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Unalienable Rights and the Securing of Freedom
July 16, 2020


AMBASSADOR GLENDON: I am Mary Ann Glendon. I’m chair of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, and on behalf of my fellow commissioners, some of whom are here today, I want to welcome you to this presentation of our report.

I came in here earlier this morning, and when I saw the seating arrangement, it reminded me of Giacometti’s “Figures in a Public Square.” Those seats looked so distant from one another and so lonely, and of course, that whole sculpture was meant to be an evocation of estrangement of modern man. But now that I see people in the seats, it’s really just the opposite, and I want to thank you – so many of you – for having come here today. I know that travel is difficult, and I know you’re all here because you care about public life, unlike Giacometti’s estranged figures.

So a year ago, when Secretary Pompeo established this commission, he gave us only two very terse instructions: One was to ground our work in the principles of the U.S. founding and in the principles of the international human rights project – specifically the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and the second was to keep our work at the level of policy – I’m sorry, of principle – and not to get involved in policy, where the State Department is already very well supplied with policymakers. And at the time a year ago, many people wondered, well, what’s the point of having a commission that doesn’t concern itself with the burning issues of the day?

And one answer – possibly an answer to that – is something that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said many years ago. He said when I was a professor, I could work on whatever subjects I wanted and take as much time as I wanted, and a policymaker is always under pressure, has to make decisions in haste sometimes, sometimes on very limited information. And the risk, he said, for the policymaker is that the urgent will sometimes drive out the important. That risk, of course, will never be fully eliminated, but Secretary Pompeo did take a step toward alleviating it when he asked for a study about going back to basics and looking at the principles behind the United States commitment to human rights internationally.

Still, some people asked why now, when so many other matters are pressing for attention. Why have such a study now? And I’ll just suggest a few answers. You can think of more, perhaps, but certainly one is the information we got from Freedom House’s report this spring where they told us that political and civil rights worldwide have declined this year for the 14th consecutive year and that half the world’s population – 4 billion people – currently live under autocratic or quasi-authoritarian regimes.

And perhaps that’s why some powerful countries are now openly challenging the basic premises of the great post-World War II human rights project, and by challenging the premises, they are undermining the already fragile international consensus behind the ideas that no nation should be immune from outside scrutiny of how it treats its own citizens and that every human being is entitled to certain fundamental rights simply by virtue of being human.

China, in particular, is aggressively promoting a very different concept in which national priorities of various sorts prevail over the basic rights of speech, assembly, religious freedom, and free elections.

Another set of threats to human freedom and dignity are emerging in technological advances – artificial intelligence, biotechnology, data collection, sophisticated surveillance techniques.

I could go on. But what hasn’t changed – what hasn’t changed – is the fact that millions of women and men are suffering arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and those women and men are looking to the United States as a beacon of hope and encouragement.

For the commissioners over these past several months, it’s been humbling as well as moving to see American flags in the hands of so many of the Hong Kong protesters. And it was the fact for us that so many people in so many places count so much on the United States – yes, even in the ways that our country falls short of its own ideals, it was that fact that led us to our principal conclusion, which was that as a nation that came into being by affirming certain unalienable rights that belong to everyone everywhere, the United States must now rise to the challenges with the same energy and spirit that it brought to the building of a new international order in the post-World War period.

I hope that those of you who would like to hear more about the report will join us at 4 o’clock this afternoon for the public meeting, but now we must turn to today’s program, where we’re very fortunate to have with us Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, who will present the invocation; after which we will hear the remarks of the Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo; which will be followed by a conversation between the Secretary and myself in which he may reveal whether the commission’s report did or did not come close in any way to what he expected of it.

Please join me in welcoming Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Cardinal Timothy Dolan. (Applause.)

And please remain standing for the National Anthem, which will be performed by Army Sergeant First Class Charis Strange.

(The National Anthem was sung.)

CARDINAL DOLAN: Well done. Thanks, Sergeant. Here we go, Mary Ann.

Let us pray, and pray we must, we citizens who cherish this one nation under God, a duty flowing from our bold confession. In God we trust.

