By Joseph Enzler, M.A. student
On the 21st of February, I attended the Commission on Unalienable Rights. This Commission was established by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to understand better what the Framers of the constitution meant by ‘unalienable rights’ and how to better implement this meaning in U.S. foreign policy. The Commission consists of twelve members from across the United States, mostly of academic backgrounds. Attending the Commission meeting was an incredible experience. Listening as the guest speakers voiced their thoughts on the human rights debate and spoke the truth about the importance of human rights, I was overcome with anticipation and vigor to solve the mystery that is human rights.
The first guest speaker was Dr. Martha Minow, a professor at the Harvard Law School. Her speech offered advice to the commission on how they should go about solving the mystery of ‘unalienable rights’ and human rights in general. She focused heavily on the manner in which one ought to engage with this topic. From maintaining respect and humility in one’s approach to tolerating the views of others, she laid out a clear path on which to begin discovering these rights. Listening to Dr. Minow’s speech reaffirmed my belief that human rights are difficult to ground in anything other than the dignity of the human person. At the core of her argument, Dr. Minow stated that understanding human dignity as the basis for unalienable rights, is the starting point of understanding how to construct foreign policy regarding them. In accordance with the Vatican II document, Dignitatis Humanae, Dr. Minow’s speech too seemed to indicate that, “truth…is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person.” Her focus on understanding human rights by way of understanding human dignity instilled hope in me, knowing that the ideals I am learning in the classroom are sought after and are at the core of the discussion of professionals in the human rights field.
The second speaker, Thor Halvorssen, is the CEO and founder of the Human Rights Foundation. Originally from Venezuela, Mr. Halvorssen expressed a clear disdain for socialist and authoritarian regimes. He stressed the importance of democracy and presented evidence of the correlation between human rights violations and dictatorships. Without diving into the theoretical dialogue, Mr. Halvorssen explained that human rights violations are intrinsically linked to dictatorial regimes. He then followed this observation by asking the obvious question: how do we prevent this? As CEO of the Human Rights Foundation, Halvorssen sees his duty as ‘sounding the alarm’ when a violation occurs. He explained that his responsibility is not to implement or suggest policy but to inform those who are responsible, of the need for a change of policy. Thus, he began by thanking the commission for their work and praising the existence of the commission. He pointed out that such a commission would not exist in China “or if it did, it would probably be composed of all state officials and used to spread propaganda.” Mr. Halvorssen did not put forth a path by which to create human rights policy as Dr. Minow did, however, he did leave the commission with one suggestion: to condemn all dictatorial regimes and all dictators across the world. He stated that he does not believe in labeling some dictators as ‘good dictators’ while condemning others as ‘bad dictators’ rather, he sees all authoritarian regimes as unjust, abusive of power, and the source of many human rights violations.
As a student in the Master of Arts in Human Rights program, attending the United States Commission on Unalienable Rights was an extraordinarily privileged moment. The primary struggle I have encountered during this program is the frustration of not being able to assist the millions of human beings who suffer from human rights abuses across the globe. I find myself questioning why I am learning the basis for human rights, when I desire to be out fighting those who abuse them. Attending this commission meeting instilled hope in me, a hope that great minds are sincerely struggling with a solution as well. Moreover, great people are fighting daily to gain the attention of the public and inspire this righteous anger in them. While the desire to step up and fight for those whose rights are being violated is good, understanding why we even have rights is the first step in joining the battle. Perhaps if enough people learned about the intrinsic dignity of the human person, we just might end the human rights atrocities and save our fellow human beings.