The State Department recently published a brief, enigmatic notice announcing the formation of a new Commission on Unalienable Rights. With a modest budget of $385,074 and merely advisory powers, the commission received little attention beyond head-scratching over its strange name. Yet the significance of the endeavor should not be overlooked. It puts the government’s imprimatur on an assault upon one of the cornerstones of modern liberalism: international human rights.
According to the commission’s draft charter, its job will be to explore “reforms of human rights discourse where it has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights” — rights of the sort that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. upheld as ideals, the charter says.
This language may sound unusual to a modern ear, but it is easily translated. Start with that ungainly name of the commission. If “unalienable” sounds anachronistic, that’s because it is. Today, we normally use the word “inalienable.” But in the 18th century, the more common term was “unalienable.” The Declaration of Independence refers to “unalienable rights,” and there is little doubt the commission’s name is meant to recall that, in the words of the Declaration, the people are endowed with those rights “by their Creator.”