So we readily praise the creator who has bestowed upon and ingrained into the very nature of his creatures certain inalienable rights, acknowledged by the founders, enshrined in our country’s normative documents, defended with the blood of grateful patriots. You – you, dear Lord – have bestowed these inalienable rights – not kings, tyrants, or any government; rights flowing from the innate human dignity of the person and the sacredness of all human life. You have made self-evident in reason and nature celebrated in your own revelation.

And while we will never give up beseeching you, dear God, to mend our every flaw, we renew our gratitude for this homeland founded on these inalienable rights, asking your blessing upon this noble project initiated by Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Glendon and your guidance as we renew our sense of duty to share our country’s wisdom on rights inherent to the very nature of the human person never, ever to be trampled.

To the sovereign of the nations, creator of all, bestower of rights, be honor and glory for ever and ever, amen.

AMBASSADOR GLENDON: Now it’s my great pleasure to introduce the person whose idea it was to have a study that would help to ground American diplomacy in the principles of our founding and in the principles of the international human rights project, and it is my great pleasure, Mr. Secretary, to present you with a copy of our report.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Secretary of the United States Michael R. Pompeo. (Applause.)

SECRETARY POMPEO: 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.)

AMBASSADOR GLENDON: Wonderful, absolutely wonderful. So, Mr. Secretary, thank you for those inspiring words, and thank you for sitting down, for your agreement to elaborate on —

SECRETARY POMPEO: This is the hard part. (Laughter.)

AMBASSADOR GLENDON: Well, actually, I’m tempted to ask you to elaborate on those things you said we disagreed about. I’m sure there must have been some mistake. (Laughter.) But instead, I’ll ask you a question that the commissioners have wondered about over the past few months, and I’m sure many other people: With so many other challenges for the State Department, for so many other factors that have to go into foreign policy, why is it – just what a skeptic would say – why is it, when we have to think about security and strategy and economic considerations, why is it that you think human rights advocacy is such an important part? How is that in the national interest?

SECRETARY POMPEO: I spoke about this a little bit, and I could see it when I came to the State Department, and I’ve known it – so I was a soldier, right, life-and-death matters. When I went to law school, right, we’d read about just war, these central ideas of how we as Americans think about our world. And I watched as cables would come in at the State Department, and we’d be talking about rights in ways that were deeply inconsistent. And I knew – I knew – I knew that the team was trying to get it right, but you could watch. The language had been tarnished. We weren’t crisp. We weren’t thinking about it properly.

It all fit back with what I knew to be true about the central nature of our capacity to have influence around the world. It stems from our confidence in ourselves and our deep commitment to the fact that this nation is exceptional, because we rallied around this idea of unalienable rights. And so I wanted to – I wanted to make sure I was right, and secondly I wanted an opportunity to have some of the most talented people from across America to think about this and write about this and bring it up to date. I knew the Declaration. I knew the Constitution. I had read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights many times. And I thought here was a chance for us to help the State Department and America re-ground in these central traditions so that we can go out in the world and truly feel good about the work that we’re doing.

AMBASSADOR GLENDON: It’s interesting that many secretaries of state, as you know, have taken more or less – give more or less priority to human rights and foreign policy, but no one before you ever thought to go back to basics, and let’s ask that question. And interestingly, around the same time that you came up with that idea, so did Amnesty International, and their secretary-general said the human rights project is in crisis, it’s time to start asking basic questions. And of course, that was one of our efforts in the report.

I speculated a little, and you said a few words about the challenges right now to advocating human rights on a worldwide basis, but I think everyone would be interested to hear more about – what do you think the greatest challenges are?

SECRETARY POMPEO: There’s this important – and I referenced this in my remarks a little bit – there’s this true importance to speak about this properly. So I will literally be in meetings where I will have my counterparts from across the world talk about their nation and rights, and no one chuckles because we’re professionals, but they’re just – they’re not grounded in the things we know about human nature and human dignity. And that’s important to – we’ve adopted this annual program where we bring religious leaders of all faiths from all around the world – we have ministerials, so we bring foreign ministers. We have hundreds of people. It’s the largest gathering of religious leaders every year to talk about these set of rights and religious freedom. It’s quite remarkable. We do it at the State Department. And it’s always, for me, fascinating to watch how – different traditions, different faith traditions, different traditions from the countries that they are from as well.

