March 23, 2020

Gerald Neuman submits comments to State Department’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights”


Neuman challenges arguments that roll back human rights


Professor Gerald L. Neuman, Co-Director of the Human Rights Program (HRP), filed a submission with the controversial “Commission on Unalienable Rights” of the U.S. State Department on March 18, 2020. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo established the Commission in July 2019 to advise the State Department on reformulating U.S. human rights policy. The Commission is charged with bringing policy back to “our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” Neuman is the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law at Harvard Law School (HLS).

The mandate of this Commission, and some of the remarks of Commission members at public meetings, have severely alarmed major human rights NGOs, who warn of serious damage to the international human rights system. Neuman’s own submission also addresses several of the concerns that the NGOs have raised. He challenges some Commissioners’ claims that there are too many human rights and argues for the protection of the rights of sexual minorities; he also questions proposals to give priority to civil and political rights over economic and social rights, as well as to privilege freedom of religious conduct over other human rights. Last, he also disputes the suggested foregrounding of the role of “natural law” at the international level.

Before HLS suspended in-person classes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, HRP had arranged for a public panel event to discuss the Commission on Unalienable Rights. This April panel would have included Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University, who is also the Chair of the Commission; Martha Minow, 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard and the former Dean of Harvard Law School; Katharine Young, Associate Professor of Law at Boston College Law School; and Neuman.

In lieu of the April panel, you can read Dean Minow’s “Remarks before the Commission on Unalienable Rights,” Professor Young’s “Trumping Human Rights in the United States,” and Neuman’s comments. You can also learn more about the Commission on their public-facing website.

The report of the Commission is expected in the summer of 2020. HRP will convene experts for a public (in person or remote) discussion of the Commission’s report in Fall 2020.

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