect.
This grounding, this grounding in our founding principle also helps us to judge what other – other nations are violating the rights that we care most about.
As the late Justice Scalia once remarked: “The Soviet Union had a long and beautiful bill of rights. It abounded in inspiring promises. [And] those promises…were worthless.”
More rights does not necessarily mean more justice.
And now, I didn’t give the commission the task – it wasn’t within its charter – to prescribe specific policies to address these challenges and these difficult issues.
But the report has provided us the essential questions to ask. How should we think about this? It provided a framework, and let me walk through what the report says about how we might think about this with several questions:
Are our foreign policy decisions rooted in our founding principles?
Are the decisions consistent with our constitutional norms and procedures?
Are they rooted in the universal principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
Does a new rights claim that’s being presented represent a clear consensus across different traditions and across different cultures, as the Universal Declaration did, or is it merely a narrower partisan or ideological interest?
None of us will answer these questions precisely the same. We won’t come to identical conclusions about them. But now, at least, thanks to the commission’s work, we have a framework through which to ask the right questions and a basis for thoughtful, rational debate.
This report was very timely. We need this wisdom now.
Human rights advocates won great and laudable victories in our lifetimes, from the defeat of fascism, to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and to the end of apartheid.
But that was then. The great and noble human rights project of the 20th century is in crisis.
Authoritarian regimes perpetrate gross human rights violations every day, all around the world, in Nicaragua and Venezuela, in Zimbabwe, Iran, Russia, Burma, China, North Korea. The list is very long.
Too many human rights advocacy groups have traded proud principles for partisan politics.
And we see multilateral human rights bodies failing us. The United Nations Human Rights Council does the bidding of dictators and averts its gaze from the worst human rights offenses of our times.
Indeed, international courts too have largely abandoned unalienable rights. The International Criminal Court is training its sights on Americans and Israelis, not the ayatollahs of the world.
And our incurious media rarely examines any of these failings. Indeed, The New York Times refused to publish Professor Glendon’s op-ed on this commission’s report, which leads me to the obvious conclusion that you are even more dangerous than Senator Tom Cotton.
The vital 20th century human rights project has come unmoored, and it needs a re-grounding. That is risky for Americans, and it is deadly for others around the world.
The commission’s work marks an important contribution to America’s effort to address this human rights crisis, and it’s a good time to do so.
Thankfully, America stands tall in the face of the most fearsome challenges.
Now, when you get a chance to read the report – and you’ll see that the commissioners didn’t agree on everything – but they did all agree that the United States must “vigorously champion” human rights in our foreign policy, and I could not agree more.
No nation is better equipped. We have the most abundant resources, the most principled diplomats, and the most conviction to defend human rights of any nation in the world.
And we have manifold tools at our disposal to accomplish these goals:
We must – and do – serve as an exemplar here at home as well. And I challenge anyone in the world to best our robust democracy, our vigorous debates, and our constant striving to be better.
It’s important too – and the report reflects on this – we must reject moral equivalency. Last year, a very well-known senior columnist for a major American media outlet asked the following question: “Is there any reason to believe [that] China is a less moral place than the United States?”
Thought I’d take two seconds to answer that today. There is indeed every reason not only to believe but to know that our exceptional nation secures infinitely more freedom for its citizens than the CCP will ever permit. But the mere asking of that question is so deeply troubling.
The report answers this too. It says, quote, “There can be no moral equivalence between rights-respecting countries that fall short in progress towards their ideals, and countries that regularly and massively trample on their citizens’ human rights.”
So too must we cultivate the “seedbeds of human rights.” Free and flourishing societies cannot be nurtured only by the hand of government. They must be nurtured through patriotic educators, present fathers and mothers, humble pastors, next-door neighbors, steady volunteers, honest businesspeople, and so many other faithful, quiet citizens.
We have the responsibility to educate and advocate. Our diplomatic posts all over the world have human rights officers working to promote American values.
I and my team at the State Department and this administration have promoted religious freedom everywhere we go. I’ve met with survivors of religious persecution and religious leaders, from Pope Francis, to the Metropolitan Epiphany in Kyiv, to the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
We can shine a light on abuses, and as we do when we issue our annual reports, we take stock of the world’s efforts on religious freedom, on human rights, and on human trafficking. No other nation devotes such enormous resources to simply telling the truth about human rights abuses around the world.
We too can empower the people of other nations to further their social and economic rights. Our USAID does this essential work, as does our W-GDP program, which helps women flourish as entrepreneurs. Women, sadly, suffer the most human rights abuses. We can help them do better.
We can work productively too with other nations. We’ve done that. We’ve worked with 60-plus nations to help the Venezuelan people recover democracy from the Maduro dictatorship.
And then we have punitive tools too, such as sanctions that we’ve levied on human rights abusers in Iran and in Cuba, and a recent advisory that we put out about Xinjiang and companies doing business there. We want to make sure that no American business is knowingly benefiting from slave labor.
Just last week, the State Department and the Treasury Department put sanctions on senior Chinese leaders involved in what I have called the “Stain of the Century” – the mass abuses against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang region of China. We do all of these things, our foreign policy does all of these things, for the sake of unalienable rights.
I established this commission because America, uniquely among nations, has the capacity to champion human rights and the dignity of every human being made in the image of God, no matter their nation.
But to do so effectively, we must insist on the rightness and the relevance of America’s founding principles. Surely, if America loses them, she loses her soul and our capacity to do good around the world. If we adhere to them, we will replenish that capacity.
In that same Lyceum address that I mentioned earlier, President Lincoln recognized this truth about securing American freedoms. He knew that the ultimate danger to America would be internal. He said it this way. He said, “If it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us.”
He meant that he understood that America would overcome all challenges from outside, provided that the nation remained true to its founding principles.
And as it was when Lincoln spoke, so it is today.
And to the world, America is the star that shines brightest when the night is the darkest. President Reagan once said, “If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape. This is the last stand on earth.” I see that in what’s going on around the world today as well.
I am confident that the American star will shine across the heavens, so long as we keep a proper understanding of unalienable rights at the center of our unending quest to secure freedom for our own people and all of mankind. The report that you worked on will ensure that we have a better chance to accomplish that.
Thank you all so much for being here today.
God bless you.
And may God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)