And yet when you engage in the way that this Commission’s report engaged and say let’s take it back to the things that are essential and central, how much common ground there is, and how, I hope, when people go out from this gathering, that they’re thinking about those things in the same way that I hope that our team is thinking about them around the world as well. It’s a big challenge. Some two-thirds of the people in the world live in places that are extremely challenged with the absence of religious freedom and religious liberty, the simple chance to exercise their conscientious views on faith. We as a world can do better, and America, I think, has a role in helping that take place.

AMBASSADOR GLENDON: You referenced Lincoln’s wonderful Lyceum speech a couple of times in your talk. One thing he said in that speech referring to the Declaration of Independence – he said those principles have been forgotten because they haven’t been attacked outright; they’ve been attacked by “the silent artillery of time.” And it seems to me that that’s true not only of our founding principles, but now of the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is about as old today as the Declaration of Independence was when Lincoln spoke.


AMBASSADOR GLENDON: It’s only China and a few other countries that are outright openly attacking the foundations and premises of the World War II human rights project, the project that helped to bring down totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe, apartheid. But the silent artillery of time has taken its toll. And we mentioned a lot of challenges you and I today, but one of them is simply that, that another —

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah. No, I think that’s right.

AMBASSADOR GLENDON: — reason for going back to basics is to remember.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah. I think that’s right. I think when I laid down the charter for this committee in the Federal Register, we talked about that. Don’t – no need to go invent anything, just revisit and rethink. Professor Glendon, it’s worthy of thinking about this too. As the Secretary of State, you mentioned I – complex problems all across the world. America can’t begin to solve all of them. We have our own American interests that are often cross-cutting with human rights issues as well. And so we’ll sometimes get the – get it wrong as Americans, right? We have – and you could critique this administration, you could critique previous ones too. Different people will make different judgments in time, and – but what’s central is that everyone understands when they’re doing that, right?

It is essential that you have that as a common framework, a common understanding that is grounded and fit for purpose for our times and center mass of your thinking, so that when you have to make a tough decision, when you’re working with a country that is not engaged in the human rights project in the way that they ought to be, that you know, that you’re aware, that you remember it, when appropriate you push it along beside the other foreign policy objectives that you’re working on. And I am proud of how our team does that everywhere and always. Sometimes we do it loudly; sometimes we do it quietly. I wanted to make sure that this report provided the intellectual foundation for this to go on as part of our team and for America in the years ahead. I hope that it’ll accomplish that, at least in some small part.

AMBASSADOR GLENDON: One of the things we only lightly touched on in our report was about our allies, other liberal democracies. We said that one nation speaking alone on a particular issue is very often not as effective as when a coalition of nations will speak together. And that leads – led us to a concern – I wonder if you share this concern – that the silent artillery of time has affected some of our allies in their willingness to speak out strongly on human rights in their foreign policies. How would you see that?

SECRETARY POMPEO: I think that’s very true.

AMBASSADOR GLENDON: And what do we do about that?

SECRETARY POMPEO: It requires us to redouble our efforts. Sometimes they not only – it’s not only that they have forgotten, but these authoritarian regimes around the world put enormous pressure on them. You take a look at some of the gross human rights violations taking place today, nations that you would have expected to speak about this in a candid and open way do not do so. They feel constrained or threatened or bullied.

But in some cases, they have either forgotten – and this should be a good reminder – and second, I think we can do more. We can encourage them; we can provide support. We can take our tradition, our rights tradition, and it’ll lay down different in their country, but use it to give them the courage to speak out about these things, which I know in their core they believe, but sometimes they rank – number it too far down the stack and choose to let America do the heavy lifting when it comes to this project. We need every nation to join us, certainly every liberal democracy around the world.

AMBASSADOR GLENDON: You must admit, Mr. Secretary, that the instructions you gave us at the beginning were quite brief, quite terse.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, and ambitious.

AMBASSADOR GLENDON: You let us figure out our own way in uncharted waters, and we appreciated that a great deal. We are an independent, non-partisan federal commission, and so we appreciated it. But now I’m curious: Was there anything in the report that surprised you?

SECRETARY POMPEO: No. It didn’t surprise me. It didn’t surprise me that when we pulled back the barnacles of time and brushed it off that we would come back to these central ideas and that – and while – when you read the report, you can see that there was a broad and diverse range of membership with a broad and diverse set of views. You can see that the language that’s contained in the report, the consensus, the bedrock of these unalienable rights shines through. You can see it. And I was very hopeful that that’s how this would proceed, and I’m very happy that it did. You all did remarkable work.

AMBASSADOR GLENDON: Well, we’re glad to hear it.

You’ve served our country in many different capacities. You mentioned being a captain in the Army; you were a congressman; you were director of the CIA. Now you’re Secretary of State. You placed, at least in our interpretation of your cryptic instructions – you place a great deal of emphasis on grounding in the founding principles of our country. And of course, as you mentioned in your speech, who could have imagined that those principles would be as intensely under debate as they are today. But I think people would like to hear a little bit about your own – the things in your own background that gave you such an intense dedication to those founding principles.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Oh, goodness. It’s hard to know precisely; easy to make stuff up. But I’ll give you – you looked at my public life, but even in your report you talk about the fact that this has to happen at home. And so I think about my role as father; I think about my role as husband. My wife and I taught fifth grade Sunday school for a number of years – perfect training for being the Secretary of State. (Laughter.) I ran a small business in Wichita, Kansas. These places where communities come together and these ideas – you don’t talk about them very much when you’re standing in front of CNC lathe with your – right – with your team or – but nonetheless, these ideas – this idea of civic virtue is central to the founders’ understanding.

And I came to understand that early on in life and to appreciate it and to do my best to be part of that in whatever community that I was part of. I didn’t always succeed, but I tried. And so as I’ve had this public role now in these last years, I’ve tried to inculcate that in every team that I’ve worked on and every organization that I’ve had the privilege to be part of as well.

AMBASSADOR GLENDON: Toward the end of your speech you mentioned those seed beds of civic virtues. And we say in our report that the American tradition of rights is a distinctive one. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world. And we identified three strands that launched this ongoing conversation that we have in this country about the point and purpose of our public life and one, of course, was this individualist strain, this Lockean we are a freedom-loving, profit-making, gambling, risk-taking society – we didn’t say all that in the report, but elaborating a bit – and then the civic republican strain that came out of those self-governing townships that pre-existed the founding but where Tocqueville noticed that Americans learned and practiced self-government; and then the Biblical strain which was so pervasive at the time of the founding that they didn’t feel the need to talk about it very much. And you indicated toward the end of your speech that rights are one thing, but rights are only tools, rights are only means to better standards of life and larger freedom, as the UN Charter says and the UN Declaration.


AMBASSADOR GLENDON: But rights have to be supported by something. They have to be supported by a culture, by a rights-respecting society, by a rule of law, by the Constitution, the structure of the Constitution. And it seemed to me in your speech that you were saying we’re in a kind of – we’re not only at a crisis in the human rights project, but we’re really at a kind of turning point and a crisis in our own culture.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, I think that’s true. I’ve spent lots of time talking about it in my current role as Secretary of State, but as Mike Pompeo personally I believe that to be the case. And it’s appropriate for me to think about in my role as a diplomat. When I travel the world, I fly on a great plane. You all take great care of me. And I land, and people want to see me – leaders from all across the world. They don’t want to see Mike. They want to see the Secretary of State of the United States of America, because America brings with it all of that, and we can’t lose it. If we lose those things, those things that are this distinctive tradition, this civic idea that we were so deeply rooted in when we began and which has made it all these 240-plus years now, if we lose that, then your Justice Scalia’s point about the document containing a whole bunch of rights will not be very fulfilled, will not be very meaningful. All the things that securing those rights allow us to do – the pursuit of happiness that I referred to and that our documents referred to – they are preceded by those rights that the Lord gave us, but we must secure them for that higher purpose. And so that’s a real project too for each of us.

AMBASSADOR GLENDON: Well, Mr. Secretary, you’ve done your part.


AMBASSADOR GLENDON: And it’s been an honor for – I’m speaking on behalf of all the commissioners – it’s been an honor to help you in what you’re doing, and God bless you.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Thank you. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)